What happened to ‘woke’?
There was a time when “woke” was a badge of honor among young people for social awareness. The expression, originally borrowed from African American Vernacular English, first entered global consciousness alongside the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement, as a way to show empathy for the plight of Black Americans in the wake of another racially motivated killing. “Stay woke” was an urgent appeal: to reexamine how institutions of power benefit some while oppressing others; to speak out and act against systemic injustice—whether it be racism, sexism, or economic inequality.
In recent years, however, woke has been co-opted as an insult, particularly in US political discourse. Some groups who subscribe to conservative ideologies now use it as a catch-all label for irrational political correctness. As Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said in a 2021 interview, woke has become “a pejorative term of abuse to almost criticize people who care for equality and want to promote the rights of minorities.”
In the Philippines, the expression was not spared from dilution. Woke has been used as a synonym for histrionic, self-righteous, and intellectual elitist. When I mentioned to a friend that I was going to start writing a column for the Inquirer, her advice was, “Try not to sound too woke.”
The negative connotation around the term is a reflection of how polarized society has become when discussing social inequalities. Critics of “wokeness” tend to emphasize how a culture with heightened sensibilities has led to more divisiveness, rather than progress.
Any conversation related to social injustice involves confronting uncomfortable truths about ourselves and our society; and not everyone will be ready to hear them. While social media has made it easy for opinions to emerge, what has often been lost is a nuanced discussion of an issue. Our “woke voices” may be well-intentioned. But if we’re unable to use these spaces to facilitate constructive dialogue with those who think differently than we do, then our efforts almost always amount to nothing more than preaching to the choir. Worse, these algorithm-reinforced echo chambers prevent us from fully knowing the sentiments (and counterarguments) of people who feel increasingly excluded and vilified by these ideas. Add to this the onslaught of performative content and online shaming that distort the original intent of the cause, and you have the perfect breeding ground for wokeness to either be weaponized as a slur or be reduced to a caricature. In the words of linguist and writer Jon McWhorter, “Those bristling at being accused of not being woke have pushed back to the point of leaving the term in bad odor.”
I cannot help but mourn the diminishing of woke as a huge step backward. The world initially embraced the term because we caught a glimpse of what it’s like to walk in the shoes of people who face injustice on a daily basis, and compelled us to ask how this mirrors our own realities at home. Whenever we use it in a condescending manner, we are belittling its historical significance, and undermining all the efforts that have been accomplished since. As Michael Harriot, political commentator and author of the book “Black AF History” pointed out, “It’s hard to get people to demonize human beings and lives and history. But it’s easy to get them to demonize a word. And if you can use that word as a placeholder for those people, for caring about those people, then it’s easy to demonize instead of saying, ‘We’re just gonna stop caring about people.’”
At its core, to stay woke was never about touting the label, and has always been about action. Crucial to this is the willingness to have genuine conversations about what is it that truly divides us. It requires engaging with multiple perspectives that allow us to empathize and scrutinize our own beliefs. To stay woke was never about signaling moral or intellectual superiority, but about keeping our own privilege in check.
Upholding the integrity of the expression reminds us to be active participants in uplifting marginalized communities, and in challenging beliefs or structures that perpetuate inequality. And in a country where the sins of the past are too easily forgotten, we need all the encouragement for social justice that we could get.
Twitter: @lynnpinugu; Email: [email protected]
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