On The Importance Of Being Woke
The Debrief: Being woke is more than being a political young person, it's more than a hashtag and more than a trend
Illustration by Marina Esmeraldo
I first heard the term in 2013, just as I was becoming more politically aware of how my life – as a woman, as a person of colour, as a Muslim and as a queer teenager - differs to other people’s lives. The word woke is not new but it has entered into common usage this year. It’s only a matter of time before the Oxford English Dictionary includes it in their official lexicon (and until advertising executives try to use it to sell us things we don’t need).
The rise of woke in 2016, as with most trends, came from social media. On Twitter, Facebook and Instagram young Black activists popularised the word, the #BlackLivesMatter movement continually reminded people to stay woke and pay attention to the oppression that people face. But if you dig a little deeper, Erykah Badu, was singing about being woke way back in 2008, long before mainstream culture had any idea about being woke.
Social media has given Black humour, politics and opinions a platform, and allowed them to enter mainstream culture. On YouTube vloggers like Nathan Zed and Kat Blaque have built their platforms on challenging prejudice – on being woke. But, like so many things that belong to or originate from Black communities, the origins of woke are often lost on middle-class, white, privileged teens who adopt it as a trendy ‘aesthetic’ without considering the meaning behind it.
Woke, for me, is more than a hashtag. It’s more than language. It’s a state of mind. When I hear someone talking about being woke, it feels like that person is saying that they care about my experiences. That’s what woke means – being politically aware, awake, realising that society doesn’t treat everyone equally and tuning into the fact that everyone experiences life differently. There are intersecting parts of my identity that I can’t talk about with most people but it’s different when I’m speaking to someone who is woke.
I used to actively seek out people who called themselves woke because I want to encourage debate and educate people, but at the same time their understanding validated my reality of experiencing racism daily. Growing up in a really white environment, I have faced both racist and Islamophobic abuse regularly.
People would throw slurs at me unthinkingly. They would mock South Asian/Indian accents. It made me feel so ashamed of being Bengali, embarrassed to share my dad’s accent. It was because of meeting people who were woke that I started to appreciate the long history and struggle that led to my dad feeling that he could speaking Bengali here at all (because for some time, Bengalis were persecuted for speaking their own language). I became proud of the accent that comes with my language and where it came from.
When I was 14 and starting to want to love parts of my identity that, for so long, I had repressed (such as being a brown, Muslim woman). I began to follow feminist blogs on Instagram, such as @feministcorna and @feministastic. At first, it was a watered-down, soft, liberal feminism that I encountered but over-time I found a community of women of colour who validated my experiences of racism and the self-loathing it cause me to internalise. They had had similar experiences, I realised that I wasn’t alone, that there was a way forward. It was because of social media that I learned what woke meant. I learned that woke was more than a trending term, by exploring the hashtags I saw that it was a mind-set, an outlook and a way of being.
Woke is more than an adjective, it’s the type of person you are and want to be. I do think it’s partly generational, most people my age recognise that being progressive and an activist is a good thing; Ipsos Mori found that 42% of young people (aged 10-20) had participated in some kind of meaningful social action in the last year. Now, I’m sure that some people who proclaim to be woke on Instagram and Twitter are less passionate about social injustice IRL and more concerned about their online brands. But I don’t think that’s necessarily a negative thing. If woke is trending, at least people are finding out about what is really going on.
On the flip side, it’s jarring that 2016 was the year of being woke, of Black Lives Matter and, simultaneously, the year that the majority of people voted for Brexit and Donald Trump. This just doesn’t make sense to me, and it demonstrates how much work we’ve got to do.
In my experience, the outcome of this year’s US election and EU referendum doesn’t reflect my generation. And yet, we will be the ones who have to live with the consequences. When my school held a mock-referendum on whether or not Britain should leave the EU, I could count the number of people who didn’t want to stay on one hand.
As a generation, by striving to be woke we can foster a sense collective solidarity. It’s so important right now for you to put aside how uncomfortable you might feel when you are forced to confront how you might benefit from the oppression of another person. But we have to engage with this fact of life.
When I think about woke in 2016, I don’t just think about people who are tolerant and accepting. I remember when I first told one of my friends that I’m queer. I remember her reaction: disbelief. She undermined my sexuality because it seemed to contradict my religion. At first, she couldn’t understand, because she had never met anyone who was both Muslim and queer. And yet, despite her prejudices she would see that I was offended and frustrated. She took steps to educate herself, to try and understand me more. Being woke means being aware while you might be wrong from time to time, your feelings of embarrassment can never be prioritised over someone else’s experience of prejudice.
The truth is that nobody is perfect. That’s not what woke is about; it’s the people who are trying to decode, analyse and learn that are the wokest among us.
Woke was definitely of the words of 2016. Regardless of whether you find it obnoxious or relatable, it’s a trend that I hope is here to stay. I support all of us realising that we’re more problematic than we’d like to think we are. As Kylie Jenner put it, ‘2016 really was the year of realising things’. Let’s hope that waking up to internalised and institutional prejudices is a trend that lasts into 2017.
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