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This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at U Toronto chapter.

In the past few years, many of what I like to call “buzzwords” have emerged, making Urban Dictionary a favorited page for us all. Unless you’ve taken a 3-4-year hiatus from social media (which I applaud you for if you have) you’ve likely seen the term “woke” thrown around.. Woke is defined by Urban Dictionary as being alert to social injustice- especially racism. The term heavily emerged after the shooting of an unarmed African American male named Trayvon Martin, after his black hoodie and exit from a local convenient store alerted suspicion from neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman. To bring attention to this injustice and others like it, many members of the black community tweeted their experiences of racial discrimination and harassment under the hashtag #StayWoke.

The hashtag #StayWoke served as a meaningful way of creating awareness, dialogue, and social media activism for young blacks and other people of color. However, since then the hashtag has been used by many non-POCs as a joke, taking away opportunities to highlight actual injustices.

Along with being used as a joke, the idea of staying woke has many other problematic instances attached to it. For one, there is no way to measure how “woke” someone is. Often times, many people will tweet or post about social issues without taking any real action outside of this. Although social media activism is great for creating conversation and awareness, changing social injustices involves both online and offline action. As a POC myself, I have had some of the most racially bothersome experiences with the “wokest” of people- those who tweet constantly about social issues like racial discrimination, while singling out POCs in their own lives and asserting racially charged stereotypes on them.

Another problem with wokeness is that there is no measure of being “too woke” vs “not woke enough”. For example, does constantly tweeting/posting about injustices make you more woke? It depends, bringing attention to social issues to make yourself look more in touch and politically correct undermines the original idea of staying woke- as the goal isn’t to highlight injustice, but rather highlight yourself. The problem with this type of wokeness is that it doesn’t inspire action, it inspires self-righteousness. Rather than highlighting examples of injustice in society and everyday life, wokeness with selfish intentions causes onlookers to praise how aware and ‘smart” you are rather than generating a call to action.

So how do you stay in touch with social issues without being stereotypically woke?

  1. Include the members of the group who are affected by a social issue you’re speaking on. Don’t speak on behalf of POCs, LGBTQ members, religious group members etc. , but rather, listen to their perspectives and how they feel the social issue should be addressed.
  2. Practice what you preach. Growing up I was always told the phrase “charity begins at home”- meaning start with being nice to those in your home and community before going out into the world to make a change. Treat the people in your life who you are advocating for with respect and dignity. Be inclusive of POCs, LGBTQ members, religious group members etc, be respectful of their opinions on social issues and personal stories of marginalization. Being frank, some of the worst instances of cyberbullying and twitter fights towards members of marginalized groups come from the wokest people. 
  3. Most importantly; take action against social injustices you care about. Fundraise and/or volunteer for an organization that fights for social causes you care about. Take action alongside making tweets. 

Lastly, the biggest take away I’d like to give on wokeness is to stay away from assumptions. Often in social justice advocacy broad sweeping generalizations are made about the experiences of marginalized groups. These generalizations don’t take into account individual experience and intersectional identities. Don’t assume every black person you meet grew up poor and faces daily racism, or that every woman working in a male-dominated workplaces faces daily sexism. As someone advocating for people’s rights, it’s your job to learn their story rather than make assumptions and imply hurtful stereotypes. Instead of making assumptions, get to know the unique stories of individuals rather than silencing their voices.

(Hons) BA Candidate at the University of Toronto. Olivia is a well-versed content writer having written and edited for Her Campus U Toronto for three years and now serves as the Managing Editor. Olivia is currently working as the Content Manager for Enso Connect and as a social science research contributor at U of T. In her spare time, Olivia competes and trains for long-distance road races with local run clubs in Toronto.