A s the social media manager of a robust vegan page and creator of much of the content we post, I get accused of being “woke” a lot. I can live with it. There are worse things to be called, that’s for sure.
Woke is a word rich with history that has been plundered from African American Vernacular English and culture, and conveniently repurposed as a weapon, purged of all real depth but shrieking with dog whistles, to be used against anyone promoting progressive, more equitable values: anti-racists, feminists, LGBTQ folks, peace activists, vegans, you name it. If something one has posted makes the average Tucker Carlson or Joe Rogan fan defensive and uncomfortable, it is likely to be described by them as “woke.” I’m going to stop using quotation marks around this word now because it’s getting clunky but I think you get my point: Speaking up against injustice is not and will never be an insult in my book. Yes, I guess that makes me, well, you know what. The antonym to sleeping.
Similar in some ways to how outspoken Black people were once referred to as uppity as a tacit but still loud form of social coercion to keep them in their place, “woke” is used as a broad brush to paint a message or a messenger as silly and undeserving of serious consideration. It’s a quick one-word, one-syllable dismissal, something even the most time-crunched of critics can do with minimal effort. Today, the word often applies to what was once labeled, also pejoratively, as “politically correct” until that expression became dated even for the folks who would be ecstatic to still be living in a Reagan-era time capsule. To detractors, wokeism is performative, immature and attention-seeking, it is being an insufferable social justice warrior (another term applied to progressive activists), it is the enemy of free speech and intellectual curiosity. On a more basic level, liberatory perspectives that make those who uphold the status quo deeply uncomfortable are sneered at as woke.
I actually understand this. The sense is that rights are limited, we only have so many, and recalibrating to level the playing field inevitably means that those accustomed to a certain place on the hierarchy may go down the ladder some. That gnawing, reactive fight-or-flight feeling in the pit of the belly to an unwanted point of view is angering so the offending message or messenger is branded as woke, but that uncomfortable feeling doesn’t go away. It is a natural byproduct of our competitive, white supremacist-aligned capitalist system; it’s understandable that those who have benefited due to some extra thumbs on the scale, and those who see rights as being in a finite supply, would feel anxious about losing status.
I totally understand this because we are all ultimately screwed over by capitalist values, very much including those who fight the most vociferously to uphold them, just like all but the very, very few are screwed over by patriarchal norms. Yes, this includes men who seemingly benefit from patriarchy: If they miss out on having a rich emotional life because everything but anger is a “gay” feeling and they are starved of the friendships that nourish us because platonic intimacy is threatening, how is that not harmful?
But none of this is my point.
My point is that I understand the reactivity. When repudiation is your quickest, most efficient tool, everything and everyone asking us to grow, challenge our presumptions and consider others gets labeled as wokeism. I want to say, though, this is a knee-jerk, ultimately futile effort meant to quash actual conversations about and movement toward progress and it is borne of fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of losing status. Fear of the world changing. Fear of being left behind. Fear of your children and grandchildren rejecting your worldview.
When someone refers to progressive points of view as “woke,” I hear “I’m feeling scared” or “I’m afraid of losing status.” It’s understandable to be afraid. It’s rational to be afraid. But you don’t need to be. You can breathe instead. You can sit with what is happening in your body and your thoughts and not react for a moment, just observe. You can listen more and be humble to find your place and role in the reworking.
When you call me woke, I understand that what you’re really saying is that you’re afraid, no matter how angry you are, no matter how much you try to troll me, no matter how sarcastic, no matter your vitriol. You’re afraid. That makes sense. What is inexcusable, though, is to be totally incurious about your reactivity and to lash out at those people and ideas that are challenging your preferred norms.
The world is changing. The regressive figureheads you cling like to buoys to won’t stop that tide. The antidote to feeling afraid is to get genuinely curious: Just immerse yourself in curiosity of why you are reactive to progress. What lights up in your circuitry? What scares you?
Go ahead and call me woke, then. I know what you’re really saying.
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