Our generation has given rise to a new word to represent social consciousness; “woke”. I first heard the term on Erykah Badu’s 2008 song “Master Teachers”, and it has since become emblematic for the enlightenment achieved when the mind awakens from ignorance. The term is a label worn with pride. To be "woke" is a desired intellectual attribute. Yet, in today's social climate, I find myself increasingly disillusioned with the woke masses. Often, being "woke" has come to identify those who no longer sleep, yet now remain motionless in the comfortable bed of indifference and apathy.
With the current political state, being “woke” is no longer enough.
A year ago, I worked at a company where my co-workers were the kind of aware millennials who’ve become the definition of woke. They quoted Audre Lorde and James Baldwin by heart. Assata Shakur and Stokely Carmichael were their inspirations. They used words like intersectionality, narrative and microaggression. At lunch, they discussed the best oil to maintain their melanin.
Yet, shortly before I left the organization, we had a particularly difficult year. Funding dried up, programs were dropped and the grassroots ideology of the company was stripped to a strict corporate bottom-line. Despite this, I believed that the woke employees would press on with a "by any means necessary" spirit as they were inspired by rebels who fought to liberate the very communities we were serving. Ironically, a few of the most “woke” were the first to give up. Once things weren’t comfortable & the warrior fantasy was tested, some caved in. One of my bosses noticed them disappearing & losing morale. She sarcastically asked me, “What happened to the revolution?”. I could offer no answer.
Defined as "one that is outwardly powerful or dangerous but inwardly ineffectual," paper tigers summed it up perfectly not merely for some of my co-workers, but also for many of our generation.
Social consciousness, or being woke, appeals to us for many reasons. It speaks to our experience as people who have endured systemic racism and violence. It harks back to the childhood lessons of virtue and the fiery black preachers we grew up listening to with sweat-drenched at the pulpit, extolling righteousness to us. Yet, our response to these internal ethical appeals is often topical and meaningless. Too often we share and retweet the latest tragedy, detailing the racism inherent to it and including a quote by our favorite activist, then go back to our daily agenda, doing little to combat future occurrences of the injustice. Our wokeness, no matter how zealous, is ultimately shallow if we wake from ignorance, but remain inactive.
On her Unplugged 2.0 album, Lauryn Hill said, "We look at Bob Marley and say, 'Okay, let's just grow locs and wear the clothes and have the band.' But, we have no idea how many years of struggle and pain and suffering made that content." Indeed, for some being woke is similar to the empty emulation she warned about. We idolize those who stand against oppression and evil. We emulate them as they are what we wish to be. Celebrities and public figures co-opt these movements, turning them into trends. It's cool to be woke. We wear it like a designer label. We disfigure what it should mean by reducing it to social media battles for intellectual supremacy, where the victor is the one who spouts the most collegiate keywords or belittling theory. We diminish woke to a daily mêlée for ideological and religious supremacy, rife with conspiracy theories and accusations of an agenda against our way of thought. For some, woke becomes a means for egotistical fulfillment or self-gain.
If "paper tigers" are emblematic of some individuals in my generation, it also applies to the generations before us as well who were just as woke, though few moved from the atrophy of sleep into action. In the 1960’s, people wailed for revolution under the sonic banner of Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” & Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” History teaches us that when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. appeared in towns, many people of color were fearful of the danger that his work could cause and did not receive him warmly. When the Black Panthers came seeking converts, they often met behind closed doors. Much of the mythology that historic civil rights figures were afforded is retroactive. Now, and historically, the multitude knows what’s wrong, but few will do the work to correct it.
This is not an indictment, though. Rather a call to the next step. James Baldwin said, “If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you do not see.” To be woke is beautiful, yet we must see the futility of being woke but inactive.
The beautiful thing is that there are multiple layers to positively changing our country. Your action doesn't have to be as intimidating as the protests we see on television. You can work with grassroots organizations that empower communities and families economically, create sustainable community schools or combat gentrification. Develop committees that monitor policing in black neighborhoods calling for proper training of officers and accountability. Nonprofits or coalitions can work with city and state legislatures to repeal laws that target people of color and strategically push to elect officials who are not swayed by or hold racist philosophy. Local groups can embolden and enlighten young minds, teaching the reality of systemic oppression and creating within them a knowledge of self that defeats the inherited self-deprecation. Academics can take their panels and think-tanks out of the realm of academia, and into the neighborhoods they wish to impact, thereby breaking the “fourth wall” of economic and intellectual privilege that separates theory from reality.
There’s space for everyone.
I've always loved the powerful words that film legend Sidney Poitier told Jamie Foxx when they first met Poitier said to Foxx, “I give to you responsibility.” That responsibility is carrying the torch forward with our individual abilities. Mr. Poitier, an actor, did what he could to advance the cause of civil rights by using his art. He intentionally chose films that challenged racial attitudes, defeated stereotypes and suggested a more evolved society not burdened by the primitive mindset of racism. We, too, have inherited the responsibility that Mr. Poitier mentioned. As he did, there are ways for those of us who aren't activists to change our country as well. I implore you to consider how you can translate your "woke" into action that defeats the systemic inequalities in our country and positively changes our world.