Shedding My American Skin: The Dangers of Being Too Woke
A quick Google search will tell you that the Oxford English meaning of the word ‘woke’ is:
“alert to injustice in society, especially racism”.
It’s an adjective meant to describe the socially aware but has also become a trendy buzzword meant to describe a millennial/generation Z American that keeps track of social injustices of all forms, is keen on Twitter lingo, and probably cried when Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign flopped.
That said, if you’re not woke, don’t expect a seat at the cool-kids table in the cafeteria.
As I mentioned in my introductory article, if you’re African American, you’re practically born ‘woke’. From a young age, you’re taught to be aware of where you stand in society to adjust accordingly. In the U.S, a black person must be woke as it can mean the difference between life or death depending on the situation.
Prior to arriving in Mexico, I decided to do some research:
Courtesy of Wikipedia dot org, I learned about its colonial past. From 1521 until 1821, Mexico had been branded ‘New Spain’ by the Spanish ‘settlers’ who occupied the country in search of wealth and resources. For those three centuries, those of Spanish descent held the highest position in society while the indigenous (‘indios’) or African (‘negros’) population were at the lowest. In the middle were the ‘mestizos’; people that were the product of a union between an indigenous person and a Spanish person. The colonial history of Mexico near mirrored the history of the United States in terms of native populations being murdered and/or enslaved under European rule. One of the main differences was that Mexico did not have any post-abolishment campaigns that paralleled that of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.
So, when I arrived in the vibrant Mexican state of Yucatán, my guard was up, especially upon being embraced by a smiley local middle-aged married couple who were fair-skinned and vastly contrasted from the more indigenous looking people sweeping the airport and pushing luggage.
The couple went by Reina and Samuel. Reina was a bouncy yet stylish homemaker with green eyes, pale skin, and copper hair – features that she proudly attributed to her Spanish heritage. Her husband, Samuel, a retired chemist, was a stoic but held his Spanish Mexican blood close to him as well. Together, they lived in a quaint, glossy, plant-covered bungalow on the outskirts of the main city, Mérida. For the next month, we’d be a family.
As I settled in, I realized that Reina and Samuel reminded me of my grandparents in their demeanor; Reina was chatty and nosey, just like my grandmother. And Samuel was mostly silent but didn’t hesitate to make a joke here and there.
The next day invited something different. When I woke up and headed to the kitchen for breakfast, I walked in and found a woman at the stove who was not Reina.
She was short and brown-skinned with silky black hair tied up in a bun. Although she could barely reach the counter, she was undeniably an adult. The woman was adamantly chopping a tray of vegetables when she noticed me. With a wide-eyed look and a smile, she uttered a “hello”.
Just as I was going to respond, Reina and Samuel entered the kitchen and showered me with “Buenos dias” and “Como te dormiste?” (How did you sleep?).
They introduced the woman as Anastasia, their housekeeper. A little after, Anastasia ducked out of the room. While she was gone, Reina and Samuel referred to her as a ‘muchacha’ – which means ‘little girl’ or ‘young girl’. Reina informed me that Anastasia was from a poor area and would come several times a week to help around the house.
That same day I told the other American students in my travel group about the ‘muchacha’ in our house. It turned out that their host families employed a ‘muchacha’ in their homes as well. Our professor explained to us that it was common for indigenous Mexican women to be poor, have little to no education, and therefore take a bus into wealthier neighborhoods to be a housekeeper for the majority Spaniard families that lived there.
The dynamics in the home were like that of 1950s America: a poorer/lesser educated person of color being a housekeeper for the wealthier, white upper class.
Subsequently, I was uncomfortable.
The tenants of ‘wokeness’ told me that Anastasia was suffering.
So, I planned my attack.
One day, when I didn’t have class and my host parents were gone, it was only Anastasia and me in the house. She’d made lunch for me and was steady sprucing up the kitchen. This was the first time that she and I were alone. So, I took the chance to get to know her.
Her Spanish had a slight accent to it. I’d recently learned that in the Yucatán, the indigenous population still spoke Maya, the language of their ancestors. Anastasia told me that she’d been working for my host parents since she was a child. Before her, it was her aunt that worked for them. She said she was happy and that she was treated well by the family.
Internally, I couldn’t imagine how anyone would be content with having to clean and cook for a family that wasn’t their own, to be called a ‘muchacha’ behind her back when she was a grown woman, and only being allocated a service job because of her race. At that moment, I wanted to voice these things to Anastasia.
But something told me to keep my opinions to myself.
Yes, it was likely that Anastasia lived as a ‘muchacha’ because that was the only way for her to provide for herself and her family due to the intentional disenfranchisement of the indigenous population.
But… she was happy.
She wasn’t being shackled down or chained up in the basement. She had the freedom to come and go as she pleased. There was a trust between Anastasia and Samuel and Reina that I would never understand. And who was I to challenge any of it?
I had no plans to relieve Anastasia of her work. I didn’t have any immediate solutions to what was likely a systemic issue that would take years or a century to be fixed. Plus, the woman was content.
That first week with Reina, Samuel, and Anastasia alerted me to part of the issue with the modern American psyche:
Wokeness has no grey area.
Social media, CNN, Fox, and the general climate of America today tells us to live in black vs. white, good vs. bad, light vs. dark. Oppressed and the oppressor. There’s a rigidity to being socially aware in the United States that leaves little room for any opposing outlook on life.
In the context of social awareness, I believe a grey area is being able to see and acknowledge a social issue, but not let the perceived unfairness of the situation embitter you to the world.
Anastasia’s position as a housekeeper for Samuel and Reina taught me there is nuance in everything – even social hierarchies. It also encouraged me to put my guard down as a Black American. Although America expected me to be ‘woke’ towards everything, Mexico asked to be seen with a unique, less narrow lens.
Rather than paint the world with a single brush, take each situation independently.
*For privacy reasons, the names mentioned in this article have been replaced with pseudonyms*
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