LJ Cunningham

Bethany Mandel Reminded Me Not To Use “Woke”

When Bethany Mandel went viral for not actually being able to define what “woke” means I realized it’s not my word to use either.

Post Published: March 21, 2023

Last week my editor published a blog post of mine, which she initially titled, “Woke Witchcraft for White Folk.” After some reflection, I changed the title to “Witchcraft for White Antiracists.” Why? Because I’m not Black. And also, Bethany Mandel.

Bethany Mandel Doesn’t Know What “Woke” Means

After publishing my blog post, my web designer emailed its link to my subscribers. Although I approved the title at first, I later texted her because I was concerned about my whiteness; and my personal communication style didn’t match the word. My web designer and editor is a strong Black woman. We discussed the title, and she persuaded me to keep it.

Then, Bethany Mandel, someone I’d just learned about a few days earlier, (and who apparently has had a very interesting life) went viral for criticizing “woke” individuals, without actually being able to define what “woke” means.

Twitter exploded, as it tends to when someone fucks up epically.

Apparently I was the only person in the Northern Hemisphere who didn’t know who Bethany Mandel was; and her caricature on a live interview went viral for good reason.

Screengrabs from televised interview where Briana Joy stumps Bethany Mandel on woke definition. A photo of a Black woman journalist beside three photos of white woman columnist's changing facial expressions as she struggles to answer a question.
Screengrabs from televised interview where Briana Joy stumps Bethany Mandel on the definition of woke.

How Do I Define “Woke?”

If someone asked me the same thing, I’d probably have responded much like Bethany Mandel. Or perhaps I would’ve aggressively barked something like, “I know what’s actually going on in the world.”

The thing is, though, while I watched white Twitter account after white Twitter account use this as yet another opportunity to bash Black people, it was something which I immediately backtracked.

The morning the post went viral, I watched Black and Latina women I respect share their emotions about “woke,” white misuse of the word, and racism.

I Don’t Define Woke Because I Don’t Actually Use the Word Myself

Authenticity is important to me, and I don’t use “woke” in my daily life. However, after some changes to my initial post, chatting with my editor, and facing reality, I’ve taken my editor’s advice: write about why you changed it.

My editor posits, and I agree, that no one person or group has ownership of any word. Where I differ from my editor is, this isn’t my fight. I don’t use the word myself, and when I hear it, it sounds to me like I am trying co misuse AAVE for myself.

And that’s the uncomfortable truth for me.


The word itself isn’t for my use. Other white people may feel comfortable using it, but I’m not sure if that is something I have any stake in. I want to get back in my lane. And Bethany Mandel’s embarrassing televised fumble was the perfect reminder.

The history of “woke” in the U.S. has a lot of meaning that I didn’t know and had to Google to write this piece–itself a good indicator of why I took the word out of my last piece.

From Michael Harriot in the Root, 2021:

Fourscore and three years ago, Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter—a self-titled “musicianer” who was heralded as a “Bad Nigger” who “makes good minstrel” by Life magazine—explained how he came to create one of the first racism* carols. Named after nine young Black men who had been falsely accused of raping two white women, “Scottsboro Boys” was a protest and a warning to Black people about the evil that awaited anyone who dared traverse the borders of Alabama. At the end of the song, he told the story of meeting two of the wrongly convicted men and—just before the recording faded into silence—the legendary singer coined a phrase that would become a clarion call to Black America until white people discovered it eight decades later.

My Words, My Self

At the end of my own thought processes, is the fact that the more I write and speak against racism, the more I’ll get people who tell me what not to say. It’s been a theme most of my life, and one which I do tend to listen to at times. This is not the same thing, in my experience, because this word was never my own to begin with.

Given the brutal realities of racist violence, it’s arguably violent, in my opinion, for white people to use this word if they have a large enough platform. It is already being misused on white trans Twitter to encourage racist bullying of Black trans people; usually Black trans women.

It is not my place, as a white person, even as a white, trans, queer person, to use “woke.”

My understanding that the root of the word is to, actually, be used by Black people to warn one another about people like me: you know, white people.

Reality Bites

“You will always be the white liberal,” my editor said.

It’s true.

If I’m going to be actively working against white supremacy and all the ways it impacts my life, I have plenty of lanes to choose from. Using words that aren’t my own isn’t the hill I need to die on. I’m too busy fighting the white supremacists at the Ohio State House.

My public and personal personas will not always be the same; and I can’t and won’t be able to control, what others see when they read my words. That’s okay; and it’s ultimately not why I changed my wording.

I changed the title because it’s not my word. It’s not authentic to who I am for that reason.

Noting my own inherent white supremacy and the desire to get it “perfect,” stings, yet the work continues. And so will I.




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