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Why I Am “Woke”

Here’s a confession: I am a “woke” American.

Now that I think about it, it’s more than a confession, it is a declaration.  

Listening to the way MAGA Republicans use the word “woke,” you would think I hate America and want to replace white Americans with minorities and people who were once known as perverts.

Yet, ask them what being “woke” actually means and they won’t have a clue. They just know they’re against it.

In truth, being “woke” is a concept that arose in the 1940s in the struggle for racial justice. At the time it described the process of people literally waking up to the failure of America to live up to its own ideals of freedom and justice for all.

“When people talk about being woke or becoming woke,” says Candis Watts Smith, a political science and African American studies professor at Penn State University, “they’re talking about being well-informed and well aware of systemic oppression and injustice.” (NBC News)

“The 1619 Project” is an example of what Professor Smith is describing.

Launched in August of 2019 by Nikole Hannah-Jones, Caitlin Roper, Ilena Silverman, and Jake Silverstein in a special issue of The New York Times Magazine, the Project describes its purpose as illuminating the legacy of slavery in the contemporary United States and highlighting the contributions of Black Americans to every aspect of American society.

That is what “woke” is all about, learning the whole story of American history and how racism in subtle but real ways still exists. It also extends to rethinking the ways misunderstanding and prejudice have led to discrimination against GLBTQ Americans.

I cannot help but wonder why anyone finds that objectionable, but Republicans do. In fact, at the state level they are passing laws to censor teaching history honestly, supporting the banning of books, insisting that local school boards not only tell teachers what to teach, but how to teach it, and censoring anyone from using words such as gay or lesbian or transgender.

Unfortunately, there are no voices among conservative politicians or journalists that are trying to educate Republicans on what “woke” actually means. Just the opposite is happening, in fact, as a recent NY Times op-ed (March 18) by Ross Douthat illustrates.

Douthat writes that “woke” liberals are not only obsessed with winning legal rights or redistributing wealth. They are promoting the false narrative that racist, homophobic, and sexist norms of the past have lodged themselves deep in the psyche of whites to such an extent that we are oblivious to the ways these norms still influence our attitudes and actions.

In addition, he says, “woke” thinking attributes inequalities today to social and cultural inequalities of the past as if built-in differences such as those of male and female bodies or distinctions in gender don’t matter.

That is not at all what “woke” thinking is, but that didn’t stop Douthat from boldly giving his opinion piece the title, “What It Means To Be ‘Woke’.”  

Instead of explaining what “woke” is, however, by his failure to describe “woke” fairly or accurately, Douthat becomes yet another conservative voice that is feeding the irrational fear that lies beneath Republican “anti-wokeness,” as if the impact of irrational fear is not pernicious enough in the role it plays in exacerbating divisions in our nation.

What is just as stunning is the fact that, like many others, Douthat seems to think the real problem is that “woke” is so extreme that is prevents liberals from understanding why “woke-ism” scares Republicans so much.  

I have tired of this mantra to the point where it makes me want to scream. It is, I suggest, patently absurd to think that listening to why Republican legislators are passing laws aimed at reducing voting in black communities and laws that openly discriminate against kids because of their sexual orientation and gender identity is going to lead them to stop doing it.

I want to remind Douthat and people like him that segregation in the South didn’t end because white supremacists felt better understood by integrationists. It ended when white supremacists no longer held enough political power to maintain the status quo.

The truth of the matter is that “anti-wokeness” is itself a political invention designed to play on people’s fears in order to justify the resistance of white, straight Americans to social and cultural changes they know they cannot stop.  

In contrast to this invented “anti-wokeness,” being “woke” is simply an adjective that describes a growing awareness of the long history in America of discriminating against all minorities and the hope that such knowledge will inspire us to identify the ways it is still happening.

That is all “woke” means, and it’s why I want to be identified among those who are.

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