Are you woke? That’s the question a friend of mine asked me last week after reading a few of my recent columns. The friend assumed I would answer “yes,” but I hesitated. What exactly does woke mean? If you think of yourself as an objective person, do you want to be woke? And who decides what types of beliefs constitute “wokeness?” Does wokeness refer to a defined set of left-leaning political beliefs, or beliefs that continue to evolve?
I don’t know the answers to these questions, and I’m not sure anyone else does either. Realizing that, I asked my friend what he meant by the term. I told him I’d answer his question after he told me what he understood “wokeness” to mean. That question prompted my friend to change the subject.
Since that exchange I have thought a bit about wokeness. I see it as a positive thing in that it suggests an awareness of the need to reassess social and racial justice. But I also see it as implying support for a number of social policy proposals that I do not know enough about to support. Slavery reparations is an example. I understand the concept but am not sure about the cost, how to determine who would receive reparations, and whether it is fair to other groups of Americans who also suffered from injustice during our history.
While I am uneasy with the term “wokeness,” I am not ready to walk away from it. For that you can credit Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Donald Trump, and dozens of other Republicans who regularly condemn wokeness and sponsor legislation in a scary attempt to ban it. Fahrenheit 451 comes to mind, or the nazis burning books.
Because nobody seems to know exactly what wokeness is and is not, efforts by politicians to regulate what is and is not taught in schools, what care doctors can and cannot provide, what corporations can and cannot endorse must be opposed. The legislative proposals of Florida Governor DeSantis and others are blatantly political. They have little to do with “protecting” children or America. Instead, they are an attempt to put a blanket label on diverse groups of people who oppose the MAGA agenda.
The problem with Republicans hijacking a term originally used by Black Lives Matter to encourage others to rethink American history and accept the reality that much of that history was racist and cruel is that Republicans use it to oppose the LGBQT+ community, environmentalists, advocates of ESG investing (considering environmental, social and governance issues in making investments), and a host of other groups and issues.
So, how do I answer the question when someone asks me whether I’m woke? I equivocate. “Sort of,” I answer. If pressed (and only if pressed), I will admit welcoming a reexamination of America’s history, which is necessary to make real progress on race issues. I also am woke on environmental issues. If America doesn’t acknowledge the reality of climate change and do something about it, the Easton Shore will be history in less than a century.
My list could go on, but the problem is that if I admit I’m woke, most people I know will assume I have embraced a number of policies on which I remain neutral or opposed. An example is the idea of “sanctuary cities.” I support a sane, welcoming immigration policy. I do not support cities defying federal law.
I have concluded that, like the idea of “making America great again,” the term “woke” has been poisoned. Rather than serving as a valuable tool to get people thinking, it has become a political cudgel wielded by the likes of Marjorie Taylor Greene, Trump, Boebert, DeSantis, and others. At last week’s CPAC convention, presidential candidate Nikki Haley described wokeness as “a virus more dangerous than any pandemic.” What?
Perhaps in a misguided attempt to out-trump Haley, Republican Senator John Kennedy (R-LA), a man with a way with words, told the group that America cannot be governed by “deeply weird, nauseously woke people who hate George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Dr. Seuss, and Mr. Potato Head.” Saturday Night Live needs to hire Senator Kennedy, don’t you think?
I want to deny the right-wing access to the term “woke.” One way to get there is not to try to “fix” the concept of wokeness or to argue with the right over what it means (who wins arguments with the far-right these days?), and let the term die. Simply put, if you want to argue wokeness with me, I’m going to walk away. There are better ways to support equitable, progressive policies or to call out racism, homophobia, environmental recklessness, greed, and Trumpism.
J.E. Dean is a retired attorney and public affairs consultant writing on politics, government, and other subjects.