People discuss wokeness a lot lately.
For example, some folks urge people to “stay woke”, while others criticize the dangers of what they term “woke” politics. Either way, the word woke is an emotionally laden word. As such, it may be helpful to examine the word more carefully.
Did You Know?
The term woke has been around since the 1940s. It was a term people in the black community used to signify an awareness of racial injustices. You can read more about this here. (What is the History of the Word “Woke” and Its Modern Uses?” and “How Has the Meaning of the Word ‘Woke” Evolved?”). It is clear why such a term was both necessary and meaningful.
For example, the other day, I was researching the life of Rosa Parks. As you probably know, Parks played a pivotal role in catalyzing the Civil Rights movement. One day, she was riding a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama. At that time, as segregation was practiced widely throughout society, many bus drivers asked black passengers to give up their seats at the front of the bus for white passengers. Parks was sitting at the front of a crowded bus when a white passenger boarded. The bus driver asked her to give her seat to the white passenger and move to the seats in the back. Parks peacefully but firmly refused.
In her autobiography, Rosa writes, “People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired . . . but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically . . . No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.” As you probably know, blatant prejudice against people of color was pervasive in Park’s time. People in the black community had to use different drinking fountains than white people and attend different schools and churches.
Racism was so pervasive, and had been for so long, that many people of color grew up learning that this was just the way the world was, and it couldn’t change.
Therefore, the phrase stay woke for people in the black community was a call to recognize that the daily degradation they faced was neither inevitable nor just. It was a call for them to realize that they were fully human and deserved to be treated as such. Ultimately, it was a call for justice and fairness.
We have made great strides in justice and fairness since Rosa Parks’ day, but blatant degradation against people of color still occurs regularly today. (You can read more about this here: Should We Be Afraid of Critical Race Theory?)
As such, it seems like we still need to stay woke.
Is Criticizing Wokeness “Woke”?
Lately, various politicians, in this case on the right, have derided wokeness and turned it into a derogatory phrase. For instance, people criticize “woke politics”.
Now, I would like to point out two odd things about criticisms of wokeness. Here is the first odd thing. Given the history of term woke, it seems initially that people who criticize wokeness are criticizing the awareness of people in the black community that racisms still exists. This is clearly a problem, which you can read more about here. Friends, please don’t criticize an awareness of, and caring about, racism. If we criticize caring about racism, we are complicit in racism.
On the other hand, I think that many people who criticize wokeness are unaware of the history of the term. As such, these folks aren’t criticizing an awareness of racism. Rather, I think some people criticize woke politics because they believe that at least in some instances, such politics are unjust, unfair, or intolerant. (You can read more about this here: The War on Wokeness.)
To illustrate this, I want to tell an embarrassing story about myself regarding an instance in which I was accidentally very un-woke.
A Time I was Very Un-Woke
One day about ten years ago, I was talking with a group of friends. I don’t remember the topic of the conversation. What I do remember is that at one point in the conversation, I called one of my friends an Indian-Giver. (Please feel free to scowl at me. And please also continue reading.)
There’s something important you should know about this incident. When I was growing up, the term Indian-Giver was unfortunately—and wrongly–so common that, believe it or not, I never associated the phrase with Native-Americans. Or, if I had understood the association at one time, I had completely forgotten it by the time I used the phrase in conversation with my friends.
However, one of my friends pointed out what I had said. The moment he did so, I realize that the phrase was derogatory towards Native-American people. (You can read about this here.) And I was immediately embarrassed. The ironic thing about this situation is that normally I am hyper-sensitive about insulting people in any way. For instance, I hate sarcasm that makes fun of other people and avoid it at all costs. And I am especially sensitive to words or phrases that make fun of minority groups because I read such insults as a legacy of racism. My main goal in life is to encourage others and remind them of their worth. So, imagine my chagrin when I realized that I had unintentionally used a racial slur.
I immediately apologized for my comment and thanked my friend for pointing out my error. And I excised the above-mentioned phrase from my vocabulary. I think my friend knew that I had made the comment out of ignorance rather than ill intent, and he was accordingly gentle in his correction. I am still so grateful he was. I have been in other situations in which someone said something offensive (similar to my comment) out of ignorance, and people harshly corrected the person. In situations like this, it seems that people are more zealous to correct people’s language than they are to understand the intent behind someone’s ill-advised comments. (And of course people do say offensive things purposefully sometimes, which I address shortly.)
Sometimes when white people get legitimately woke to racism, we get prideful about it. After all, if white privilege does exist (and I believe it does), recognizing it can indicate virtues like courage, critical thought, and humility. That’s because being a white person who recognizes white privileges requires, among other things, that you recognize you are the recipient of some undeserved advantages in life. And it requires that you work to make sure that everyone has your same advantages. So, such a realization can be a virtuous realization. (You might like this post: About Oppression and White Privilege.)
But sometimes wokeness, or the attitude we take towards it, can be unvirtuous. I will give an example specifically with white woke people, mainly because I belong to that demographic.
Unfortunately, sometimes when white people get woke, we become enamored by our own virtue And sometimes we run around highlighting our wokeness while pointing other people’s lack of wokeness. Sometimes pointing out other people’s unwokeness makes us feel good about ourselves.
And this kind of “Thank-God-I’m not like-all-those-un-woke-people” attitude is also the type of thing that people sometimes criticize when they criticize woke culture. That is, they criticize a kind of self-righteous attitude that some people have which leads them to demean people who do not hold the same views or speak “correctly”. Or they attempt to force people to hold views to which they don’t assent.
And of course this is wrong. Our views may be the most just and fair views. But they may not be. And even if they are the most just and fair views, we cannot force people to accept them. The most we can do is try to persuade them and to be an example of justice ourselves. And we can pursue just legislation. To force people to believe something, or to demean their humanity because they disagree with us, is itself unjust. And such injustice, I believe, is also the concern of some critics of woke politics.
But this brings me to the second odd thing about criticizing wokeness. People who criticize wokeness, in fact, seem to exemplify the very thing being criticized. For example, wokeness pertains to becoming aware of injustice and unfairness. And critics of wokeness argue that at least some woke politics are unjust or unfair to people.
So, it seems, ironically then, that critics of wokeness want people to get woke to the potential dangers they see in woke politics. In other words, criticizing wokeness is in fact another form of wokeness.
This Point isn’t Primarily a Criticism
Now it may seem at this point that I am criticizing critics of wokeness. This is only partially true. While I am criticizing a potential hypocrisy involved in criticizing wokeness, I am, in fact, calling critics of wokeness to recognize that they advocate wokeness as well. They just advocate a different kind of wokeness.
And this brings me to the main point of this post. My main point is that if the term woke, as it was originally used, pertains to caring about issues of justice and fairness, then getting woke is good. It’s virtuous. Almost all of us can agree that unfairness and injustice are important issues to address. And almost all of us agree that injustice and unfairness exist in society in some form or another. We just often disagree about (1) whether a situation is, in fact, unfair or unjust. And (2) we disagree about what we should do to rectify the situation.
And to be honest, when it comes to issues of justice and fairness, we often care very much about whether the world is just and fair for us. We are much less concerned about whether the world is just and fair for other people, especially people with whom we disagree.
And this is why I think love should play an important role in any discussion of wokeness.
Wokeness and Love
Love is the heart of all ethical and religious systems. Such systems suggest that we need to love folks both individually and politically. That is, we need to express love both in our interpersonal relationships, as well as our social relationships, which is what politics is.
When we love people individually, we honor their specialness. And we honor this specialness by treating them with kindness, compassion, and respect. Within our interpersonal relationships, love expresses itself by listening to people and caring about their dreams and projects. And it expresses itself by encouraging people and helping them to reach their full potential.
When we love people politically, we care that society treats them with justice and fairness. Love recognizes that although we are unequal in some things (like height or athletic talent or musical ability), we are equal in at least one way. We are equal in that all humans possess dignity. That dignity deserves to be cherished and protected. And we realize further than sometimes society perpetuates unjust practices that crush human dignity. Such unjust practices are practices like inhumane working conditions. Or they are practices that deprive people of basic human rights or that treat some groups of people as subhuman.
History is full of examples of unjust practices that have arisen in various societies. And history is also full of people motivated by love who worked to end such injustices. This pattern in history suggests that everyone needs to get woke. That is because wokeness, in its original meaning, connotes becoming aware of injustice and unfairness. Everyone needs to care about fairness and justice. Everyone needs to work to overcome their opposites. That is why everyone needs to get woke.
And love must motivate our wokeness.
Love must motivate wokeness because self-righteousness is an unsustainable motive for wokeness. But more importantly, love must motivate wokeness so that we learn to care about justice and fairness for everyone, not just for ourselves. And not just for people like us.
I have been thinking lately about how we (and how I) can continue to get woke to love. I will start with a couple of suggestions for everyone.
First, if you are a critic of woke culture, please recognize that everyone should be against racism and prejudice. I realize that woke politics is about more than racism. However, at least in the area of racism, you should be an ally with woke folks. Be courageous enough to hold your anti-woke friends accountable if they make racist jokes or insulting jokes about other minority people.
In addition, realize that just like woke people do, you also care about justice and fairness. You just care about it pertaining to issues different from those typically associated with woke culture. And if you care about justice and fairness, it would behoove you to listen to folks whose politics you describe as woke. It may be that you have something to learn from such folks.
Second, to my Woke People. Awesome, you’re woke. Be aware that you still may be unwoke in some areas. Kick your wokeness up to the next level and make sure you care for justice for everyone, even folks you take to be unwoke.
And be aware that even though you are woke or progressive or whatever you call it, you still have things to learn about justice and fairness. The way you learn is by listening to folks whose views are different from yours.
And this is how I am trying to work for justice and fairness:
One: I regularly reflect on areas of life in which I need to awaken to injustice and unfairness.
Two: I listen to people who are very different from me because they are often aware of areas of injustice of which I am unaware.
Three: I recognize that I could be an unwilling participant in injustice. Most perpetrators of injustice rationalize their practice as common sense. We are all good at rationalizing practices, personal and cultural, that benefit us. Therefore, I work on recognizing the practices in my life that seem like common sense but that could perpetuate injustice.
Four: I listen especially to members of communities that historically suffered grave injustice—like slavery and genocide. I realize that the views that fueled these injustices likely still exist in some form or another. And I want to work to make sure such injustices don’t happen again or that they don’t occur in different, contemporary forms.
Five: I recognize that if I want people to listen to issues of injustice about which I am concerned, I need to listen to issues of injustice about which they are concerned. We all think our justice issues are the most important. However, the only way we can have a productive discussion about justice is if we listen to one another. And listening only happens if someone decides to listen instead of talking over other people or calling them names. I want to listen.
Six: I recognize that I can’t solve injustice and unfairness by perpetrating more injustice and unfairness. Justice requires we treat everyone with dignity, even people with whom we disagree. It is easy to desire justice for your friends and injustice for your enemies. True lovers of justice, however, work for the justice of everyone, even people we don’t like.
I write this post because I have heard a lot of criticisms of wokeness lately. And to be honest, the more I hear criticisms of wokeness, the more I think we need to focus less on whether policies are woke or not. Rather, we need to focus more on whether we act in a loving way in our personal and political lives.
Because when it comes down to it, loving people individually and politically is always the right thing to do. And it is also the most woke thing you can do.
Happy Valentines Day.
Love. And get woke.
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In the form of racism.
Published by shellypruittjohnson
My name is Shelly Johnson, and I am a writer and philosopher with a Ph.D. in philosophy. One of my primary personal and philosophical interests is how we can learn to love ourselves and each other better in order to cultivate personal and political resilience. I teach ethics and a variety of other courses at a local college. I am the author of the blog Love is Stronger. I am also the author of three logic and critical thinking books for high school and middle school: _Argument Builder_, _Discovery of Deduction_ (co-author), and _Everyday Debate_, published by Classical Academic Press. You can reach me at email@example.com.
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