Woke: (adj.) Aware, socially conscious, understanding and sensitive of racial, socioeconomic, gender and further societal inequalities.

The idea behind it: that once we were “asleep” in the mire of prejudice and now we are “woke” to the problems in our oppressive system.

The word has infiltrated our culture from the falsetto of Childish Gambino warning us to “Stay woke” to the satire of "Saturday Night Live" selling us “Levi wokes.” We throw it around every day, and it translates into an attitude we carry in our speech and in our social media. 

Wokeness manifests itself in the caution with which we approach certain words and certain topics — for example, calling someone “African-American” instead of “black.” It manifests itself in hashtag activism, which throws out a pretty picture of the media user with a punchy platitude for friends who have already been there, done that. 

And while nothing is necessarily wrong with being woke — after all, a culture that works to be accepting is one former civil rights leaders could only have dreamt about — being woke is hurting our nation’s activism. Why?

The problem with wokeness is in its very nature; it rarely extends beyond the surface-level show. We are eager to do what is expected of us when the trend calls for it, but we don’t let that influence anything we do in real life. We simply present ourselves in a politically correct way and circulate The New York Times discourse among our friends, having intellectual conversations that end in everyone reaffirming what everyone else already believed.  

But there’s nothing wrong with that. People need to be sensitive to the discriminatory remarks they make. And furthermore, by circulating these discussions, we are pulling people into otherwise unheard of causes.

However, what good is awareness if it does not translate into action?

The ultimate goal of education is to effect real change. When we raise awareness, the idea is not to simply have the knowledge of what is right and wrong in our heads and continue doing what is wrong. We educate people because we hope for concrete improvement.

Quite frankly, in an era where political activism, particularly among the millennial generation, is supposedly at its most popular, the numbers reflect a different story. In the 2012 presidential election, though they made up approximately the same size of the electorate as baby boomers, millennials turned out to vote at only half the rate of baby boomers. And in this past 2016 election, the percentage of millennials who voted only increased from 46.4 percent to 49.5 percent, despite their number of eligible voters being set to surpass that of baby boomers in 2020.

But this seeming apathy is not because we millennials do not care. If anything, we care too much. 

The problem is that we have allowed ourselves to think that social media activism is enough. That posting a snappy message in black and white somehow replaces voting for legislation that makes a difference. That marching in a protest seen by like-minded populations, where visibility is the primary factor, does more than petitioning a local government for increased environmental regulation. 

And the superficiality of our political activism extends not simply to justifying our inaction, but also to reasoning away our darker impulses. At times, we use our wokeness to defend things that are so blatantly discriminatory that we would condemn them, were they under any other name but “woke.” 

Two years ago, Rachel Dolezal, former leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was outed as being white. When called upon to answer for her actions, she responded, “I identify as black,” as if race were something one could just choose, like the shoes we put on our feet. To be cognizant of another group’s struggle, to help them, is blameless. But to go so far as to appropriate that group’s culture and, by doing so, send the racial hierarchy back into Jim Crow era, is to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing.  

Finally, the culture of wokeness waters down the heart of the messages political activists make. Colin Kaepernick, when he took a knee during the national anthem, did so to highlight the abuses that America has made. However, the conversation has turned from spotlighting American abuse to the outrage of the activist action itself. Now, the discussion is all about the flag and what real patriotism is, instead of what Kaepernick wanted to draw attention to in the first place.

Wokeness is not inherently bad. The complacency with the superficial that it creates is. The difference comes down to word-of-mouth change vs. tangible action. And the question I leave with is: If activism from this point on becomes solely discourse, what will our world look like in 20 years?


AMY CHAN is a College senior from Augusta, Ga., studying classics. Her email address is chanamy@sas.upenn.edu. “Chances Are” usually appears every other Thursday.

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