Take Note: Authors Of 'Stay Woke' On Structural Racism, Black Lives Matter & How To Be Anti-Racist

Jun 19, 2020

Candis Watts Smith and Tehama Lopez Smith.
Credit Candis Watts Smith and Tehama Lopez Smith

We’re bringing you an interview to give some context to the discussions about racism and inequality that are happening in the U.S. right now.

We’ll talk with Tehama Lopez Bunyasi and Candis Watts Smith, coauthors of a book called “Stay Woke: A People’s Guide to Making all Black Lives Matter,” which looks at the history of structural racism in the U.S. and gives people information and tools to become antiracists.

Bunyasi is an assistant professor at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University. Smith is an associate professor of African American Studies and political science at Penn State. She was recently named the Brown-McCourtney Early Career Professor in the McCourtney Institute for Democracy.

This interview is from the Democracy Works podcast, a collaboration between WPSU and the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State. The Institute’s Jenna Spinelle interviewed Bunyasi and Smith.


Jenna Spinelle: Candis and Tehama, welcome to Democracy Works. Thanks for joining us.

Tehama Lopez Bunyasi: Thank you for having us.

Candis Watts Smith: Thanks, Jenna.

Jenna Spinelle: So your book, “Stay Woke: A People's Guide to Making all Black Lives Matter,” has been really helpful to me personally and I hope will be helpful to our listeners as we are thinking through how to grapple with racism and inequality and these issues in the US, as we all have been doing over the past few weeks and in the wake of George Floyd's death and the protests that have sprung up since then. And one of many things that you do so well in the book is talk about the ideological framework or some of the history behind the Black Lives Matter movement. I thought a good place to start might just be what really is the ideological foundation of the Black Lives Matter movement?

Candis Watts Smith: Sure. I think it's really important for us to keep in mind that even though we associate Black Lives Matter even in this moment with police violence and brutality, that the kind of origins of Black Lives Matter started around the murder of Trayvon Martin, which was essentially a vigilante killing. And it's not just about that kind of violence, gun violence or police brutality, but also about all of the ways the Black people in this country face violence. So violence in schools, even if it's kind of curriculum and being left out. Violence in health, so we can kind of link to COVID, even though we're not thinking about COVID centrally. In residential segregation and so on and so forth. So the Black Lives Matter movement is an effort to try to get us to think about all of the ways in which Black people are marginalized and to think about how there are different groups of Black folks who are on the margins of the margins, so LGBT and queer Black folks and immigrant Black folks and formerly and currently incarcerated Black folks. So, I guess to say the ideological kind of maybe umbrella of Black Lives Matter is for us to think about all of the ways in which Black folks suffer different kinds of oppression and to think about how we can address these issues.

Jenna Spinelle: Right. So, as you said, it is a very big umbrella, lots of different pieces within it. And I think with that does come some of that messiness about okay, which of these issues are we going to tackle first. Obviously, police have come to the forefront right now. But, Tehama, what do you make of this kind of messiness? Is it okay that this movement can mean different things to different people? Or how do we try to find some cohesion amid all of these different pieces?

Tehama Lopez Bunyasi: That's a good question. It's always a challenge when we're talking about movements period. Movements, a lot of them are in the eye of the beholder. Where the center should be, and Black Lives Matter states this well as an organization, is being unapologetically Black-centered. And that has kept the narrative and the focus very much on Black lives, even as the organization, even as the movement has been concerned with the precarity of lives that are not Black but are intertwined and affected by systemic racism, homophobia, sexism, and the other systems of hierarchy that oppress Black people. So, I think that some of the takeaways, the ways that this movement feels different to me in some regards, is that I feel like it's really taking away a lot of lessons from decades worth of activism and scholarship that has pushed us to be more radically inclusive. So, I feel like I'm continually impressed by how intersectionality, the theory of intersectionality has been incorporated on the ground. So, to think about the particularities, that this movement started with three Black, queer women, and through that lens, have articulated what precarity looks like and where the systems of oppression are and how they affect lives. This is how the movement has been in a way founded and flourished.

Candis Watts Smith: I think another way that... I was having a conversation with my neighbors across the street, who just said, "I don't understand what people want. It seems like there's just kind of all of the messages. Can there just be a national leader?" And so back to your question, Jenna, also about the messiness. I think another part of the messiness is because Black Lives Matter recognizes the specificity of challenges at the local level. And so, while people are really looking for and hoping for a national leader to emerge, even the question of policing doesn't have necessarily a national answer. Because policing is in the realm of the state, just like education is in the realm of the state. Healthcare, we can see, is very much in the realm of the state. There are state and federal relationships, but it's also messy because every community has its own set of problems. And the people who live in those communities probably have better ideas about how to deal with those problems than any national one-size-fits-all policy could ever do.

Jenna Spinelle: So I'm thinking about that, and I think we can all kind of intellectually get our heads around that. But also at the same time I feel like we have more of a national identity now. We live our lives on social media and so it's easy for us to feel maybe in some ways more connected to somebody who lives in a different city or town or part of the country than it is to people who live in our own backyard. And I think that you kind of talk about this in the book too about how the communities that we live in are very much segregated. And while we might feel solidarity with people in other places, we can't forget about our local ties either. So how should we be thinking about this kind of cognitive dissonance, if you will, that we find ourselves in right now?

Tehama Lopez Bunyasi: I think we can think about them in a way as tools. I think that might be helpful. In movement building, we need to think about the different stages that we play on and the actors who we play with. For example, and what you just brought up made me think about how Minneapolis right now is serving as a model for a community that is ready to act, and that they are really pushing the envelope. And as far as what they're doing with possibly disbanding the police department, it's fascinating and it's bold. And when cities take bold actions like that, other municipalities can take note, and the actors on those grounds can push for those things. I think another way that we can think about this is I'm seeing on social media people talking about kind of like a GoFundMe type of thing for bailing people out of jail, the protestors, and people prior to protest being bailed out of jail. And so, where some GoFundMes are getting everybody out, now they're directing people to other localities that hadn't gotten as much attention, saying, "Hey, if you're willing to donate, you should think about going over there." So that's one way that we can help support our partners in other places and also bring attention to our local needs, and also think about the kind of challenges we have in our own homes and our own hometowns and cities.

Jenna Spinelle: So to switch gears a little bit here, you have an entire chapter in the book basically dedicated to definitions and “words that are thrown around” I think is how you frame them. And there were just a couple that I wanted to highlight that I thought were particularly relevant to what we are experiencing now. Candis, you talk about the difference between “racism” and “white supremacy,” which I think is a very important distinction. I think some people think about racism, you think, "Oh, well, if I'm not overtly mean to someone who is a different race than I am, then I'm not racist." But there's still a whole lot of other power structures and things that have been in place that we might be complicitly involved in, whether we're conscious of it or not. So, can you just talk about that distinction between racism and white supremacy?

Candis Watts Smith: Sure. Of course they are linked. I think that our goal of pointing these two things out is that we often tend to think about racism, just as you said, Jenna, as kind of a personal way of thinking about different groups of people. But that obscures the kind of larger system of inequality where we see advantages systematically provided to some groups of people, and in our society it tends to be white folks on average, and disadvantages are doled out to other people systematically, to other groups, Blacks, Latinos, Asian-Americans on average, and in different ways. And so really our goal is to try to help people to make sure that we're using the same words in the same way, and also to see how they're connected.

Tehama Lopez Bunyasi: When we wrote the racism kind of definition concept, what we wanted to do was highlight the structural aspect of racism, which is a real strong theme in our book overall, and in talking about institutions and how those things relate to daily behaviors and get us away from the default of thinking about interpersonal racism. With the white supremacy definition, we're also pushing back against another default, which is typically when people think of inequality and racism, they think about discrimination against people of color. They think of discrimination against Black folks. And this concept allowed us to highlight what do the lives of whites look like? What does white habitus look like? What do white preferences look like? And to do that work of highlighting privileges, advantages, and whiteness itself. And that's a really big turn. And I think that it's a turn that a lot of people are willing to make right now and they're starting to make, white folks in particular, thinking about, "Well, what's my role in this?”

And I got to say, a lot of that's going to be really awkward. And we're already seeing that awkwardness in some of the clumsiness. I fully expect that, actually. Because whiteness is normative, and people who are white are not used to thinking of themselves that way, in such a central, salient way. And so to think about themselves acting politically as white people, it feels uncharted territory for a lot of folks. And so our effort in this part of the book is to help flesh out those concepts so people can wrap their heads around them, sit with them, think with them. And we provide kind of questions that they can either ask of themselves or have in smaller groups or what have you.

Jenna Spinelle: Yeah. I think clumsiness is a great way to describe some of what's happening right now. I'm certainly seeing that play out across my personal friend groups and social networks. And I think we're seeing some of that in the corporate space as well, as brands are trying to figure out what to say, how to say it, all these sorts of things. And I think that there is, on a personal level, I've sensed this feeling of that if you don't say anything, then you're somehow complicit in this, or if you don't say something in the loudest way you possibly can, whatever that looks like for you. 

Candis Watts Smith: I think there's a couple of things. One, I think that it's important for us to keep in mind that there are different ways to show solidarity, to protest, to be anti-racist. There are artists, there are writers, there are organizers, there are teachers. And then, I think even it is helpful to just learn and to be a student in an area of study, and let's say in this case anti-racism. That is important. I also think that we sometimes get into this, and we write a little bit this, “woker-than-thou-ism.” Where it’s if you aren't doing it this way and you don't know these words and you don't understand this history, then you can't be a part of the group. And that has its own kind of damaging effect. Because what you're doing is making the boundaries of who can be anti-racist quite rigid. 

Jenna Spinelle: Right. And does that same thing apply in the corporate space do you think? I've seen brands in some respects are in this kind of damned if they do, damned if they don't type of scenario, where if you put out a statement, you risk being seen as tone deaf or not fully understanding, but you also feel like if you don't say something then you're going to be called out for that too.

Candis Watts Smith: Yeah, but I think the problem with these kinds of corporate statements is that they mean nothing if the company is not doing anything. If on the other hand… I was just talking with a colleague who's writing a book about “Black girl magic” at Penn State, Timeka Tounsel, and she was explaining to me that Dove not only has these kind of very positive images of Black women, of people of color, but they also have been working in litigation to ensure that people can wear their hair the way they want to. And so in that way, their words also match the things that they're doing, leveraging their power and their resources to produce some sort of material benefit. And maybe someone would say, "Well, who cares what you can do with your hair?" Except that we know that there are instances where Black women and Black men have been shunned, shamed, or even not hired or not promoted for wearing their hair in one way rather than another way.

Tehama Lopez Bunyasi: Some of the businesses that seem to be resonating most clearly with the movement and who are getting more positive feedback are like Ben and Jerry's, who it's not even just that they have one of probably the clearest, dopest statements they could have made in the past week or two, but that they made one years ago, and that they are a business who has pushed their industry along in thinking about things like fair trade. And they're still working in a capitalist framework, but they're trying to broaden what it means to have an equitable type of business. And it's those type of efforts that resonate with what we need to have a healthier society, what we need to have a healthier world. And so I don't know back and forward what their business does, but they have been a leader in that way.

Jenna Spinelle: So, you also talk a lot in the book about kind of moving from protests to policy diffusion. We need people both in the streets, but also in the courthouse and in local government. And I'm curious, given how quickly this has grown, how large some of these demonstrations have become, how and when you think policy might come into play here?

Tehama Lopez Bunyasi: I think what's at our advantage here is that there have already been people who have been pushing for policies. There's already been some of that groundwork being done. And what protestors have been fueling is the urgency, and also making so very plainly that we cannot live like this. And so given the meetings that I've been in and the people I've talked to of late, we're at a moment of coordination and strengthening coordination for knowing what we're asking for. And I'm really encouraged that I can turn on right now my local hip-hop radio station and I can hear the DJs asking their listeners, "What policies do we want to see?" And people are calling in, and they're saying really awesome, imaginative things.

And to harness that energy to bring it to the school boards, to bring it to the whatever council that you have, this is when that whole federalism piece becomes really important in realizing where we need to concentrate our efforts, to also see this as a moment that while we are calling for police reform, that we need to be thinking about all the other components of our society that are tied into that. What are we calling for in regards to education? What are we calling for in terms of living wage? All these things that are so connected. And, given that this is an election year, there is a kind of leverage in an election year that is crucial to take advantage of right now. 

Candis Watts Smith: And one of the kind of critiques about the Black Lives Matter movement is that “Oh, it petered out.” And I think that what we're seeing now is that it didn't peter out, it just moved to a different direction. It moved to city councils. It moved to town halls. It moved to trying to shape policy and even try to get people elected. 

I guess the other thing I would say, in thinking about, for example, Angela Davis, who writes that she's been working on prison reform for decades. And so, if Angela Davis needs decades to make change in prison, then what are the rest of us expecting? That we have to calibrate our time scales, not to be patient, but to be focused on the kinds of change that you want to make.

Jenna Spinelle: Right. So thinking about, as you were just saying, people who have been working behind the scenes in city councils and all of these things over the past couple of years, are there any examples that come to mind of particular individuals or even particular places that have really done a good job at some of these things over the past couple of years that we could think about or maybe look to as a kind of roadmap for how we might go forward from here?

Tehama Lopez Bunyasi: I know that we have at least seen some oversight committees for police departments who are really looking to put teeth into it. And that work has been done in Cleveland in the aftermath of the murder of Tamir Rice. And that work was done, that's a very ground-up effort, that's an effort that was largely headed by young people, some of them in their teens, and really savvy. So that's one example right there, and that's the kind of thing that is also being called for, is trying to be emulated in other jurisdictions.

Candis Watts Smith: Some other examples that come to mind are an example from Durham, North Carolina, that happened maybe a year or so ago, that there was a budget to build this kind of multi-million-dollar police department. And community members said no. You can build a new police department, but it doesn't need to be Silicon Valley in miniature. Another example, California made an effort to not have cash money bail. Now, whether that new system that replaces it is just as good or worse is questionable. But I think the fact that people are made aware of the issue of money bail. Or we can look in Florida, which, maybe in the mid-term elections had a referendum on voter disenfranchisement. And so that was a bottom-up policy change. But I think that people are... The conversation has changed for sure since 2014, where these questions are on more people's minds and are more salient than they had been maybe five years ago.

Jenna Spinelle: So, as we bring things to a close here, you end your book on a hopeful note about all of the ways that people can take action and are starting to take action. I'm wondering if that sense of hope continues now or how you're feeling about this current moment and where you see things going moving forward.

Candis Watts Smith: So, I'll start, because between Tehama and me, I think I'm more of the pessimist. I do think that things are going to get better. But, I would say this, even in this moment, which I think is a really... I can't exactly put my finger on the word that I want to use. In this moment where people are really paying attention, where there are kind of... We see more multiethnic coalition building, and people maybe that we didn't think would be paying attention are paying attention. No one can deny that the way that George Floyd was killed was abhorrent. No one can deny that. And so that's bringing attention to these issues in a way that it hadn't before.

But I also want us to keep in mind that people are protesting with masks on. They are protesting during a pandemic. And what makes me pause is that it's almost as if we forgot that COVID also disproportionately led to the demise of Black and brown people. And so, I think that we will have a problem if we don't figure out and have the discipline to connect issues of police brutality and violence on Black and brown communities with health disparities, with disparities in education, with wealth disparities, and so on and so forth. So even if we kind of focus on this one domain, I'm afraid that people will become self-congratulatory about changing a policy in one area without also having thought about all of the ways that Black people face violence in all sorts of domains of American life.

Tehama Lopez Bunyasi: You said it beautifully. I think what makes me most hopeful is to see that Black people aren't having to march out there by themselves, and that white people are also getting a very hard lesson in the fact that when you stand up to really abusive power, you are also likely to get burned, even if you are white. And it's different, it's a different type of vulnerability for white people in that moment than it is for people of color, to be clear. But that's opening people's eyes. 

When they see a 75-year-old white man being pushed down by the police and pretty much walked past, it's bringing into fuller view how police training, how dehumanizing it can be. Because what they're seeing is that they're used to seeing white men being regarded as more fully human. And so there's a lot of eye-opening right now, and I too want to make sure that even while it's important to focus on the police component and the criminal justice component here, the matter of all these things that we're facing has to be dealt with, and that it is not a weakness in the movement to focus on the multiplicity of issues. It has to be done altogether so that we can make every issue stronger. And the sooner we can embrace that, the better. Which is why we need so many people in the movement. We can't do every single thing. We have our role. I'm realizing what my role is differently in this moment as I'm raising a four-year-old child with inadequate childcare. How can I participate is different than how I could have participated at 25, not married, no children. And how people who are older or who have disabilities, how they can participate. And so, there's a place for us here.

And I just want to keep our focus on moving forward, on keeping energy, and that there is a lot of good things to come out of just the movement itself. People are building relationships, people are having these moments. And to some people it seems a little profane, but they're also celebrating their community. They're celebrating life, even as we are mourning people's deaths. And it is really complicated, but these are the kind of things I think that ultimately help sustain movements, is to take out some time to celebrate our communities. And I'm seeing that kind of in different parts on social media right now. There are mixed feelings about the fact that there are people who are playing music during protests. And I'm sympathetic to both positions of like, "Oh, we shouldn't be playing music because it's a serious matter." And then other people like, "But this is what's keeping us holding together, because we're about to march for 8 miles." So, we have to find out way to just keep moving forward.

Jenna Spinelle: Thank you both for this book. And thank you for taking time to join us today.

Tehama Lopez Bunyasi: Thank you very much.

Candis Watts Smith: Thank you, Jenna, thanks for the invitation.