A short note on ‘Wokeness’

 Woke (adj.) – to be aware. 

Over and over again, we’re told that we’re in the age of rapid technological advances, widespread dissemination of information, and easy access to communication tools. This information age means exactly what it implies – we know stuff. We know about Monsanto and it’s terrible practices all over the world, we know about endangered coral reefs around Australia, we know about the plight of Palestinians as they endure the colonial occupation of the Israeli state. The group of ‘we’ has also grown exponentially. ‘We’ used to mean a few privileged people concentrated in the ‘developed’ world. Now it means people of varying backgrounds, nationalities, geographical spaces and socio-economic statuses. At the click of a button, we have streams of information at our fingertips, begging to be read, viewed, commented on, shared, liked, retweeted, ‘memed’ and screen grabbed for later use.

Now, woke people have always existed. Woke people were the Mother Theresas who saw a need to extend beyond the self and help those who were in need, with whatever capacity she had. Woke people were the Mbuya Nehandas who saw the intrinsic value of the black body and life, and refused to let the white colonial master define and oppress us. Woke people were the Rosa Parks’, who, in a single act of defiance, breathed more life into the movement against the segregation of black Americans. We’re surrounded by wokeness. By people who are self aware, and aware of the state of the world today and what it means to be who you are and look how you look and speak how you speak and be told what is normal and what is not, and what that does to human relationships. Being woke means critiquing your critiques. It means thinking about your thinking. You and I think the way we do largely because we were taught to think this way. We were trained and conditioned and pulled into this thinking. We were trained. We learned things that define us today, but that have also harmed us and others along the way. And so being woke means knowing and understanding this, and working everyday to UNlearn whatever harmful thinking or actions we were taught. We’re taught by all sorts of things – the media, our parents, our churches, peers, school teachers, sports coaches, domestic workers, children, partners and so on. And this is normal. It is normal to be taught how to behave and think. We’ve made it normal. But in as far as how these behaviours or thoughts are harmful, we need to REthink them. In other words, being woke is about dislodging yourself from what you believed were absolute truths, dismantling them, questioning them, and deciding to what extent they are harmful or not. It means building and tearing down, everyday.

Being woke extends beyond the self. While working on ourselves is important, being woke means reaching out to hold the hand of other wokies (woke people) who may be having a hard time being woke in their particular contexts. It means fighting for Team Woke as hard as you can in conversations, tweets, academic essays, blogs, economic decisions, travel choices, etc. It means that you respect multiplicity and contradictions, because you are constantly tearing down and building up, so what you think to be true today may not be so tomorrow. It means standing up for the fundamental right of every person to be themselves and to not let the world trample on their gender expressions, sexual orientations, race, disability, or sex.

Being woke is a full time job. It is the kind of work that can often make you super unlikeable, because you ask a lot of questions and you’re always finding the problems in people’s expressions. But I think it’s also about being able to pick apart the problematic things that surround us, explain them, leave that explanation out there, and be ready to be challenged on it. It means working with other people to rid ourselves of the prejudice, bigotry and chauvinism that we all show from time to time. Being woke is a process, and you never reach the peak of wokeness. There’s always something new to learn or some new form of expression to debunk and fully understand. Think of it as being on a continuum rather than two poles of un-wokeness and wokeness. It’s the very thing that makes me excited to learn more because I know that in learning, I am unlearning, and I’m doing my piece of intellectual work in the world. Not everyone will want you to be woke, and it is by no means your job to walk people through their racism or sexism or transphobia. But it is, I think, so much more beneficial if we share our unlearning moments so we can all learn from them. Put your little bit of wokeness out there and see what happens. Not everyone will agree and not everyone will like you, but at least you will have done the Lord’s work. 🙂