I have a deeply uncomfortable relationship with the term woke. Being labelled as that woke friend on numerous occasions, I’ve come to see it as a means of distancing oneself from the politics associated with it. I held the initial belief that this knee-jerk reaction was the result of a general passivity towards important issues. I later came to realise that it wasn’t that my friends did not care (at least not all of them), their rush to distinguish themselves from the term revealed the anxiety and fear associated with “speaking out” that prevented them from joining the conversation. It seemed like the ‘woke crowd’, that I was an unwitting member of, was part of the problem.
As recent local controversies and thought pieces have revealed, to be woke, as it seems, is to be defensive, divisive, and uncompromising on “politically correct” (arguably leftist) thought. It is not uncommon to hear sentiments which equate being woke to a witch hunt of sorts by detestable ‘social justice warriors’. So how did a term that was used to empower justice movements and activism morph into this frankensteinian version we have here today?
But first, a brief history
I remember obsessively bobbing to the chorus of Childish Gambino’s 2016 hit, Red Bone where he sings in a shrill, cautious voice: Stay woke, N***as creeping, They gon’ find you, Gon’ catch you sleeping…
The track was released amidst the atmosphere of the Black Lives Matter movement in America that was trending on social media following the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The #BlackLivesMatter movement sparked important protests and conversations about the deeply embedded institutional discrimination that the Black community continues to face. The history of “woke”, however, far precedes its popularity.
The term originated as early as 1923 in a collection of writings by Jamaican philosopher and social activist Marcus Garvey, his words “Wake up Ethiopia! Wake up Africa!” are notable; later it was famously used again in Martin Luther King Jr’s 1965 commencement address titled: Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution. In the address, he proclaimed that “[T]here is nothing more tragic than to sleep through a revolution…”. Stay woke is thus historically, culturally, and politically significant to the survival of Black communities –– it is a warning and a call to mobilise the Black community against systemic injustice.
An article by Vox describes how today, the term has been appropriated by white culture as a representation of the ‘progressive mindset’ that is often aggressive and performative –– a form of satire and insult weaponised by conservatives (and even progressives themselves) against “progressives”. Woke culture is also used for profit and influence by commercial and political entities that claim “progressive” stances –– see Kendell Jenner’s Pepsi advertisement and faux sustainability campaigns.
On the other hand, wokeness is not entirely negative; true to its historical spirit, it has also inspired and introduced people to new ideologies and value systems that center on building solidarities through empathy and collectively demanding justice. Hence, the prevalence of its cousin, cancel culture –– another term that traces back to Black culture and politics –– that has significantly curbed the activities of discriminatory, predatory and exploitative content, entities or individuals. However, the loaded notion of “political correctness” tied to being woke, continues to diminish the efforts of those who are actually doing the real work of dismantling systems of oppression.
Singapore’s “Wokeism” and the nature of social media
In an article titled “This is why I don’t want to be woke. Don’t cancel me for it,” Dana Teoh remarks that it is ridiculous that we can no longer have discussions; instead, the response is immediate aggression, punishing people into hiding for expressing their ‘personal opinion’.
Teoh’s argument against being woke is flawed because like many, her empathy lay with those in power who are now being shut down for emboldening dehumanising attitudes towards vulnerable and already marginalised communities. However, her account is also insightful, because it reveals anxieties about joining online conversations and educating herself in the process of it because she is afraid that her words might be misconstrued as discriminatory and get her cancelled.
This rush to cancel people is not innocent of the nature of social media. While the latter has been a treasure trove of knowledge, it has also encouraged a dichotomous environment that fuels the superficiality of ‘wokeism’ and limits the potential for conversation and education. In fact, division and polarity is a fundamental profit-making mechanism for social media companies. According to a research paper:
“Social media technology employs popularity-based algorithms that tailor content to maximize user engagement […] Maximizing engagement increases polarization, especially within networks of like-minded users. […] the amount of time users spend on a platform liking, sharing, and retweeting is also the amount of time they spend looking at the paid advertising that makes the major platforms so lucrative.”
By displaying content that appeals to the respective socio-political sensibilities, platforms are able to target users with profit-driven advertisements. Not only is woke culture appropriated for international consumption, it parades the notion of “resistance” as a performance of moral superiority and strips activism into a mere aesthetic (or ‘slacktivism’) rather than tangible action.
Redefining “resistance” on social media
In her book, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”, civil rights activist Audre Lorde states that “In our world, divide and conquer must become define and empower.” She asserts that our fight is not with each other, but with the system that perpetuates inequalities –– to confront such a system is to recognise difference as a strength. We need to move towards online activism that encourages conversation with people who hold different views, recognises diverse backgrounds and circumstances, and discourages an “us versus them” mentality.
To resist is thus to distance ourselves from contemporary performative notions of being woke. It is doing the work of understanding the people we’re having these conversations with and building accessible resistive spaces that inspire solidarities instead of division.
Examples of such spaces include Mutual Aid initiatives in Singapore. It is a decentralised movement based on empathy and humanity that empowers individuals, regardless of their background, to help someone in need through fundraising initiatives. Notable accounts include @migrantmutualaid and @eastsidemutualaid on Instagram. Furthermore, efforts to build safe spaces for those in minority communities to speak about their experiences of discrimination removes them from obscurity and become powerful tools that empower collective action for change. Accounts that have inspired strong minority solidarities include @minorityvoices, @sgbrownqueers and @theyoutharerising –– the list is non-exhaustive.
Finally, the impulse to immediately share “controversial” Instagram posts in order to establish our allegiance limits the space to process and form informed thoughts that bring nuance to binary understandings of socio-political issues. I am starting to understand that sometimes sharing posts ad-nauseam excuses us from doing the real work of learning, having conversations and participating in collective action.
Next time someone calls you woke, maybe it’d help to respond by asking them what they mean when they use the term. I’m slowly unlearning my tendency to ball up my fists when someone expresses an alternative view. Instead, if they’re open to a discussion, I’d like to understand why they hold such views –– you’ll be surprised where this takes you.