When You Think You’re Woke... But Then You Come to Barnard

To be clear, I never called myself “woke” in high school. It’s a cliche similar to calling yourself cool — if you say you are, you’re probably not. But amidst a sea of other white, upper-middle class students at my private high school in North Carolina, I received a lot of credit for my “wokeness.” Like many other Barnard gals, I held a voter registration drive, planned a walkout to protest gun violence in schools, led a feminist club, and was close friends with most of the other “woke” kids at my school. Soon enough, people labeled me a SJW, or social justice warrior, because being woke became a part of my identity. And honestly, when social justice issues came up in class discussions, my ideas would often go unchallenged. Just caring about these issues made me the authority on many topics, and my “wokeness” was safe and secure. 

I’d gotten used to being on the top of this hierarchy of social activism... but that all changed when I arrived at Barnard three months ago. 

I mean, Barnard is basically a glorious four-year-long convention for SJWs unofficially sponsored by Lizzo’s Cuz I Love You album (there’s a 62% chance that “Truth Hurts” will be playing anytime you walk into Hewitt). But for real, it feels like every day there is a new flyer hanging by the Sulz elevators or a Facebook event posted raising awareness for a new relevant issue, from the climate strike to protests of the MTA’s unjust fare evasion policies to petitions against Rodney Reed’s set execution. Barnard’s stream of social consciousness keeps on flowin’. 

If I’m being honest, the “woke” Barnard environment had me feeling a bit of culture shock. I wasn’t used to being surrounded by so many people who were not only socially aware, but were also willing and determined to act on their convictions. Sometimes it feels like I’m not “woke” enough, like I don’t read enough or organize enough or protest enough. When talking to one of my friends about this, she said, “It feels like if you’re not actively organizing for the cause, then you’re against it.” That really resonated with me. As I stay here longer, though, I have begun to realize the following things: 

  1. Trying to be “woke” can just be a barrier to actually creating change.

  2. The sheer number of social justice issues you support doesn’t increase your social activism clout — sometimes investing your best efforts in one or two causes is more impactful in the long run.

  3. The guilt of “not doing enough” can be crippling, but learning and listening from others is more important than performative activism.

Barnard girls feel like they’re carrying the world, but we don’t have to carry it alone. We have each other to learn from and collaborate with. If we learn to prioritize unity over proving our “wokeness,” we can all create real change in our community.