Does “wokeness” need to wake up?


Graphic illustration by Calvin Zhou

A youth dives into “wokeness” while frowned upon by an old fisherman. Graphic illustration by Calvin Zhou.

Riki Murase, Social Media Manager

What does being “woke” really mean? In modern times, being woke has become synonymous with a focus on increasing inclusivity and diversity, empathy and the empowerment of disadvantaged groups. Nonetheless, the term has recently come under fire for being a form of moral absolutism. The common understanding of the “woke” movement is that any deviation from a strict set of progressive beliefs is met with social ostracism and exclusion. In popular media, it has sometimes been portrayed negatively and associated with radicalism and hatred, leading to its demonization.

While being “woke” has helped to push important social issues to the forefront of public discourse and encouraged many communities to advocate for their rights, it ultimately harms progressive ideals, exacerbating the division between those with opposing beliefs.  Therefore, people need to be aware of the potential repercussions of misinterpreting “woke” ideals.

“Being woke is worn both as a badge of honor and placed on others as a badge of shame,” history and government teacher Jeffrey Bale said. “It largely just depends on context.”

“Being woke is worn both as a badge of honor and placed on others as a badge of shame. It largely just depends on context.”

— Jeffrey Bale, Government teacher

The misinterpretation of the ideology of wokeness alienates people who would otherwise be amicable to progressive ideas through efforts such as cancel culture. Some people who brand themselves as woke often work together to cancel others who aren’t as woke as they are. This includes people who don’t actively and publicly present themselves as woke even if they are actually aware of social issues.

Individuals and businesses often ride the wave of wokeness through performative activism that does little to truly support progressive movements, and are done instead to line their pockets with cash from a new consumer base. Consumers are just as performative — increasingly susceptible to a corporation’s supposed support of a progressive cause. Actions such as promoting petitions, sharing social media awareness posts and exploiting LGBTQ+ representation in products to boost sales and turn a profit are examples of performative acts that are often used to boost one’s public image or profits rather than actually supporting a particular cause. People that do this are often labeled as woke and spearheaded for anti-woke movement justification.

“People believe that being woke will make more people like them by making them seem like better people,” JSA club officer Allison Hsu said. “In reality, that’s not what activism is actually about.”

This misinterpretation of the concept of being woke can also lead to activists’ misplacing their attention on attacking others who are politically aligned with them instead of focusing on actual social injustices at hand. This implicit trap of selective outrage thereby hurts progressive values such as undermining racism and closing the gender equality gap by causing infighting within progressive causes and thereby decreasing solidarity overall, while also demotivating actual progressive individuals and organizations from wanting to push for progressive policies. 

While “woke” movements often have good intentions, they ultimately hurt the ideologies that they are intended to support through a fundamental misunderstanding of the meaning of being socially aware; that is, interpreting performative activism and radical politics as being woke. Arguments over cultural appropriation or minority and LGBTQ+ representation and rights highlight the flaws embedded in extreme progressive ideals that are frequently labeled as “woke”, diminishing the legitimacy of the term.

Viewing wokeness as a singularly positive or negative ideology is dangerous due to the complexity of the concept’s many interpretations. Through the erosion of the original idea of wokeness, political alienation has been exacerbated to the point of large-scale societal division. Being woke is a constantly evolving term that requires consistent and up-to-date awareness of the sociopolitical environment to understand.