To be woke or not to be woke…that is the question

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It’s official, being ‘woke’ is dead. I had a good indication that the phrase, which is defined as having an alertness to social and racial injustices, was losing its ‘cool’ and effectiveness a few years ago when a (White) senior colleague was asking people in the office if they were “woke”?

Be mindful that this question wasn’t asked in a diversity and inclusion workshop. Nor had this person just read the Urban Dictionary and wanted additional clarification. No, their inquisitiveness was based on nothing more than office banter. 

Yes, it sounds as equally unprofessional as it does ridiculous, and the majority of my colleagues (White, male and middle-aged) seemed more concerned with answering their emails than playing along with this odd game – as you should be when you’re at work.

As the question made its way down the rows of desks, my mind flittered back and forth on wanting to be asked this question or not. The latter was chosen, as the inquisitor skipped past me. I like to think that my skin tone projected an invisible force field that protected me from their foolishness and from my own mischief of wanting to question whether the lack of action to champion equality meant they were the opposite of wokeness; possibly comatose? Whatever the reason, I was skipped from playing their game. Looking back this was probably a good thing to spare their blushes and for me to keep my job.

Fast forward and my prediction for being ‘woke’ seems to have come true. It is now viewed with the same distain as its ‘political correctness’ cousin. It seems anyone accused of being akin to this phrase is forced to make a walk of shame. No one has learnt this truth more than today’s Labour Party. 

Writing for New Statesmanformer British Prime Minister Tony Blair penned a request for his former political party (Labour) to leave its “woke agenda” behind. By this, Blair argues that those on the left are losing support from the general public and that progressive politics must avoid getting tangled in the cultural war that right-wing politics is both waging and winning. 

For parts of the article I somewhat agree with Blair’s arguments. For example, he states that ‘defunding the police may be the left’s most damaging political slogan’. For the UK, I can see why, as messaging failed to cut-through and explain why reducing police funding would make society safer and more equal. Also, following ten years of austerity, any talk of cutting funds to the public sector is always met with scorn. Unless you’re talking about “benefit scroungers” of course. 

When I compare this ask to the US’ Black Lives Matter organisation which is also making the same request, it seems the demand is easier to understand. Take the New York Police Dept. with its eye-watering budget of $10.9billion in 2020, it is argued that the city would be safer if some of that budget was redirected to investing in housing, safety for schools, mental health services and providing life-changing help for the homeless. Some of the latter’s responsibilities fall on the shoulders of police officers to manage and with limited or no training in dealing with people who experience mental health crisis, it is understandable as to why money should be spent elsewhere.

Blair goes onto argue that the right ‘evinces a pride in their nation, while parts of the left seem embarrassed by the very notion’. He further states that ‘people do not like their country, their flag or their history being disrespected. The left always gets confused by this sentiment and assume this means people support everything their country has done or think all their history is sacrosanct.’

I totally understand this sentiment, however is it disrespectful to ask a country to accept its entire history? History is not something that individuals can just pick and choose the parts they wish to believe. It is simply factual. When statues of slave owners are asked to be removed, it is because of the individual’s actions towards other human beings. Actions that I’m sure most people in modern society would be repelled by. If the full story of such individuals were told, then would there even be a statue? Yet, when it comes to telling the full history, those in authority seem reluctant to do so. I mean, Bristol City Council’s inept action to rename Edward Colston’s plaque drove citizens to take the matter into their own hands by throwing his statue into the river Avon.

I have no doubt that those who are upset by the removal of statues such as Edward Colston’s will earnestly say that they oppose racism and stand in solidarity with those who are fighting against it. However, the question of whether these people are racist or not is a redundant one. No one likes to be called a racist. Even Peter Cvjetanovic, who was photographed in 2017 at the ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, downplayed his association to neo-Nazism.

Now before anyone goes ape shit let me further explain. I believe that many White people are not like Cvjetanovic. I also believe there are enough White people who are, or want to be, allies to minority communities and see equality playing a key part to achieving progress. I saw this for myself when attending the BLM marches in London. President Joe Biden’s election win also proves this. However, when institutions decide to tell their truths, such as the National Trust revealing that 93 out of its 500 historic properties have links to the transatlantic slave trade and the British Empire, then I fail to understand why some choose to froth at the mouth in anger and wave their St George’s flag in defiance. Neither will change history or the truth. Why can’t people accept it, learn from it and do better? 

If one day I was to meet Blair, I would ask him where does it leave minority communities if Labour leaves its woke agenda behind? Who do the marginalised look to for political support whilst the rest of society continues to be obsessed with statues and its own interpretation of history? With UK Black graduates experiencing an increase of unemployment to 35% from 22% post lockdown, Black women still four times more likely to die whilst giving birth, and Black Caribbean children being five times more likely to face exclusion from schools, who should the Black community look to when everyone seems to prefer to be asleep than woke? 

Possibly the answer is for Labour and other political parties to turn being ‘woke’ on its head. After all, who wouldn’t want to be aware, empathetic and passionate about social and racial injustices? Who doesn’t want to go to their grave knowing they did something to make life better for their fellow human-being, family and friends? Being woke is all of those things. It affords chances to learn about life from other people’s perspectives and it allows you to connect with communities that you probably would never have thought you had anything in common with. 

Yep, a rebranding is needed. If Dominic Cummings can rebrand himself to be the person the British public can trust to learn all kinds of truths about the Government he used to advise, then we can once again build a rapport with being woke. 

As we’ve all had to don our capes to be superheroes for ourselves and others to get through this pandemic, then why put them down as we ease out of lockdown? Has this lockdown taught us nothing about compassion, patience and lending a sympathetic ear even when your own minds whirl with anxiety? 

If this is the messaging Labour or any left-leaning party can scream about as loudly as an ambulance siren, then maybe those of us who are ‘woke’ won’t need to be resuscitated. 

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