The dangerous politics of woke
I don’t remember hearing the word ‘woke’ used to describe antiracism before the summer of 2020, but it’s not a new term. I just wasn’t paying attention.
In response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and too many other Black Americans, many white Americans began to grapple with understanding the role racism has played in our history, and how each of us plays a role in perpetuating systems that continue to privilege some more than others.
Books on racism topped the best seller lists in 2020 and sold out. Corporations and nonprofit organizations quickly adopted Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion statements. Antiracist educators and writers dominated talk shows and editorials. White-centered privilege was being challenged everywhere. White America, it seemed, was once again waking up to the realities of systemic racism. Something Black America has always known.
And the term woke started appearing everywhere.
The idea of staying awake in the face of oppression has been around for at least a hundred years. In 1923, Jamaican social activist Marcus Garvey wrote “Wake up, Ethiopia! Wake up Africa!” In a 1938 song about the Scottsboro Boys, Lead Belly sang “stay woke” in response to Black teenagers falsely accused of raping white women. In 1940, when a Black union leader discovered Black miners were being paid much less than white miners, he said, “We were asleep. But we will stay woke from now on.”
By the 2010s, the term was being used more broadly to describe social justice. But like other terms that were coined within a marginalized community, the word ‘woke’ has been transformed into a pejorative. Like CRT and Black Lives Matter, woke has been weaponized as a cudgel against progressive ideas conservatives work so hard to oppose.
Acknowledging our racist history is woke. Support for trans kids is woke. Access to abortion, gay rights, climate action, police and prison reform — anything that challenges conservative ideology — all are woke. And, to the extreme right, woke is somehow anti-American. But what is more American than our commitment to the ideals of equality and humanity set forth in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution?
Anti-wokeness is more than a political slogan. In the name of stopping wokeness, our long march towards a more just and inclusive America is being set back. Real people are getting hurt. People who look or believe differently from those who think they are the ‘true Americans’ are being pushed further to the margins.
Injustice continues to exist in the United States. Millions of Americans live in poverty while the wealth gap continues to get worse. The United States has, by far, the highest rate of gun violence and the highest rate of incarceration of any other developed nation. Millions of Americans lack access to basic health care. Too many children go to bed hungry. But instead of blaming this growing injustice on the policies and systems responsible, anti-wokeness blames injustice on the “woke mob.”
Feeding into the fear of change, wokeness is the new scapegoat for the perceived difficulties felt by the average American. If those in power can convince enough of us that our problems will be solved by returning to a mythical American greatness that never existed, they can hold on to their wealth and power while the rest of us turn against each other instead of demanding change for the better.
Garrett Bucks wrote an excellent piece on Substack a few months ago called “What We Talk About When We Talk About ‘Woke’” (you should read it). He warns that it would be a trap to dismiss anti-wokeness as silly or cartoonish. Railing against M&Ms, Black mermaids, and Bud Light seems ridiculous, but we need to remember that those attacks resonate with a large number of Americans who are afraid of the rapid changes in our society, and they are listening. We can’t allow the anti-woke grifters an unchallenged platform to whitewash our history, demonize drag queens, and restrict the rights of anyone who is not white and Christian.
Bucks closes his piece by reminding us that our anger shouldn’t be directed at those who fall into the trap of believing the anti-woke rhetoric. To understand their fear is to take the first step towards overcoming it. He differentiates between those who truly hate, and those who fear. He writes:
“Hatred is nearly impossible to transform. Fear isn’t, though. Fear is an ellipsis. Fear is an invitation. Fear is a desire to be heard. And hearing that fear, in turn, is a first step towards transforming it into empathy.”
Those of us who want a more just world must continue to pay attention to the rhetoric used to turn back progress. The words used may change, but the intent is the same. Words that divide us keep us from working together. We need to call that out when we see it.
We need to continue to stay woke.