The White Liberal Fence

Benjamin Marsh
11 min readMar 17, 2023

She smoked angrily, like she thought she’d seen too much of the world already at the ripe old age of 19. She wanted me to know she smoked, I guessed, because she could’ve smoked anywhere else, anytime else then as we sat down to talk. And she talked fast, intensely. She didn’t want me to speak. She wanted me to listen.

“You don’t know how white you are,” she said.

I had done a Thing Unmentionable, I learned from her. I didn’t acknowledge that my very presence as a large white heterosexual man in a Women’s Studies class was a threat. The class was “Men, Women, and Rape,” and I was the only guy. Truly, this is a thing that happened my freshman year at Duke. I did want to learn, wanted to experience what it was to be that minority. To hear from my teacher whose own rape account was one of the required readings. It was difficult to understand, but I had to hear it. I felt I did. And learned a lot.

But one day I had a question — I am not shy about asking things in any context — when the idea of race and gender came up. I learned the white women’s rights movement and the black women’s rights movement had virtually no overlap. I asked: why? What is stopping them from working together now? I had no agenda to press: I was what I was, which was ignorant. This young woman, the white one in a class that was about evenly split black and white (with a black teacher) stood up angrily and left the room, slamming the door behind her. I looked around the room, bewildered. I ask the teacher what I did wrong, and she shrugged. I asked the black students what I did, and they said they had no idea. They were glad I asked the question.

What I learned from the very white, very anarchic, very angry white person I had upset was that I did not know that my very presence as someone in a space of learning was a threat, that the class was supposed to be a safe space for her and the other women (no one told me). I told her I didn’t know how to change what I was, and couldn’t apologize for something I didn’t know was wrong. What did she want me to do? She couldn’t say. I was just… wrong.

It was my first experience with the White Liberal Fence, a coopting that happens when white liberal people take up a cause and carry it to an Nth degree further than the black people whose lives are actually affected by the cause.

My second experience came when I visited the Black Lives Matter marches in my city of Winston-Salem. I saw the chants and sat in front of the smoke shop while people ate pizza on the road. It was cordial. I saw a few people I knew and nodded. I don’t know what they thought of me. But what happened next was remarkable:

Three speakers. One black, one latino, one white. The black one, a minister, spoke earnestly of justice, of care, of a good relationship with the police. The Latino one, a blue-collar cook, spoke of united, of labor, of just wages, of fairness, of working together.

The white one… hoo boyyy.

“F… this, you f…in white people need to f…in listen. I am ANGRY…” and on and on it went, longer than the other two speakers combined. The White Liberal Fence was built: we had to listen to white liberal interpret the people of color, and the interpretation seemed to conflate with the white liberal anger.

Now I see it over and over: in DEI trainings run by white people for white people telling them how they have to think about black people and latino people. In the word LATINX, which literally every single latino person I know hates and thinks is ridiculously stupid. In the way black interests are always “best” expressed by white politicians. In the way white leaders are having to roll back their funding cuts to police because wouldn’t you know it the black communities most heavily affected by crime are crying out for a positive police presence that is friendlier and there, which requires more police, which requires more money.

Over and over again, the White Liberal Fence (I write this as a person many think is liberal!) keeps us from each other, black and white, from listening. There has to be a voice in the middle telling us what they think, as though black people cannot speak for themselves. And oftentimes the ideas that most anger conservatives in my life are NOT the original ideas of black Americans but the way those ideas have been repackaged into the partisan Fence required by Democrats and the like.

Nowhere have I seen this more than the word WOKE.

WOKE Shibboleth

From time to time the powers that be in our duopolistic political world arrive at words that one must either be for or against in order to join the in-crowd (the Shibboleth).

The word of the day is WOKE.

Of late, everyone is trying to define, defend, and attack this thing called WOKE. There are websites that help you learn if you are WOKE. There are several forthcoming books on WOKE. WOKE is that which you must be for or against without you knowing precisely what it means other than that the other side is for or against it.

Problem is, few of the current definitions or practices of WOKE are grounded in history. WOKE has been coopted by white liberals and white conservatives as their petty Shibboleth instead of acting asa byword for awakening to racial discrimination amongst black Americans, as it began:

The earliest known examples of wokeness as a concept revolve around the idea of Black consciousness “waking up” to a new reality or activist framework and dates back to the early 20th century. In 1923, a collection of aphorisms and ideas by the Jamaican philosopher and social activist Marcus Garvey included the summons “Wake up Ethiopia! Wake up Africa!” as a call to global Black citizens to become more socially and politically conscious. A few years later, the phrase “stay woke” turned up as part of a spoken afterword in the 1938 song “Scottsboro Boys,” a protest song by Blues musician Huddie Ledbetter, a.k.a. Lead Belly. The song describes the 1931 saga of a group of nine Black teenagers in Scottsboro, Arkansas, who were accused of raping two white women.

Back in 1962:

Kelly’s piece doesn’t explain what “woke” might mean. But his argument implies that to be “woke” is to be a socially conscious Black American, someone aware of the ephemeral nature of Black vernacular, who might actively be shifting that vernacular away from white people who would exploit it or change its meaning:

As Vox notes, the word lost meaning once it was adopted by a broader progressive movement that was no longer lead by black Americans:

By 2018, the cultural reception of “woke” had turned chilly: An NPR commentator begged leftists to retire the term, and the connotation of “woke” as a phony show of progressive activism had taken hold on the right.

The Politicized Death of Language

As WOKE became a broader progressive byword and anti-woke became its conservative antithesis, WOKE began to lose meaning outside of a signifier for a team, like a cheesehead or a blue devil.

WOKE then falls into the trap of becoming a politicized word that lacks meaning, joining other important words such as Social Justice, Equity, Equality, Race, Gender, etc — words that had defineable and meaningful relationships to particular communities (or the world at large) until partisan forces required one take up or combat the words for their own political outcomes.

Why does this sort of thing happen? Largely because our political duopoly has created world in which the meaning of things doesn’t matter as much as winning. We are in the post-modern era, after all, the time when metanarrative is dead and we all float adrift without reference to meaning or telos.

The postmodern stance “is one of doubtfulness, of trusting nothing at face value, of always looking behind the surface, of upsetting conventional wisdom”.. As a philosophy, postmodernism rejects concepts of rationality, objectivity, and universal truth. Instead, it emphasizes the diversity of human experience and multiplicity of perspectives. In many ways, a postmodernist perspective is well suited to the utilization of photographic records, because it questions traditional notions of truth and the concept that records can have only one possible meaning.

Conservatives have deluded themselves into thinking that they are not post-modernists, that they still cling to some standard of virtue or meaning that attaches itself to a metanarrative.

My friends, this is a lie! Conservatives are just as post-modern as any liberal. Consider the inability of the conservative party in the United States to draft a document — for the first time in its history — stating the principles and values of the party. Consider the work of Christopher Rufo to make a word with a definable meaning — Critical Race Theory — into a meaningless weapon, a new Shibboleth. They don’t even hide this goal. Check out the tweet, that is still up!

Whereas some conservatives like Neil Shenvi try to define CRT and then debate it, the politicized (and much bigger and more well-funded) conservative movement knows meaning is meaningless and simply makes it into a “brand category” of Things That Are Bad. This is a decidedly post-modern manuever, one that refuses modern conceptions of debatable meaning but reduces language to combat, creating Shibboleth after Shibboleth for people to win.

Because in the post-modern context, all that matters is winning. As in Judges, where “in those days Israel had no king” and everything was settled in battle and blood, now we have a time where words have no meaning outside what can be used as a weapon. Instead of seeking the True, the Good, the Right, the Lovely, the definable inside of a coherent moral philosophy or religious system, we rely on partisan speakers on TV (helllooo Tucker Carlson) to give words meaning and tell us why we should hate the people that speak those words.

Truth is dead, and conservatives and liberals alike have planted their knives in its back.

WOKE, as a word with meaning in a pariticular culture (the black American culture), is seemingly dead. It has become a partisan dividing line and, perhaps worse, an object for nationwise salespitches by organizations (often run by very white people) training groups on Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI). DEI is big business valued at billions of dollars annually. DEI trainings have captured the language of WOKE stuck it in the sausage maker that is corporate culture to make product and service lines out of it. It has become monetizes and thus bastardized to the point that everyone who has started at a new school or company can tell you what DEI training accomplishes: annoyance and wasted time. No hearts or changed or feeligns channeled. People memorize lists of things not to say and note people to avoid, and a lot of money is spent for nada.

WOKE should be Good

Which brings me back to the meaning of Woke, which black people can tell you, if you are willing to listen,

My own summary of the black voices I’ve heard from in person and online: WOKE is the awakening to systemic injustice against African Americans — seeing the way the deck has been stacked, the laws created, the systems made to ensure their subjugation and destruction. This is not an objectionable thought in a country which started with a black person counting as 3/5th of a white one (and that was the GOOD compromise!)

Of all the conservatives I’ve seen, Ben Shapiro seems to have landed closest to that idea.

I said close, because he doesn’t quite land the plane. The WOKE I have seen and heard is a critique of America specifically, less so Western Civilization as such. I haven’t seen a lot of WOKE critiques of plato, for example, although I am sure some might exist. Also, WOKE doesn’t seem to include “all group disparities” but specifically those affecting black Americans, particularly black descendants of slaves. This idea of “all disparities” is a reach relating to those in academia on Right and Left who want to see race as part of an intersectional system of oppression of all minorities (gender, race, sex, etc) by majorities, which is a whole different kind of analysis than what I’ve seen relating to WOKE.

WOKE should be something that cuts across partisan lines, identifying historic injustices and the way those injustices created systems of violence and oppression over decades and centuries. WOKE pulles no punches: it sees a Republican party as the product of a Southern strategy catering to racism and the Democratic Party having as its historic standardbearers some of the vilest racists ever to walk the face of the earth. WOKE doesn’t care about outward symbols of wokeness (you should’ve seen the response to Nancy Pelosi in a kente stole!) that are devoid of meaningful change.

WOKE can tell us how the past shapes the future. How cities like mine have a “white side” and a “black side” divided by a highway, and how one side has all the big houses and companies and jobs, and the other has a Food Lion and a Dollar General and… that’s it. WOKE understands the governmnet has been the bad guy over and over again despite coddling promises made by politicians of both parties:

A WOKE analysis leads to uncomfortable places for both political parties and thus is easy to discard or bend in favor of a political outcome rather than take seriously. WOKE people know eugenicists and racists played footsy while spreading abortion amongs black Americans, but also know many mothers only had food on the table because of the kinds of government programs Republicans frequently want to gut. WOKE knows integration only happened at the point of the gun but that some of the men who defended them still wore Klan robes at night.

WOKE knows history is complex, and the people involved never have clean hands. But partisanship (And sales) requires clarity, cleanness, a language that is easily adoptable or rejectable.

A Question of Listening

My own engagement with the way WOKE has been bandied about, trod upon, misconstrued, and maligned is this: listen to the voices of people who have been through the muck. No, this isn’t “standpoint epistemology” or post-modernism. I am not saying their voices are “more true” because they are a person of color or a woman or whatever. I am saying they know more because they have experienced more. I find as I engage with liberals and conservatives on WOKE questions, I am finding layers of interpretation that are further and further removed from the primary sources. Want to engage with the issues faced by black Americans? Don’t read Robin DiAngelo; go ask a black person. Ask about their experience, about what they know and have seen. Same goes for women, LGBTQ, etc. People are people, and the more we treat people as humans made in God’s image, the more we will understand them and have empathy and compassion for them as people and not merely as groups or abstracts.

I am inviting white liberal friends to stop speaking for black people, stop adding pickets to the White Liberal Fence. Point to black authors and thinkers and let their words run on their own. I am inviting conservatives to stop lumping together the idea of black culture that are noble and good (and often from deep biblical thinking!) with the words of white liberals to win in a political game that ultimately has no victors.

Listen, I beg of thee. Listen!