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The Problem With Being Woke

The word “woke” has become almost ubiquitous in the current media landscape and has strayed far from its origins as a descriptor for political awareness to became a byword for performative pandering at best, and a pejorative for hypersensitive, intolerant liberals at worst. But what does “being woke” actually mean and how is it affecting our society and our political discourse?

This story conveys the opinions and political views of the writer, not necessarily that of the Essential Millennial.


South African politics today continues to be a story about racial inequality. And just like every country, we are politically divided over key issues across a spectrum, left vs right. The left, liberals and progressives, insist on policies centred around addressing inequality and restructuring the oppressive systems of the past. The right, conservatives and libertarians, are advocates for building upon the historically unbalanced systems and creating wealth by incorporating previously excluded people into these systems. And it should come as no surprise that our debates and discourse in South Africa are shaped by a country that has a very similar racially divided sociopolitical landscape, as a consequence of centuries of racism and white supremacy – The United States.

And, as a result of this, we’ve come to appropriate the use of the word “woke” in our own discussions, even though we face problems that are very different to those in America. The United States is a good reference point, but we do need to consider that the word “woke” is grounded in their history, not ours.

Helen Zille, the DA’s federal council chair, recently published a book titled “StayWoke: Go Broke: Why South Africa won’t survive America’s culture wars (and what you can do about it)” in April to showcase how woke discourse and being woke has become a toxic part of our discourse. But Zille’s book, which has 10 references including Wikipedia articles, broken URL’s, opinion stories and a series of tweets, fails to adequately define “woke” as a concept. However, the message resonated with many South Africans who have become sick and tired of wokeness and being accused of racism.

Zille used the same political tricks (which we will discuss later) that were used 30 years ago and set the stage for Donald Trump to become President of the United States. And it’s important, for South Africans on the left and the right to understand what being woke actually means, how the concept has changed over time and how to avoid the toxic fervour that accompanies the use of the phrase.

The origins of “woke”

I cannot stress enough that you should read through the references provided at the end of this article, because I simply cannot fill in all the gaps in one story. This concept runs deep, and getting to the bottom of it is no walk in the park.

Many will attribute the earliest origin of the concept of wokeness to Jamaican philosopher, Marcus Garvey’s exclamation, “Wake up Ethiopia! Wake up Africa!” – a call to global black citizens to become more socially and politically conscious.

However, “stay woke” was first introduced to the media through a spoken afterward in Blues musician Huddie Ledbetter, a.k.a. Lead Belly’s 1938 protest song “Scottsboro Boys,” which describes the controversial an accusation in 1931 that nine black teenagers had raped two white women.

Following this, the word woke creeps its way into academia in J. Saunders Redding’s article in Negro Digest about labour unions.

Then, William Melvin Kelley’s New York Times essay, “If You’re Woke You Dig It, he brings the idea into the mainstream, despite the word woke not actually appearing in the body of the article, which was about how white Americans appropriate black Americans’ slang and vernacular.

Then, in 1972, Barry Beckham’s play Garvey Lives! features a moment where a character says “I been sleeping all my life. And now that Mr Garvey done woke me up, I’m gon’ stay woke. And I’m gon’ help him wake up other black folk.”

And this is where we can start to put the pieces of the puzzle together and see what how they arrived at a definition when “woke” when it was was officially added into the Oxford English Dictionary as an adjective in June 2017. The dictionary defines it as “originally: well-informed, up-to-date. Now chiefly: alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice”.

To be “woke” meant that you were simply cognisant of the social context in which you live and are aware of injustices. But in Harlem, where nobody can quite pinpoint exactly how it became part of the vernacular, woke meant that you should be alert to police brutality and, effectively, “stay woke” became a kind of byword for “be wary of bad cops that can kill you at any moment.” There’s a good chance that this was a continuation of slaves’ use of pig Latin words like “ofay” (foe) to describe their masters.

It’s basically code for black Americans who were robbed of their own languages when they were taken across the Atlantic from Africa. Pig Latin phrases and black American slang, which primarily has its roots in jazz culture, can all be considered as new forms of language that black Americans have created simply because they had lost touch with their own cultural roots. Kelly’s critique is about exactly this. How white people have taken away the only culture that black Americans have and appropriate it into their own vernacular, where its original meaning is lost.

But we only see the modern iteration of woke as recently as 2008, in the form of Eryka Badu’s single, “Master Teacher”, a collaboration with Georgia Anne Muldrow, who had encountered the word during her early career in Harlem. The song includes a declaration of “I stay woke”. Here’s where the rabbit hole goes even deeper… making a distinction between “being woke” and “staying woke”.

“I wasn’t claiming that I was woke. I never saw myself as woke. I saw myself as aspiring for woke, to try and stay woke. But I knew I wasn’t woke.”

Georgia Anne Muldrow

The idea of “wokeness”, or at least that explanation of being “woke” which was posited by Muldrow, was that you were constantly aware of social cultural issues and it was perceived as a good thing. You persistently challenged your own opinions and perspectives. To be woke, while also being awake, you’re also aware of your own shortcomings and propensity to fall into dogmatic thinking. Some have compared being “woke” to evangelical Christianity, where people identify with the protest movements that use the slogan, as well as a set of values. And it gives them a sense of purpose and belonging. Others compare it to The Enlightenment and believe that to be woke is, in fact, to be enlightened.

As we look further forward, the term “woke” went through something of a renaissance in 2012 after Trayvan Martin was shot by George Zimmerman, and later, in the wake of the 2014 Ferguson riots that followed the death of Michael Brown at the hands of the police. The term woke starts to rise in popularity, alongside the hashtags #StayWoke and #BlackLivesMatter.

It also gets more attention through the music industry when Childish Gambino used “stay woke” in the hook of his song “Redbone”, which was also used in the title sequence for Jordan Peele’s landmark horror film Get Out. The film, about a black man who must literally stay awake and alert to horrible racism in white suburbia, essentially reframes Glover’s song to map fully onto the phrase’s political definition.

So while the word woke has origins in a myriad of cultural mediums that stretches back more than 80 years. It has transformed and evolved, but it’s genuinely about being aware of social injustices and combatting dogma. But recently it has evolved into something worse.

Does being woke sell?

While, in theory, being woke seems to come from people with good intentions, but there’s no way to prove one’s “wokeness”, so, to a lot of people, it comes across as posturing and performative, rather than a genuine interest in making a real difference. So when Pepsi released a short-lived protest advert featuring Kendall Jenner, when Nike ran their social injustice campaign and when Gillette released an advert about toxic masculinity, they were not well received.

And this is where a big problem with being woke arises. It can be disingenuous. People will commodify a social injustice, claim to stand for something and profit off of it. And there are plenty of dishonest actors in this world and there’s no means through which we can test whether someone has the right intentions.

And this gives the right an opportunity to turn the word woke from being something that’s good and turn it into something else that better fits their narrative. That being woke is about being intolerant, it’s about shutting down people with different views and infantilising the left by painting a caricature of spoiled millennials with purple hair. It’s an easy way to reduce legitimate political arguments to something trivial. Somehow, it is used as a pejorative, rather than as something to be celebrated. But the intentions behind appropriating the word “woke”, making it a dirty label (even though the left has all but abandoned the term, unless they use it ironically) are clear. It’s becoming a rallying cry for the right wing and gives them the opportunity to express prejudiced opinions by dismissing any objections to them as woke nonsense. But, as I said earlier… this is a political strategy that’s already 30 years old.

Political Correctness

In 1990, the mainstream media first introduced us to the concept of political correctness when a wave of stories spread through various publications like wildfire, such as New York Times reporter Richard Bernstein’s article published in October, “The Rising Hegemony of the Politically Correct”. However, the term “politically correct” has actually been around since the 1930s, where the term was used mockingly in American communist publications. Later, in the 1960s and 70s, came into more widespread use in American leftist circles (probably an ironic bowing to Mao). It was a phrased used exclusively by the left to mock people about reading too deeply into things, being over-intellectual and when you thought someone was being self-righteous, calling attention to possible dogmatism.

At the same time, conservatives in the United States were actively waging a campaign against liberal academics.

Starting in the mid-1970s, a handful of conservative donors had funded the creation of dozens of new think tanks and “training institutes” offering programmes in everything from “leadership” to broadcast journalism to direct-mail fundraising,” writes The Guardian‘s Moira Weigel. “They had endowed fellowships for conservative graduate students, postdoctoral positions and professorships at prestigious universities. Their stated goal was to challenge what they saw as the dominance of liberalism and attack left-leaning tendencies within the academy.”

Several books speaking out against the so-called liberal bias in academia were published over the course of the next few decades, including Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind”, Roger Kimball’s “Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted our Higher Education” and Dinesh D’Souza’s “Illiberal Education: the Politics of Race and Sex on Campus”. It all formed part of a co-ordinated strategy to delegitimise leftist ideologies by framing them as hyper-sensitive and intolerant while creating false equivalencies between political correctness and the “thought police” or restrictions on free speech. One such effort led to an article with an account of a Harvard history professor, Stephan Thernstrom, being attacked by overzealous students who felt he had been racially insensitive.

“Whenever he walked through the campus that spring, down Harvard’s brick paths, under the arched gates, past the fluttering elms, he found it hard not to imagine the pointing fingers, the whispers. Racist. There goes the racist. It was hellish, this persecution,” was how New York Magazine described Thernstrom’s experience.

Later, Thernstrom would tell The Nation that the harassment described in the New York article had never happened. There had been one editorial in the Harvard Crimson student newspaper criticising his decision to read extensively from the diaries of plantation owners in his lectures. But the description of his harried state was pure “artistic licence”.

This blueprint was used to inspire similar articles everywhere, painting the left’s use of political correctness as a force that aims to seize control of American universities and cultural institutions, rather than as a tool to battle dogmatism. The misleading aspects of these right wing criticisms, the deliberate obfuscation and reporting on events without the proper context, led to a growing sentiment among Americans that liberals were trying to police language and that meaningful political conversations with them are a rarity. And, at the same time, it validated their own prejudiced beliefs and, in fact, emboldened them to continue holding their dogmatic views.

This festered for a while until the election of Barack Obama as the first black president in the country’s history, at a time of financial crisis, where people’s livelihoods were under threat, where it would be easy to convince impressionable people into believing that their declining social status was a consequence not of the enormous levels of inequality and late-stage capitalism in the United States, but that it had a far simpler education… leftists controlled academia, the media and political institutions… and it’s all their fault. Political correctness, and the way it serves as a barrier to decisive action , the way it shuts down the free exchange of ideas, is the real problem. Nobody could just “tell it like it is”. The system is rigged against the majority white population. This sentiment festered for a while, and started to boil over at the end of the Obama presidency, in the wake of the Ferguson riots, the #MeToo movement, Occupy Wall Street and a brand new era of political activism that made many rich and powerful people uncomfortable. Then Donald Trump entered the political scene and the rest is history…

Final thoughts

The word woke, or the idea of being woke or staying woke, is far more than the commodified, pejorative buzzword that we see all over the media. When used as an insult, it is used without a genuine understanding of the word. Or, as was the case with American conservatives over the last 30 years with political correctness, demonising being woke is appropriating a good idea and turning it into something worse for political capital.

Helen Zille and the DA are having an identity crisis and have been struggling with their reputation as the “white party” in a majority black country for decades. And their leader, John Steenhuisen, has made clear that political correctness or “wokeness” is what he truly believes is the biggest issue facing our country.

“I, sincerely, hope that what the party will do is to turn back on the slavish race-based obsession of the last few years because it has led the party into a situation where we actually lost votes, across all communities, white and black turned away from the DA.”

John Steenhuisen, DA Leader

Zille’s book was an intellectually lazy attempt at galvanising what remains of their massive share of white voters that they are losing and who’ve abandoned them in favour of other “white parties” and organisations like the VF+. She’s trying to create a Trump-esque appeal for an ever-shrinking population group, rather than just “being woke” and coming up with policy solutions for South Africa’s actual problems. Perhaps if the DA stopped occupying themselves with pink-haired university students and put some more effort into soltions or employing rhetoric that’s appealing to the majority of the country, they’d win a fucking election!

References

Bernstein, R. 1990. The Rising Hegemony of the Politically Correct [Online]. New York Times. AVailable at: <https://www.nytimes.com/1990/10/28/weekinreview/ideas-trends-the-rising-hegemony-of-the-politically-correct.html?pagewanted=all> [Accessed 25 May 2021].

Butterworth, B., 2021. What does ‘woke’ actually mean, and why are some people so angry about it?. [online] iNews. Available at: <https://inews.co.uk/news/uk/woke-what-mean-meaning-origins-term-definition-culture-387962/amp> [Accessed 25 May 2021].

Kelly, W., 1962. If You’re Woke You Dig It; No mickey mouse can be expected to follow today’s Negro idiom without a hip assist. If You’re Woke You Dig It. [online] Timesmachine.nytimes.com. Available at: <https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1962/05/20/140720532.html?pageNumber=332> [Accessed 25 May 2021].

Mhlathi, Y., 2021. Steenhuisen to contest position of interim party leader – SABC News – Breaking news, special reports, world, business, sport coverage of all South African current events. Africa’s news leader.. [online] SABC News – Breaking news, special reports, world, business, sport coverage of all South African current events. Africa’s news leader. Available at: <https://www.sabcnews.com/sabcnews/steenhuisen-to-contest-position-of-interim-party-leader/> [Accessed 25 May 2021].

Mirzaei, A., 2021. Where ‘woke’ came from and why marketers should think twice before jumping on the social activism bandwagon. [online] The Conversation. Available at: <https://theconversation.com/where-woke-came-from-and-why-marketers-should-think-twice-before-jumping-on-the-social-activism-bandwagon-122713> [Accessed 25 May 2021].

Ng, K., 2021. What is the history of the word ‘woke’?. [online] The Independent. Available at: <https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/woke-meaning-word-history-b1790787.html> [Accessed 25 May 2021].

Romano, A., 2020. How being “woke” lost its meaning. [online] Vox. Available at: <https://www.vox.com/culture/21437879/stay-woke-wokeness-history-origin-evolution-controversy> [Accessed 25 May 2021].

Redding, JS. 1891. The Negro Problem, German Reichstag, Criminals. Negro Digest, [online] Available at: <https://www.google.com.au/books/edition/Negro_Digest/3RotAQAAMAAJ?hl=en> [Accessed 25 May 2021].

Rose, S. 2020. How the word ‘woke’ was weaponised by the right. [online] Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/society/shortcuts/2020/jan/21/how-the-word-woke-was-weaponised-by-the-right> [Accessed 25 May 2021].

van der Westhuizen, C., 2021. South Africa’s liberals are failing to wrap their heads around race. [online] The Conversation. Available at: <https://theconversation.com/south-africas-liberals-are-failing-to-wrap-their-heads-around-race-127029> [Accessed 25 May 2021].

Watson, E., 2017. The Origin Of Woke: William Melvin Kelley Is The ‘Woke’ Godfather We Never Acknowledged. [online] Okayplayer. Available at: <https://www.okayplayer.com/culture/woke-history-origins.html> [Accessed 25 May 2021].

Watson, E., 2018. The Origin Of Woke: How Erykah Badu And Georgia Anne Muldrow Sparked The “Stay Woke” Era. [online] Okayplayer. Available at: <https://www.okayplayer.com/originals/stay-woke-history-georgia-anne-muldrow-erykah-badu-master-teacher.html> [Accessed 25 May 2021].

Weigel, M., 2016. Political correctness: how the right invented a phantom enemy | Moira Weigel. [online] the Guardian. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/nov/30/political-correctness-how-the-right-invented-phantom-enemy-donald-trump> [Accessed 25 May 2021].

Yuhas, A., 2021. Trump: ‘It’s possible, absolutely’ Muslim judges are also biased against me. [online] the Guardian. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/jun/05/donald-trump-muslim-judges-face-the-nation> [Accessed 25 May 2021].

Zille, H., 2021. #StayWoke: Go Broke: Why South Africa won’t survive America’s culture wars (and what you can do about it). Obsidian Worlds Publishing.

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