Waking Up With Woke: A Critical Race Theory

By Shivaji Sengupta

Even though you go through
Struggle and strife,
To keep a healthy life.
I stay woke…

Erika Badu. “Master Teacher.”

Are you a woke? No, this is not a typo, or worse still, poor grammar! “Woke” is a modern meme (a meme is a quotable word or a phrase that has become popular). It is a term that refers to awareness of the issues concerning social and racial justice. It is sometimes used in the African American vernacular expression, 𝑠𝑡𝑎𝑦 𝑤𝑜𝑘𝑒. Woke resurfaced in 2014 since, during the Black Lives Matter movement as a label for vigilance and activism concerning racial inequalities and other social disparities such as discrimination against LGBTQ+ community, women, immigrants and other marginalized .
Since the term started off by being a slang, it’s hard to pinpoint the first use of the term other than it was in the vocabulary of African Americans. In the popular vernacular of American English, speakers did not distinguish between “wake” and its participle, “waken.” African Americans were no exception. “Being woke” (instead of being awakened) was originally associated with Black Americans fighting racism, but has been appropriated by other activist groups – taking it from awareness and blackness to a colorless and timeless phenomenon. It is possible that the repeated refrain “I stay woke” in Eryka Badu’s song, 𝑀𝑎𝑠𝑡𝑒𝑟 𝑇𝑒𝑎𝑐𝒉𝑒𝑟 in 2008 caught on, and woke became a meme. Stay woke became a watch word in parts of the Black community for those who were self-aware, questioning the dominant paradigm and striving for something better. But stay woke and woke became part of a wider discussion in 2014, immediately following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The word woke became entwined with the Black Lives Matter movement; instead of just being a word that signaled awareness of injustice or racial tension, it became a word of action. Activists were woke and called on others to stay woke.
Like many other terms from black culture that have been taken into the mainstream, woke is gaining broader uses. It’s now seeing use as an adjective to refer to places where “woke people” commune: woke Twitter has very recently taken off as the shorthand for describing social-media activists. The broader uses of woke are still very much in flux, and there are some who have awakened to the broader implications of woke.
As long as the implications stay humanistic and sincerely embrace cultural diversity, woke is good. But along with the good – and especially since last year with Black Lives Matter exploding into a world-wide movement – many people have felt themselves to be on the wrong side of woke. By “wrong side” I mean becoming objects of criticism by the intellectual elite, and/or by the younger generation, both of which look upon disagreements with their points of view as “non-woke,” or “not woke enough.” If I ask a person of color what it is to be a person of color in a White society, I am supposed to be practising “microdiscrimination,” by putting the person under spotlight. I should not do that even if my intention is to make White people aware of the discomfort experienced by the person of color. This can, as columnist David Brooks says, become “soft totalitarianism” across wide swaths of American society. Brooks goes on to write: “It divides the world into good and evil based on crude racial categories. It has no faith in persuasion, or open discourse, but it shames and cancels anybody who challenges the official catechism.” At its best, wokeness manifests honest, good faith effort to grapple with the legacies of racism. In 2021, this element of wokeness has produced more understanding, inclusion and racial progress than we’ve seen in over 50 years.
But intellectual wokeism is another matter. It fosters meritocracy. As identity politics, woke works; as meritocracy it doesn’t. Let me explain what I understand by these terms.
In America, identity politics and meritocracy run parallel. The former attempts to make us conscious, not only of our identities, but also how identity affects our relations with others, particularly when it comes to race. Meritocracy rewards the most talented, the knowledgeable and the most successful without regard to family connections or wealth. Although meritocracy is seen world-wide, in the United States it has become a tradition. Or so Americans say. The question is which Americans. Blacks and other people of color often challenge meritocracy as privileging the Whites. Women talk about the “glass ceiling.” The sky may be the limit for meritocracy, but for women there is the obstruction of the glass ceiling. Identity politics and “being woke,” helps somewhat to mitigate meritocracy.
Also, as David Brooks points out, there is another kind of dishonesty among people who practise what he calls fashionable wokeism. These people are privileged, usually White liberals, who have had elite education in fancy prep school and ivy league colleges. They are extremely successful (and well-to-do) as professionals, and mouth the woke culture, support Black Lives Matter. So far so good. But they also criticize and ostracize other people who are more critical of some of the popular racial movements, look down on Conservatives and, in general, participate in dividing the people into “us versus them.” In their discourses they use words like “problematize,” “heteronormativity,” “cisgender,” “intersectionality” — ” demonstrating, in the words of David Brooks, one’s enlightenment by using language.”
One needs a high level of self awareness and the capacity to self-reflect to practice Wokeism. Otherwise, we may fall into the negative aspects of woke as David Brooks describes. For Indians in the United States, many of whom (but not all) have come from privileged castes and societies, wokeism is a tricky concept. We understand it intellectually, support it politically, but do not identify with it because back home we did not have to face discrimination. Here, in this country, we succeeded more than any other ethnic groups (except perhaps the Chinese) through sheer meritocracy. I, too, have an elite academic background, but I also worked for forty-three straight years for a minority Latino college where 93% of the students were minorities, over 50% living below the poverty line. It has been my only full time job. There, I learned, first hand, what it is to be poor and underprivileged, not only economically and socially but psychologically. Discrimination against us by those outside the College is something we came to expect as a way of life, something we had to constantly fight against, not with counter discrimination but with education and awareness. In his book, My Grandmother’s Hands by Resmaa Menakem, a Black Writer, says that experiencing racial discrimination is a first and foremost a physical experience. We live in our bodies, says Menakem. Our brain reacts to racial perceptions through a different part from the cognitive, inducing us to fight or flee from racial discriminations. The consequence of such experiences is trauma. Menakem says, “Trauma is the body’s protective response to an event.” Therefore rather than intellectualize discrimination we must learn to become physically aware of our bodies, in the proprioceptions through which we experience racism. And learn to speak about it, authentically with sincerity. Thus, wokeism is not intellectual, but affective. It has to do with values, not worth; with the heart, not the head.
Recently, in a little village called Sag Harbor in Suffolk County, Long Island, New York, I participated in a series of exercises and discussions recommended by Menakem in the aforementioned book. It was organized by Canio’s Cultural Cafe and as members we spoke about how we experienced our lives in America. There were Whites and Blacks in the group. The discussions were amazingly frank and authentic, body-oriented as Menakem advises us, and I think, regarding our experiences in this country, we learned how to distinguish a physical-emotional response from an intellectual one.
It is a start toward good woke.

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