For years, progressives, especially Black progressives, have been explaining that people need to be “woke” — that is, fully aware of and pursuing action on racial and equity issues. Now there’s a conservative “anti-woke” backlash. But what exactly is “woke,” and why is it such a flashpoint?
Merriam-Webster says “woke” is a slang term that is going mainstream. From the M-W site:
But stay woke and woke became part of a wider discussion in 2014, immediately following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The word woke became entwined with the Black Lives Matter movement; instead of just being a word that signaled awareness of injustice or racial tension, it became a word of action. Activists were woke and called on others to stay woke.
The meaning of “woke”
“Woke” carries a connotation of a shift in perspective — of waking up from a comfortable fantasy about the world and realizing that it isn’t what you thought it was. For Black activists, it may imply action. To me, and I think to the broader world, though, it reflects what we know, how we think, and how we act on it every day, not whether we’re marching in a protest.
I’ve gone out of my way in the last ten years to work closely with colleagues, authors, and executives who were Black or in other minorities. None were activists, and only one was an expert on Diversity and Inclusion. The rest were just being experts in whatever they were good at: customer experience, consumer attitudes, branding, or creativity, for example.
But like anyone in a minority who was prominent and visible, they had opinions about race, and talking to them has shifted the way I thought about it. They shared their experiences, which opened my eyes.
My own woke experience centers on this:
Understanding that — viscerally, constantly, and based solely on who they are — the challenges and experiences of Black people and other people of color are very different from what white people deal with.
There are things that I as a white person do not worry about. I do not worry about people assuming I am a criminal if they happen upon me on the street in a hooded sweatshirt. I do not worry about whether my doctor understands my medical issues. I do not worry about whether my children will be treated fairly in school. Basically, I worry about only making my way in a world that I believe will treat me fairly.
That, in a word, is privilege. Because unlike me . . .
The Black man who has to behave very carefully during a traffic stop to avoid getting shot or tased has to worry.
The Black woman who has to wait in long lines to vote in Georgia has to worry.
The Asian woman who gets continually asked, “where are you from, you know, really” has to worry.
The Hispanic family that’s lived here for 25 years but must continually prove they’re citizens has to worry.
They all have do more than just make their way in a world that will treat them fairly, because some people won’t.
The fight over wokeness
Conservatives are now bashing Democrats with wokeness. To them, wokeness is not Black activism, or racial justice. They’ve reframed it as political correctness and extreme points of view.
Go ahead. Search Fox News for woke.
You’ll see Hannity talk about how “the [Academy] awards have turned into one big far-left protest where self-obsessed celebrities berate the American people and tell them how to think.”
You’ll see Georgia Governor Brian Kemp blame “the woke cancel culture movement” for criticism of the new Georgia election law.
And some guy in the Orlando Sentinel is writing about how wokeness is ruining Disney World, because it no longer bases rides on “Song of the South” or features natives selling shrunken heads.
Democratic strategist James Carville told Vox that “Wokeness is a problem and everyone knows it.” It’s this backlash that he’s referring to.
Abolishing police and generating guilt about being white aren’t central tenets of Democratic politics, but you’d think so if you followed conservative media.
I’m sure there are plenty of Black activists who will accuse me of appropriation for making my own definition of what “woke” is. But the problem isn’t me, friends, it is Republicans who have used this term to bludgeon Democrats both mainstream and on the fringes.
Honestly, if you could get 80% of white America to realize that their Black and Hispanic and Asian neighbors are humans with families who have to deal with extra challenges every day just because of who they are, you’d be well on the way to making changes in social justice. That 80% isn’t going to be marching in the streets or facing down the police. But they will be electing Democrats who change laws, put more inclusive and tolerant law enforcement in place, and appoint judges that will protect civil rights.
One by one, they’ll become more woke about their neighbors’ struggles. That’s about as woke as they’re going to get.
It’s a lot harder to come out against the idea that “my neighbors are human” than it is to bash the straw men that Republicans are setting up.
I’d like my politics like that, please. Especially if the alternative is sorting ourselves into warring camps.