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Embracing the Woke
What's so wrong with compassion, safety and racial justice?
Every time I hear the word “woke” used as a pejorative weapon, I wish it were just a joke. How is compassion, empathy and care for racial and social justice not something to embrace?
This week the Florida state legislature is expanding its attacks on “critical race theory,” gender studies, sexual identity, programs focused on diversity, equity and inclusion, as well as faculty who stray from the planned GOP restrictions. House Bill 999, for example, taking aim at higher education, seeks to outlaw spending on such programs and eliminate majors and minors focused on these issues. (The alternatives proposed: general ed courses that “promote the philosophical underpinnings of Western civilization.”)
In a country founded on free speech and freedom more broadly, this rights-shrinking mentality seems like gaslighting. Do these folks really want to turn the clock backwards? Do they really want to deny the truthful study of American history? Do they really think they make the world better by attacking vulnerable populations, stripping individual rights, rejecting academic freedom and passing laws meant to repress and oppress?
I wrote last August about some of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ ridiculous speechmaking on the topic of wokeness and his anti-woke agenda, as if he’s engaged in a Churchillian, WWII-level struggle against the forces of evil. “We must fight the woke in our schools. We must fight the woke in our businesses. We must fight the woke in government agencies. We can never ever surrender to woke ideology.” Seriously.
But even emulating the rhythms of Churchill’s famed “We shall fight on the beaches” speech from 1940 near the end of the Dunkirk evacuation won’t change the essential emptiness and nastiness of this culture war campaign.
While Donald Trump used uglier, more dehumanizing language—calling Mexicans rapists and criminals, calling other refugees vermin and rats, calling African nations “shithole countries,” calling leftist opponents thugs and scum—DeSantis is using “woke” as code for everything and everyone he despises without the more overt vulgarity. It’s an insidious effort—a blunt cudgel and a vessel for hate—that aims for nothing less than separating Floridians and Americans from their history, the truth and each other.
Employing “woke” as a target of hate is the inevitable outcome of a party and a leader convinced that cruelty, violence and white supremacy can form a winning strategy. They were and are determined to dehumanize and demonize their perceived enemies, demagogically exploiting and fueling the fear in some Americans that demographic shifts will replace the dwindling white majority and minimize their power to dominate and control.
As much as this is a current effort to degrade progressive thinking, it’s part of a centuries-old history to get and keep power, dating back not just to slavery but also to the colonizing, genocidal push to take and remake the New World. Note the language of Pope Alexander VI’s 1493 papal bull, the year after Christopher Columbus returned from the Americas. This “Doctrine of Discovery” claimed that lands not inhabited by Christians were available to be “discovered” and exploited by Christian rulers. The bull declared that "the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself."
It’s important to know the racial history of the notion to “stay woke.” It gained prominence in 2014 after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. It was an oft-used caution among Black Lives Matter activists, not just as a basic survival tactic but to specifically watch out for police brutality.
The origins of “woke” date back to at least 1938. That’s when in a spoken afterword of “Scottsboro Boys,” a protest song about nine Black teenagers who were accused of raping two white women in Alabama, blues musician Lead Belly said, “So I advise everybody, be a little careful when they go along through there—best stay woke, keep their eyes open.”
In a 2020 history of “wokeness,” Vox culture writer Aja Romano notes the 2008 update of the song “Master Teacher” by R&B artist Erikyah Badu. Among the lyrics:
Even if yo baby ain’t got no money
To support ya baby, I stay woke
Even when the preacher tell you some lies
And cheatin’ on ya mama, you stay woke
Even though you go through struggle and strife
To keep a healthy life, I stay woke...
In subsequent years, the notion of staying woke gained steam on social media. The hashstag “#StayWoke” was widely used during the 2014 Ferguson protests in Ferguson, Missouri, after the Michael Brown killing and later by Black Lives activists. Romano explained that the term “woke” became bipartisan, albeit from opposite ends of the spectrum: “It’s used as a shorthand for political progressiveness by the left, and as a denigration of leftist culture by the right.”
In the coming months, particularly if he declares for the presidency, we can expect DeSantis and other Republicans to use the phrase with increasing hostility. But even as it’s wise to track how it’s being used to drive their backward-looking policy agenda, don’t lose sight that it represents a sad rejection of a notion intended to encourage empathy, compassion and safety, particularly amid a world of violence and injustice.
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