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The Witness

I Thought My Wife Wasn’t “Woke”

Timothy Thomas

I cued the video then handed my phone to my wife with a grin. She stared at the screen with a stone face while I drove and chuckled. When I parked our truck at the video’s conclusion, I unnecessarily asked my wife, “You didn’t think that was funny?”

She poignantly answered, “I don’t understand why they think it’s okay to make fun of black people—like all black people are low-class and that’s okay to laugh at? Racist white people don’t need more material to feed the stereotypes they have about black people.”

My wife evidently did not find the “Saturday Night Live” Black Jeopardy skit as funny as I did. I love laughing with my wife, so I thought sharing a laugh at black humor during a routine drive would be healthy for us. Instead, we found ourselves in a familiar space of discomfort driven by cultural and personal differences. I didn’t realize it then, but her rebuke was a mark of progress toward unity.

Though divorce is becoming less common for younger adults, disagreements and misunderstandings remain a reality. Resolving these conflicts is essential to our health. But what does that look like for a couple experiencing discord involving racial and economic differences?

I’m black. My wife is—well, we aren’t quite sure. Her mother is white and her father is black mixed with—well, that’s the part we are unsure about. We are sure, however, that her great uncle is the racial barrier-breaking Dodgers pitcher Don Newcombe, who played with Jackie Robinson. I grew up in a predominantly African-American context. My wife was raised in a culturally white context, but that did not leave her void of any culturally African-American experiences and friends. We met during college in Abilene, Texas where the culture was overwhelmingly white. I learned how to navigate these spaces by essentially conforming to middle-class white-American culture, politics, and religious practices. After successfully passing a series of race tests, I graduated college and married my wife.

Who Are You?

My cultural, political, and religious convictions were radically reformed in 2016 after I witnessed the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. But the refashioning of my outlook was not only a result of the police shootings.

The pernicious, prejudicial, and dismissive sentiments from right-wing conservative evangelical allies—or whom I thought to be allies—in the months that followed impetuously destroyed my adopted culturally conservative worldview. I began to withdraw from the person I had become in college and started a personal search for leaders that truthfully spoke about American injustice and the pursuit of peace.

Authors and activists like Michelle Alexander, Edward E. Baptist, Bryan Stevenson, and Ibram X. Kendi, quickly helped me form a new and more rounded worldview of what Christ’s gospel can look like for all of humanity to flourish under the banner of God’s grace.

As I transitioned to my old ethnically-true self, I neglected to include my wife in the journey. I did not communicate how God was freeing me, so all she could see were my behavioral changes. When I began intentionally listening to Fred Hammond instead of Hillsong, reading RAAN articles instead of Desiring God devotionals, speaking passionately about racial and economic injustice just as vehemently as I did about abortion, and writing controversial articles instead of culturally comfortable pieces, she witnessed a triggering transformation that probably scared her.

I was becoming someone different than the man she married. Everything about me was changing rapidly: speech, music, podcasts, books, financial interests, and conversations. My wife still asks me, “Who are you?”

Don’t Miss Communication

As our society becomes more educated about the historical effects of systemic racism, men and women who interracially marry or marry across class lines may face similar confusion when one partner experiences a desire to radically see racial and economic justice. One person in the relationship may become impassioned about gospel justice and equality in a uniquely different way than their spouse.

If these passions and changes aren’t explicitly communicated, the sudden shift in passions and attitudes in one spouse can at best produce a curiosity about what’s going on with the other, and at worst the change can spurn an oppositional hardness.

According to research by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, the number one reason for divorce is miscommunication. Failing to properly communicate in a marriage contributes to financial disagreements, infidelity, and distrust. In my experience, another corollary effect of miscommunication is self-righteousness and indifference.

My failure to communicate led my wife and me down a tumultuous road of indifference toward each other. As a result, I took my wife’s indifference toward my stance of racial and economic justice as her willful compliance with systemic racism. I self-righteously judged the context of where she was raised as a catalyst for her compliance with systemic racism. “She ain’t woke bro,” I pretentiously told one of my friends.

I sinfully assumed the worst, rather than strive to live with her in an understanding way (1 Peter 3:7). Her annoyance of my constant talks about race were signs to me that she was not “woke.” I pithily shook my head with a belief that I was the righteous one on matters of justice.

My wife saw someone who was becoming passionate about something other than her. She observed my heart pulling away from her toward something else. My heart for change was changing me in ways she hadn’t seen in our relationship before. And to further beleaguer my ostentatious behavior, I was impatient and unkind in my responses to her disinterest for my new discoveries. I was giving her reasons to falsely fear being forgotten or replaced.

Not There Yet

As I write these words, we are only now beginning to understand why we were opposed to each other. Despite all the seemingly self-aware observations about our marriage, our relationship can still be a virulent combustion of miscommunication and sophism. We have not figured out how our unique wirings for justice and faithfulness can mesh together yet. My wife still gets annoyed when I dominate conversations about articles, books, podcasts, or recent headlines I’m processing. I still express impatience at times when I feel matters are most pressing and need to be discussed, and she doesn’t want to talk about them.

However, we both realize that we are better walking in justice, truth, and faithfulness together, even when we don’t fully understand each other’s rationales. Giving each other space to communicate the burdens of our hearts are unifying us in a complicated way. The dynamics of marriages that are faithfully pursuing justice and peace may look different in each relationship, but there is a path to do this together.

My wife’s willingness to uncomfortably sit through a Black Jeopardy skit, then engage me with a perspective I hadn’t thought about, is just one example of how progressing in unification may look.

9 thoughts on “I Thought My Wife Wasn’t “Woke”

  1. Timothy Thomas

    Tre, thanks for the encouragement bro! Glad to see we’re not alone and that other people like you and your wife are struggling well! Grace and peace to you bro!

  2. Tre M.

    All I gotta say is your transparency is a blessing, brother. Thank you for writing it and not sugar-coating it for anyone. My engagement was started during the summer of 2016. I experienced something similar to what you’re explaining down to the Desiring God exit. I won’t write our whole story here, but communication and patience have been key for us too. My Texas bride has done a lot of “waking up” and grace upon grace has been extended on both sides! Again, I appreciate you brother; be encouraged when the comment section critics come marching in! haha

  3. Thomas W.

    Thanks Timothy. I agree with your response.

    I wrestle with similar questions and concerns.

    I really appreciate your offer of email, and may take you up on it so that I can reply later this week with more time.

    By the way, I got to see the Hall of Famer, Don Newcombe a couple weeks ago on Jackie Robinson day. He still looks like he could go a few innings.

  4. Thomas W.

    Thanks Alysia, I appreciate your response very much. I understand entirely what you mean.

    I think what helps me is knowing that the gospel never goes forward by the sword, and that the Lord is quite capable of being our vengeance against injustice. Afterall, Christ bore the greatest injustice ever to be perpetrated upon another.

  5. Alysia Crawford

    Thomas W,
    Although your comment was for Timothy I want to thank you for how it resonated for me personally as well…
    I find I am constantly at war within myself with the “Malcom vs Martin” syndrome (even though I would never presume to put myself on level with either of these men and their life work- I only refer to the pull in spirit with the best way to see change effected in our mist). At times my horror, pain, heartbreak, and indignation against injustice makes me want to run out of the gate with arms swinging and megaphone turned up to full volume…other times I am trying to walk the long-suffering, patient, persevering, quieter road. It’s an incredible struggle of the soul and I lament how unlike Christ I often am in pursuit of trying to get people to see the sources of injustice and marginalization around us. I know I hurt and alienate (or just plain annoy) people at times because of my uncontrolled passion and it is a part of myself I have to humbly lay at the cross and hope will be sanctified and refined as I pursue Jesus. It is so difficult to see the pain of others, the injustices perpetuated century after century, and not lose sight of how to advocate as Jesus would. May we all hear His voice as we each pursue how to navigate this tremendously complicated and difficult task.

  6. Timothy Thomas

    Thomas,
    Thank you for your candid response and questions. In regard to your “white evangelicals” questions, I can honestly say that in some circumstances I have assumed the worst and likewise have assumed my righteousness based on my knowledge or understanding that they did/do not have. I admit, this has been an ongoing concern and much of it comes from a point of exhaustion and impatience.

    However, some of it has also stemmed from another self-righteous belief that I am to help be a “black savior” to help my white brothers and sisters understand—a title no one has given me nor have I been called to. I’ve been learning to engage those who have a genuine interest/burden to learn, but not try to make everyone want to learn or feel as strongly about it as I do. It gets difficult for me when I start weighing if these are matters of sin or not. Do I have an obligation to say something or not?

    And to your last questions, I honestly think it just depends. Again, it’s not necessarily our calling to “save,” so abandoning hurtful and stale relationships where there is no reciprocity in regards to agreeing that there is a sin issue as it relates to racial justice and/or gender equality/justice, etc. may not be a “pride” problem. It could be foolish to keep pressing forward for “unity” when only one side wants to unify. In other circumstances, it may be a pride problem, which is why relying on the Holy Spirit, God’s Word, and having a good base of brothers and sisters who understand you and are unafraid to check you is essential.

    Not sure if I answered all your questions, feel free to email me or reply. Thanks for reading Thomas!

  7. Timothy Thomas

    Alysia, I’m very encouraged my wife and I can be an encouragement. It’s not easy—I confess my self-righteousness on these matters are prone to do more damage than originally intended. Thank you for walking in truth, engaging in difficult conversations, and being part of the beautiful picture of the kingdom. And thank you for reading!

  8. Thomas W.

    Timothy,

    I appreciate your honesty and openess. Being married, I can only encourage that the more you validate your wife, the more you listen, the more you value who she is and her view, especially when you disagree with them is tantamount to keeping the walls and defensiveness from growing to point of separation. For me, it’s one of the hardest things to believe I know what’s right, and still concede, but what I constantly find is that in giving myself up the walls of opposition crumble.

    As you understand the following:

    “I sinfully assumed the worst, rather than strive to live with her in an understanding way (1 Peter 3:7). Her annoyance of my constant talks about race were signs to me that she was not “woke.” I pithily shook my head with a belief that I was the righteous one on matters of justice.”

    How does that apply for you to “white evangelicals”? Is it possible that you’ve also assumed the worst, are refusing to understand, and that you’re the righteous one in whatever matter at hand?

    Can you extend this insight to your other brother and sisters in Christ?

    Even when the worst is true, what should be our direction? To forsake and abandon relationships we knew would be messy along the way? Or to put our pride aside and pursue unity?

  9. Alysia Crawford

    Thank you for this honest, humble, and candid post. While I am not African American my son is and we attend a predominately black church. Because of our church community most of our close friends are black. Along with this my passion is African American and Civil Rights history so we find ourselves relatively high on the “woke scale” while some of our family and friends remain unable to process and believe in the systemic racism we see and share with them. This article was helpful to me in thinking about my white family and friends and trying to exercise patience as they struggle to see what is alarmingly clear to my husband and I. Thank you so much for sharing this.

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