Op-Ed: Performing wokeness

Wednesday, September 20, 2017 - 5:39pm

We hear it in our classrooms, friend groups and on social media: Stay woke. It’s a call to progressive action and beliefs. The term, which originates from African American Vernacular English, refers to the sociopolitical awareness to different contemporary and historical issues of social justice. The origin of the term can be traced back to the 2008 song “Master Teacher” by Erykah Badu. It proliferated through the Black Lives Matter movement, becoming part of protest dialogue, slang and art following the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012.

Amanda Hess’s piece on “Earning the ‘Woke Badge’” in The New York Times Magazine is an excellent text for learning the history of performing wokeness. While the term originally referred to awareness of issues on racial justice, staying woke has expanded in contemporary dialogues. Today, “staying woke” has been appropriated to refer to awareness over social justice issues in a broader form. Still, even when used by white allies the term is tied to Blackness. As Hess puts it, “‘woke’ denotes awareness, but it also connotes blackness. It suggests to white allies that if they walk the walk, they get to talk the talk.”

There are obvious criticisms to how the term has been appropriated by white allies to refer to a broader set of social justice issues. Still, accepting that this term has been appropriated, how can one tell if someone is walking the walk? How do we know if you are a true ally or simply posing? In other words, what are the different ways to perform wokeness?

Today, being woke or not extends far beyond someone's private political beliefs. It is shown through actions and dialogue. For some, performing wokeness is worn like a badge of honor. For others, the opposite is true, as they find ways to capitalize on critiquing modern-day progressive liberals. Not all performances of wokeness are the same. To understand the differences in how wokeness is performed, ask two questions: Where does the performance fall on the wokeness spectrum, and why perform wokeness?

The first question is quite simple: Where does an individual fall on the wokeness spectrum? Just how woke are they?

It is quite easy to look at performing wokeness as a binary — you are either woke or you aren’t. But doing so compartmentalizes the different degrees to which someone can display their progressive beliefs. Instead of viewing performing wokeness as a binary, we should view it as a spectrum with being progressive on one end and being traditional or antiquated on the other.

There are blatant extremes when it comes to how woke someone can be, and we shouldn’t just assume all progressive actions are the same. Volunteering to register voters in communities affected by voter suppression tactics should be seen as more woke than simply showing up to the polls to vote for far-left candidates. Still, each of these actions can be considered progressive. Viewing wokeness as a spectrum allows one to easily decipher between these differences and then some.  

Questioning extremism on a spectrum allows us to accurately compare how individuals perform unwokeness as well. Yelling racial and homophobic slurs to people on the street should be seen as viler than buying a chicken sandwich from a restaurant chain that funds anti-LGBT rights organizations. Still, each of these actions can be considered pretty unwoke.

The second question: Why are they woke? What are their motivations?

Even if two people seem to hold the same degree of wokeness — exhibiting equivalent levels of progressiveness in their beliefs and actions — it does not mean they are going to be doing so for the same reasons. Their performances of wokeness are going to differ based on the motivations of the individual.

For people who are progressive, determining motivation simply means asking why being woke matters to them. For the best individuals in the progressive community, the answer is simple: Being aware of sociopolitical issues is important. These people may choose to make disclosing pronouns a part of an icebreaker because they don’t want to misgender anyone in the room. They follow this norm out of respect to their non-cisgender peers who know all too well the awkwardness of being misgendered in a formal setting.

However, not all progressive individuals exhibit this motivation. Many may perform wokeness because of the social or economic capital they receive out of appearing to be woke. They may disclose their pronouns in a group meeting — not because it is the right thing to do, but rather for the social praise they gain from their progressive peers by following such norms. These are the people who say they are “going” to Black Lives Matters protests for the Facebook likes, and they kind of suck.

These individuals might also be identified by the way they react to those who aren’t aware of progressive norms. When someone in their group meeting doesn’t know how to disclose pronouns and says, “Ummm ... ugh, the boy ones,” they react by scoffing and rolling their eyes instead of trying to teach what a proper response would be based on their gender identity.

Don’t get me wrong, these individuals aren’t completely unethical. It’s better that they are mildly woke rather than not at all. Still, their intentions should be seen as morally dubious and they are certainly not the best examples of the progressive community. They perform wokeness only for their personal gain and plenty of these people exist on university campuses.

What about the other side of the woke spectrum? For people who are not woke, determining motivation centers around an individual's access to social justice dialogues. Looking at such factors allows one to distinguish between those who don’t understand the language and norms of progressiveness and the douchebags.

The former doesn’t act woke, but it may not be completely their fault. Perhaps they are elderly immigrants from another country who are inexperienced with American social justice norms. They aren’t completely absolved of their anti-progressiveness. After all, they are still on the unwoke side of the spectrum. However, their beliefs and actions are a bit more understandable.

The douchebag’s politics are less forgivable. They have the ability to understand how to be woke, but choose not to be. These people have little excuse to not act in ways that display awareness to social issues. The douchebag chooses to complain about political correctness in our Facebook feeds and classrooms instead of questioning the historical oppression that leads certain social groups to call for an informed level of respect in everyday social interactions.

Perhaps they hold social identities that have never faced the brunt of structural inequality and therefore feel it is not their problem. Perhaps they are driven by their own self-importance or lack of empathy. Regardless of the reason, the important takeaway is that these are some of the worst people, those who are not woke and have no reason not to be.

Performing wokeness takes several different forms. It’s unhelpful to just create a binary that says you are an ethical woke person or you are a vile unwoke person. Rather, we should be looking at performing progressiveness in a complex framework. Understand being woke as a spectrum, where we can analyze the different extremes of wokeness. Likewise, understand the motivation for why someone is woke or not. Doing these things can help to better distinguish the differences in how people perform wokeness.

Max Lubell is a senior opinion editor.