Woke: Performing Progressive Whiteness in a Racially Liminal Time

Author: ORCID icon orcid.org/0000-0002-2881-0625
Smith, Gabriella, Sociology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Pugh, Allison, AS-Sociology, University of Virginia
Pugh, Allison, AS-Sociology, University of Virginia

Whites in the United States still live relatively segregated lives, where the interaction with people of color is limited, a lingering privilege of whiteness. This dissertation explores how whites with limited interactions with people of color think about racial others and understand their own white racial identity. I found that even among racially isolated whites, “woke” emerged as a way of performing a racially progressive white identity. Woke performances are distinct from the dominant color-blind idiom in how individuals value diversity, how they actively see and engage with race and racial issues, and their empathetic engagement with the pain of racial others. The performance of a woke white identity faces challenges in majority white areas, so woke whites turn to a myriad of strategies to show their value of diversity in areas “diversity deserts.” This includes changing the boundaries of what counts as diverse, expanding it to include cultural and religious difference when trying to demonstrate their efforts to engage with diversity, but restricting the boundaries when critiquing areas for lacking in diversity. This evaluation hinges on the presence of Black bodies or Black culture as a marker of “authentic” diversity. Woke white performances also face particular challenges within families, especially with non-progressive family members. And woke performances differ according to gender, particularly in the way women and men engaged with emotions. I argue that we are in a racially liminal period, where the hegemony of color-blind ideology is cracking as racial issues are resurgent, both with the rise of white supremacist activity and movements like Black Lives Matter. Wokeness is an emergent option for whites to perform a progressive white identity in this racially liminal time.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Whiteness, Racial Identity, Segregation, Racialized Emotions
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