What is the matter with being “woke”?
This is not a rhetorical question. Being “woke” has become a negative catchword for some conservatives.
But there isn’t even a common understanding of exactly what “woke” means.
We’ll start with the dictionaries.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as “chiefly US slang. Being aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice).” Merriam-Webster goes on: “Stay woke became a watch word in parts of the Black community for those who were self-aware, questioning the dominant paradigm and striving for something better.”
In the Oxford English Dictionary, “woke” is defined as an “adjective: Originally: well-informed, up to date. Now chiefly: alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice; frequently in stay woke.”
Conservatives who use “woke” terminology as a rallying cry against liberals struggle to find a common definition. Indeed, conservative author Bethany Mandel, whose new book is centered around the term “woke,” struggled to define it during an interview.
One conservative definition is “a radical belief system suggesting that our institutions are built around discrimination and claiming that all disparity is a result of that discrimination. It seeks a radical redefinition of society focused on group equality.” As another conservative put it, I can’t define it, but I know what it is when I see it (channeling Supreme Court Justice Potter Steven’s definition of obscenity.)
Some politicians, such as Florida Governor DeSantis, use this to eliminate certain books from schools. DeSantis has implemented policies in schools to limit discussion and curriculum on race, systemic oppression, gender, and sexual orientation with the Parental Rights in Education Law. He argues his laws give parents more say in what their kids learn in schools. “What you see now with the rise of this woke ideology is an attempt to really delegitimize our history and to delegitimize our institutions, and I view the wokeness as a form of cultural Marxism,” DeSantis said in a December 2021 speech. “They really want to tear at the fabric of our society.” Point of fact, most totalitarian dictatorships begin with banning or burning books.
Across the country, hundreds of similar conservative-led legislative efforts to target “woke” LGBTQ+ identities and race.
The term “woke police” is used by critics to impugn those who fight for social justice issues. The term is used to claim that “woke” people are policing actions and words. (For example, the New York dog walker, Amy Cooper, was illegally walking her dog without a leash and was asked by a black male birdwatcher to leash her dog. Instead, she called the police and implied that an African American male was threatening her. She was fined and lost her job after his video of the incident went viral.)
Columnist Afua Hirsch said: “The truth is, there are no woke police. In reality, the only thing that unites the ‘woke’ is an intellectual curiosity about identity and how complex, how nuanced, how rooted in disparate histories it can be. The real irony is that “woke” critics claim to support free speech.”
But I believe that “woke” has really two separate components. The first and most important, is simply empathy. The willingness to walk in someone else’s moccasins.
As a white middle class woman, it is impossible for me to understand what it was like to grow up as a Black American. Yet, trying to, is what “woke” is.
I started becoming “woke” in the mid 90’s after attending a MLK (Martin Luther King) breakfast where a white Unitarian minister explained “white privilege.” One of his observations that surprised me the most was his understanding of how each races view the police. Whites believe that when we are stopped by the police for cause. On the other hand many African Americans believe it is because they are black.”
To test this assertion, I asked my black male colleagues if they had ever been stopped for DWB (driving while black). To my surprise, all of them had, most more than once. Typically, but not always, these happened in states south of the Mason-Dixon line. Never ticketed, they were stopped for changing lanes without using a turn signal, undefined reckless driving, and, most often having an out of state license. While, I believe this group of policemen represents a minority, it doesn’t change the African American’s perception. It made me aware how difficult it must be to go through life believing that those who are sworn to protect you, could do the opposite. Recently, of course, a number of videos have surfaced of indefensible police brutality that make us aware of the potential for violence against Black men and women.
Accordingly, it is also impossible for someone who was not a female pioneer in the workforce to understand the harassment we experienced. And for those of us who have been treated differently because of race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion, our perception of all events are colored by those experiences. Occasions when I didn’t get promotions or hired may have been due to discrimination or because I was not the best fit. But I could no longer separate the two.
And that is the nature of “woke,” to me. To try to understand why someone sees things differently. I will never understand what it is like to be a Jew (even though my husband was) or an African American male, or a new immigrant who doesn’t speak English, or a white man who lost his manufacturing job. But I can try. And that, to me, is simply what “woke” is. To recognize that each of our experiences is unique; and we cannot judge someone based on our personal experiences.
But there is another component to “woke,” and which is causing the “dog whistle.” And that is how we address this disparity. And done intelligently, without emotion, it is a valid debate.
While we can’t agree on this second component, I hope that we all work toward the first component, empathy, especially toward those who have substantially different experiences.
How can we do it? Simple. All of us share a sad, embarrassing, and deeply personal “middle school moment.” That moment when we didn’t fit in, were ridiculed, confused, and profoundly impacted. We can channel that “middle school moment” and recognize that most of us are doing the best that we can. We can accept it, without understanding it, and be “woke” to each groups’ struggles.
Being “woke” simply requires us to recognize that each of us has a unique set of experiences and genes that govern what we believe and how we behave. We can channel this recognition to empathy…and when it gets hard, we can go back to our “middle school moments” and give people space to view things differently.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.
Letters to Editor
Susan Owens says
THANK YOU! It’s been my thought for some time that “woke” is indeed a good thing! It’s being awake to prejudices in our society, everyone SHOULD be woke!
ANGELA RIECK says
Thank you for your kind comments…what would our world look like if everyone tried to be “woke?”
Michael Davis says
Gov. DeSantis said Florida is where woke goes to die. That is shorthand, or a dog whistle everyone can hear, for people DeSantis does not like: poor people, people of color LBGTQ people, free thinking progressives, trans people, any people who are oppressed… those people are not welcome in DeSantis’s Florida. They cannot expect civil rights in Florida. Many other Republicans use the word the same way. I think our Andy Harris also uses it that way. Back in the Jim Crow days, there were signs that read, “**** don’t let the sun set on you in this county.” A depressingly large group of Americans want to go back to the Jim Crow days.
ANGELA RIECK says
You are right, and it is scary. As a Florida resident, I was called yesterday by someone from the LGBTQ+ community who informed me that there are currently 19 laws in the Florida legislature that would restrict the rights of this community. Hard to believe, we have come so far…so here comes the blacklash.
Cameron Mactavish says
Very well stated. Thanks for the unemotional and well reasoned definition.
ANGELA RIECK says
Thank you for your kind comments. I had expected some angry responses, and to see the number of positives comments makes me hopeful.
Ann Davis says
That article is so very well stated with excellent examples that make it very clear what “woke”
means. I am in full agreement with you. As a Unitarian Universalist, I am pleased that a UU minister helped you to understand “woke.”
ANGELA RIECK says
That minister did indeed change my life. I still remember twenty years later his examples of white privilege. It clearly woke me up. But in my experience, UU’s have always been at the forefront of acceptance and compassion.
Vincent De Sanctis says
Rieck’s analysis is definitely a balanced presentation. In my use of the term I place a strong emphasis on one’s ability to understand issues and to recognize that others can have less or more understanding than I have about the same matters.
ANGELA RIECK says
Thank you for your supportive comments. The more people that approach your perspective, the better off we will all be.