Remember "fleek"? "Cash me outside"? Or regrettably, "Yas Queen Yaasss"?
Recently, I saw a documentary by BET about the Black Lives Matter movement. I cringed as soon as I saw the opening title, bold white letters against a black background — "STAY WOKE." Earlier in the week, I heard the same phrase uttered by numerous news pundits trying to claim some type of millennial street cred. Before that, I listened to the phrase used as a punchline while watching my weekly sitcoms.
I understand the desire to appeal to our younger generation's hashtag and Urban Dictionary culture. Yet I must voice my opposition to the use of ephemeral language to rally for an enduring cause.
First, it is natural for activism to lose momentum. Videos capturing horrendous hate crimes, acts of misogyny or police brutality followed by a public circus in which those actions going unchecked, can motivate people to rise up — or wake up. These newly enlightened people rally together for a day of marching or even weeks of protests. Yet, after the rallies, many of them go back to their routines. "Stay Woke" is the supposed solution and clarion call to keep up the fight.
It's true that we need to find ways to stay engaged after an awakening. Civil rights movements and protests are vital to keeping our elected officials accountable for the change and equality that historically disenfranchised groups seek. Yet, branding the "persist phase" of a movement with a trending word directly contradicts the effort to maintain stamina. Just like "fleek," the power and meaning of "woke" died as soon as it became hip.
Second, the fad of "woke" diminishes a movement's true weight. Woke means being self-aware of systemic oppression or unearned privilege. The origin of its popular use varies. Yet, for me, any reference to racial/social awareness evokes the black consciousness movement.
W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey were pioneers in educating the public about how institutionalized oppression leads to internalized racism or double consciousness. These ideas were furthered by Steven Biko to oppose the atrocities of Apartheid in South Africa. He argued that in order to be fully liberated, black South Africans had to first realize their own worth absent external oppression. Once someone achieved a psychological liberation, they could then fight for physical liberation. Yet, that mental liberation meant more than just saying you're aware or "woke," it came with action such as grassroots education and local outreach. Becoming conscious was not a final destination but a constant journey of educating and "waking" others. All of the history, power and foundation of the prior movements that "Stay Woke" sits on is lost when we belittle this past activism to a hashtag.
Lastly, the other common use of woke is saying "I'm woke." This connotation is exclusive and self-promoting. By saying "I'm woke," you are implying a sense of superiority over a supposed dormant population. Understanding race, identity and privilege is a complicated journey. As a gay Latino, I still get it wrong. Growing up, I made the mistake of assuming anybody who looked like me was also of Mexican descent. Or now, when referring to resource centers or diversity conferences, I often have to be corrected for saying "gay" instead of the more inclusive LGBT acronym. When approached with aggression or an air of superiority, I become defensive and am hesitant to change. Yet when approached with understanding and empathy, it is much easier to listen to another's point of view. Too often in social movements, we aim to exclude. I firmly believe that any movement has no room to exclude groups or individuals that are genuinely interested in progressing a cause.
"Stay woke" is a perfect display of what can go wrong with today's activism. The effort to mass market and appeal to our social media culture will only hamper progress. After a protest, change happens through creating habits, promoting education and engaging in civic duties. Most people cannot take a day off monthly to protest. But many of us (along with a friend to keep us accountable) can attend a bi-weekly town hall meeting, or volunteer once a week to teach adults English. We can mentor a young person to be the change in their family by being the first to go to college, or we can register and vote.
Hashtag activism and trending language is not sustainable. It's exclusive, fleeting and meaningless. Real action is what matters. So instead of "staying woke," you might try getting up — and involved.