“Stay Sleep”: On Empathy, Intentionality & Oblivion

–Written By: Terrence A. Merkerson–

First off, this is not a movie review or a discussion/theory board.

I wrote this one for the White folks (everybody else can read it too though because I’m totally into that inclusiveness thing). I get e-mails, text messages, DMs etc. from my White readers anytime I write something challenging their “entire existence”, as it has been referenced to me before. So this one goes out to you. Read it. Share it. Go find out more about it. Be a better person.

So, just like seemingly every person with a pulse (pun), I saw Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” and while it succeeded in reminding and affirming many of the themes, undertones and cross-racial dynamics between Black folks & White folks (and even Yellow Folks), it also succeeded in thoroughly creeping me the f*** out. More importantly, it stirred up some thoughts that I had been playing around with for the last few weeks on the relationship between the awareness (or lack thereof) and activism of that of our White brothers and sisters who position themselves as allies and conscious of the plight of Black folks in America. When I walked out of the theater, there were a couple of White guys behind me sharing their thoughts about the film with each other. In the spirit of all of the “wokeness”, hyper-awareness and paranoia that had been so brilliantly illustrated to me in the hour and forty-four minutes prior, I felt that in the best interest of the culture, I was required to eavesdrop on their conversation. It isn’t being nosy if you’re doing it for the culture. One of their comments that really stuck out to me was when one of the guys said, “Yea, it started off kind of slow and it wasn’t really that scary, but it was really good though.”

Three things.

  1. I am thankful that he acknowledged that the film was really good.
  2. Started off slow? As soon as I heard Childish Gambino’s (Donald Glover, for you simps) “Redbone” drop in the opening credits, my first thought was, “Ahhh shit, already? This is how we’re starting out?—*Deep breath*—Here we go. Stay Woke!”
  3. It wasn’t really that scary, huh? Oh ok… try living that shit every day.


Their thoughts lead me right back to my own regarding the capacity in which even the most thoughtful White folk can internalize how real this shit is. It is similar to the difference between sympathy and empathy. Save your pity for the pitiful. That ain’t us. We need you to feel this shit, even though we know you never can, completely. Therein lies the caveat. Empathy is grounded in a spirit of shared experience. This is why Black folks feel and relate to each other in such a profound way. We know what it is. Words aren’t even necessary most of the time. This is also why when things happen to one of us, usually most of us feel it in a very intimate way, as if it happened directly to all of us, because often times and in many ways, it does. The caveat is that this particular experience is so nuanced, deeply-rooted and intrinsic in its exclusivity to Black folks, that folks outside of the race can only aspire to a certain level of empathy, if they choose to aspire to any level at all. Knowing this, whether consciously or unconsciously, leads to Black paranoia, hyper-vigilance and the general suspicion and distrust of White people. Is it fair to White folks? Of course not… just as the 400+ years of marginalization, disenfranchisement, prejudice and racism, in its overt, systematic and micro-aggressive forms that created that distrust is not fair to Black folks, so save the White tears.

There are many White folks that understand this and rather than get into a pissing contest on what is and isn’t fair to them, they acknowledge their inherent privileges and go about the work of creating racial equity. Big ups to you guys and gals. But before you go patting yourselves on the back, let’s add some context. The intentionality of the White ally is shaky ground, firmer than some, but shaky nonetheless. Often these are moderate folks, more liberal than conservative on social issues, younger and generally find themselves well-intentioned. They may or may not have protested a few times, occasionally will post an uber-moderate, “let’s just all come together” kind of comment on Facebook. They acknowledge the validity of Black issues and may even have some Black friends. These kinds of White folks are the most susceptible to committing racial micro-aggressions. While these are not typically intended to be offensive, they are and they are also ANNOYING AF!!!

(Here are some general examples of racial micro-aggressions in case you may be unfamiliar with the term.)

Please don’t do or say these things or anything remotely relative to them.

The primary issue is that most of us acknowledge that we know that you all mean no harm, but that does not abdicate you from the fact that you actually did cause harm. Acknowledge that. Don’t be offended. Be remorseful. We can help you. Also, those uber-moderate Facebook quotes? You can keep those. We know you’re trying to “play progressive” but also avoid pissing of some of your friends and family and that post is “safe” for you. You are not helping and you are not invited to come to the cook-out posting that shit. That is one of the most prevalent issues that I find with many “racially progressive” White folks. They will advocate, call bullshit, stand up to and challenge any bigot or racist, except the ones that happen to be a friend or family. That selective silence is as intentional as it is permissive. That is yet another example of White Privilege and by consciously using it to your advantage, you may as well be Jeff Sessions (ok, well, maybe not Jeff Sessions, that may have been a tad too far, but you get the point.) Silence is consent. Silence is also a micro-aggression. Either ride all the time, or don’t ride at all. You want to empathize? Stand up and speak up when it is uncomfortable and inconvenient.

One of the better “perks” of Whiteness is the privilege of oblivion, be it selective, intentional or unintentional. There are three core phases of “consciousness”: awake (i.e. woke, aware, hip-to-the-shit, conscious), sleep (i.e. unaware, oblivious, unconscious, just don’t give a f***) and dead (i.e. *insert skull emoji). Regardless of race, we all land at different points on this spectrum, but one’s placement on this spectrum is completely separate and has no direct influence on how one is impacted by societal circumstances. While Black folks can be (and many are) oblivious to how the systems and institutions in place adversely affect them, their oblivion does not safeguard them, it cripples them further. White folks can be oblivious and it can go unchecked, unchallenged and unseated for years, possibly even a lifetime with little to no contrary consequence. There requires a particular level of exposure and concern for them to be “woken up” and often, they just do not have one or the other. That only applies to the unintentionally oblivious (which in the age of social media, that kind of insulation becomes both intentional and selective). To those who choose to stand on the sidelines or in the stands with their backs to the game, that kind of selfishness and disregard is one of the most blatant affronts to civility and human rights. “Staying out of it” does not absolve you of guilt, shame or responsibility. It does not make you an innocent bystander. Saying that you don’t know is a weak excuse because of, you know, the internet. Just as silence is consent, so is willful ignorance. It is one of the most flagrant expressions of White privilege. Don’t be this person. I am not saying go out and try to lead the revolution, but don’t ignore it.

For those out there who are just the straight-up and down, hateful, cross-burning, bed sheet wearing, brain and body swapping, spoon-in-the-teacup-stirring, dry Fruit Loop with a glass of milk on the side so they won’t mix kinda racists (whether you choose to consciously admit it or not), I have nothing for you. No cries for understanding. No plea for rationality. No reason to negotiate. No desire to communicate. Nothing. Literally. Like, “I. Have. Nothing.”—*Whitney Houston voice.

This is always a very sensitive and nuanced topic because ideally (and actually) we all do need each other to make this thing work for everybody. But the failure is in all of our inabilities to communicate clearly and effectively, without getting caught up in our feelings, insecurities and inequities. Trust me, Black folks are always ready to talk about race because we live it out every day. We are receptive and collaborative with those truly invested in creating a more equal and equitable world (aren’t we, people?) and we all should share that investment to combat the challenges affecting all marginalized folks, regardless of race or nationality. This age and form of neo-enlightenment (getting woke) is gaining more and more momentum. People are thinking, caring and taking action in a way that we haven’t seen in a while. It seems as though the revolution will be televised after all (and Tweet’d, Facebook’d and Snapchat’d) so stay “sleep” if you want… you’ll be in for a rude “awakening”.


Sorry, not sorry if I made anyone feel uncomfortable with themselves. #MissionAccomplished

Terrence A. Merkerson is the Founder & Creator of Avenue Fifteen. Terrence earned Bachelor’s Degrees in both Political Science and Gender/Race Studies from the University of Alabama. Terrence also completed Graduate School at the University of Alabama earning a Master’s Degree in Communication.

He currently resides in Baton Rouge, LA.


One thought on ““Stay Sleep”: On Empathy, Intentionality & Oblivion

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