I had just finished telling a story about my childhood when someone declared “You were ‘woke’ even then!” I had no idea what she was talking about. That use of that word was new to me. Woke, first used in the 1930s to refer to people who recognized systemic injustices against African Americans, found its way back into our vernacular in 2010. Today it is used as a cudgel against progressives. 

Curiosity, empathy, kindness, civility, passion, compassion, humility, faith, justice and love are words that come to my mind when I think of being woke. 

Curiosity and empathy. Where did my grandparents and great grandparents live and what were their lives like? Why did they move here? Who used to live on the land sitting under my house and what happened to them? Why are there so few Black people in my neighborhood? What was it like growing up in the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s? Why did we have so many wars? What did you do in the war? Why is this covenant about only selling to white people in my deed? Why does that boy wear girl’s clothes and why does Uncle Benny have a husband? Why is that girl crying and why doesn’t anyone invite that boy to play with them? What’s it like to be in jail, or a foster child, or homeless, or really rich? What’s it like to be a movie star? What’s it like to be someone other than me? 

Kindness and civility. Our pastor, the Rev, Bruce Reyes Chow, wrote a book called “In Defense of Kindness,” which is described by Jeff Yang of The Wall Street Journal as “A simple, yet staggering work that examines a precious and rare commodity in this present world.” In the book, Rev. Reyes Chow teaches how being kind (which is different than being nice) has the power to transform our relationships in all arenas of our life — from the internet to the public square, from with our families to those we find it most difficult to be kind to, from justice work on the streets to boardroom meetings, and in our everyday transactions, from the school drop-off line or standing in line at the coffee shop. Every interaction every day brings an opportunity to be kind and I try my best to be kind with everyone. As a public official and writer I also do my best to be civil in my discourse. I can see the humanity and the spark of the divine in each person with whom I interact and try my best to choose my words carefully even when I vociferously disagree with them. My curiosity and empathy also come into play when someone says something I find totally wrong. What in your life caused you to think this way and what is it like to be you? Maybe I’m wrong and there’s something I can learn from you! Maybe we’re both right but talking past each other. 

Passion, compassion and humility. I get fired up, often because I see someone being harmed and I know what that feels like. No matter how fired up I get, though, I always try to be open to learning and listening with the possibility that I can be and sometimes am completely wrong. It is easiest for me to do all that when someone else is being kind, civil, curious about me and why I’m so fired up about something, and willing to be open about from where they are coming. 

Faith, justice and love. I believe in God and the God I believe in is one who cries out for justice and love. In the lion’s share of stories, parables, psalms, laws and letters, the big message is that we are called to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. Yay Micah!

So, with all that, here’s where I recently got woke. African Americans who served in World War II were blocked by unfair and systemic practices from buying houses and attending college. White veterans were able to go to school, buy homes and build wealth while their black counterparts were not. That systemic injustice harmed generations of Black families. I live in a house they weren’t allowed to buy. Curious about that history I learned more by attending a talk by the author of “The Color of Law.” I got fired up and discussed it with a conservative Republican friend. I proposed one way we could repair some of the damage: free college for the descendents of Black men who served in World War II. Reparation. She agreed! 

We don’t agree on much politically and sometimes get angry, but we approach each other with curiosity, empathy, kindness, civility, passion, compassion, humility, shared faith, with love and a desire for justice. To me, that’s what being woke means. So go ahead and call me that.

Craig Wiesner is the co-owner of Reach And Teach, a book, toy and cultural gift shop on 25th Avenue in San Mateo.

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(4) comments

Terence Y

Mr. Wiesner – interesting approach in trying to change the definition of woke. Approaching each other with curiosity, empathy, kindness, civility, passion, compassion, humility, shared faith, with love and a desire for justice are just that, and is self-explanatory and should be applied to life in general. Those terms have nothing to do, or should even be confused, with being “woke.” However, if you expanded your push for reparations to the Chinese who were wronged by the Chinese Exclusion Act, and recently, by institutions of higher learning discriminating against Asians, or the Greeks, Hungarians, Irish, Italians, Poles, etc. who were discriminated against back in the day… then your friend’s comment may not have been made.


Reparations are appropriate when there has been systemic racism and the damage can be clearly identified and the proposed remedies make sense. We had reparations for Japanese internment, for a recent example.

Terence Y

Aye, Mr. Wiesner, there’s the rub. There is no longer any systemic racism in America, at least not in the traditional sense. However, in the progressive sense, if you consider Americans to be a race, there is definitely racism in the form of an unenforced border, rising crime rates, especially violent crime, and demonization of the unjabbed and unmasked, to list a few. These issues take precedence over any non-existent traditional racism in America.


Lovely column today Craig, thank you!

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