Over the past few months, I’ve been on assignment covering mass gatherings around the world pushing for political or social change. For all the attention on the global protests, there is a movement at home that has caught my attention.
In the past eight years, a movement of socioeconomically and ethnically minded individuals has emerged, focusing on issues of broader social justice. I call this coalition the “woke wagon,” and it’s gained particular momentum since the 2016 election.
In modern vernacular, “woke” refers to those cognizant of the pervasive injustices in society, particularly in matters of race and gender. The woke wagon is the growing tribe who claims to be alert to these issues.
I noticed the woke wagon in full effect when I judged debate tournaments over the past few years. At these tournaments, white liberal tournament directors remind all judges to be woke, think woke, judge woke, and stay on the woke wagon. Every participant, argument, presentation style, and topic had to be judged through a ‘woke’ lens — even the issue of bird migration in the winter. Instead of making sharp, crystal clear arguments to counter their opponents, young debaters resorted to ‘out-woking’ each other.
In my high school debate days 15 years ago, certain schools argued that “white people were the most oppressed group.” I was even told to go “back to where I came from” by a few coaches and judges. Thus, the heightened awareness of society’s misgivings on race would seem like welcome news. But I have a number of deep reservations about the roots and routes of the woke wagon.
First, wokism has become a social currency rather than an attempt to thwart inequity. Turbocharged by social media, proclaiming oneself racially conscious, to gain notoriety, has paid more dividends than actually working to dismantle equality hurdles. Posting an “epic takedown” of a racist gains more progressive traction than protesting, working through the courts, ballot box, local legislature or rebutting those in sharp disagreement with you.
Second, jumping on the woke wagon allows one to bypass spending genuine thought on the issue of race. Emotional outrage is viewed as championing equality. Citing passages from iconic African-American authors can be seen as a replacement for actually reading the works of Baldwin, Morrison, West, and Coates. Joining the online chorus of disowning abhorrent rhetoric can be viewed as a comprehensive understanding of the potential harm of one’s ignorance.
By getting on the woke wagon, white people can own up to the advantages they’ve had in their upbringing. Confession of one’s own privilege can be seen as a significant step. This makes it easier to feel one has made strides on this matter.
But acknowledgement isn’t action. Being truly in-tune with racial justice requires sitting with the issue. It means actually having some skin in the game even if it’s incremental and arduous. It requires having a true understanding of how some walk through doors in life while others have to pry them open – and still may not succeed. And at times it might mean sacrificing one’s power and access in order to benefit someone else.
Third, wokism conflates a moral reckoning with a political movement. Revolutions undertaken in politics are rooted in optimism, bolstered by consensus building and compromise. The woke caravan views race in maximalist ways with no room for social diplomacy.
As a result, the woke wagon has upended the conversation about race, power, and privilege with far-reaching consequences.
A deleterious effect of the religion of wokeness is that the might of the woke-men and woke-women often shut down conversation and debate. Many in this squad utilize knowledge as a means to pulverize their dissenters when education is a central bridge towards greater self-awareness and evolution.
Further, wokism has weaponized the political purity test. Lethalizing this tribalism has failed to spur moral urgency. Instead, an endless gutter game of moral absolutism has emerged where no one wins. Those in the woke caravan can feel ideologically superior about their views and feel mightier as they participate in bouts with the opposition. However, this method of confrontation fails to gain traction and buy-in to the cause.
Another gargantuan danger in extreme mass wokeness is that it stymies action rather than galvanizing it. As racially progressive forces make inroads in politics, culture, and our social institutions they succeed in shushing (mostly) politically aligned dissenters, but never advance the conversation about equity or heal the nation’s original wounds.
Can you name someone who changed their mind after being scolded into being woke? Alternatively, how many have become indifferent to society’s broader systemic flaws the woke crew, and so many in the larger progressive ecosystem, are passionate about?
What I also fear about the dogma of wokism is the annihilation of contextual critical thinking – the ability to hold, analyze, and dissect two antithetical truths simultaneously. Wokeness makes our nation’s people, motivations, and sins stagnant and binary when America’s history with race is multi-dimensional, complicated, and ever evolving. As journalist Sam Sanders explains, “A word (woke) meant to imply a constant state of striving, course-correcting, and growth has been heard now, for almost a decade, as a static and performative state of being.”
Absolute condemnation has its place. Organized actions need to quell the dark forces that plague us and efforts to pull the issues of racism, white supremacy, and privilege into the mainstream dialogue should be applauded. But the methods of those on the woke wagon are not the way to move through the world. This growing ideological brigade is a blunt tool that flattens the dynamism of a greater struggle. A belief that progress is zero-sum cheapens, rather than deepens, the dedication towards fighting injustice.