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The Unreliable Guide To…Why Woke is Broke

By Nat Shepherd on April 29, 2021 in Satire

A nun with stolen Aboriginal children. Photo: Dumbartung Aboriginal Corporation

Unless you’ve been asleep, you will have heard the expression ‘woke’, meaning a perceived awareness of social issues and injustice, especially racism. Now, ‘woke’ seems worn out, reduced to a pseudonym/insult for trendy white liberalism and abused by corporate ‘woke-washing’ companies who tempt a younger demographic by cynically aligning with social justice issues. But if ‘woke’ is now fake, should we just go back to sleep and not worry about all that stuff? The Unreliable Guide is here with some tips on how to navigate a post-‘woke’ world.

Where did ‘Woke’ come from?
‘Woke’ was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2017, almost a decade after Erykah Badu’s 2008 release, Master Teacher, reminded the world, “we need to stay angry, and stay woke”. But Badu was drawing on a word that already had plenty of meaning. Way back in 1837, a speech by Elizabeth Jennings Sr urged her audience of black women to “awake, and slumber no more”. By 1962, African American novelist and short-story writer William Melvin Kelley was writing an article titled ‘If You’re Woke You Dig It’ for The New York Times Magazine, in which he discussed how white beatniks were appropriating African American slang in order to look cool. Today, many black, cultural critics call out self-congratulatory white ‘#wokeness’ as nothing more than a shallow pastiche of real action. They say the #woke-generation are involved in a competitive ‘awareness’ of inequality that does nothing about the issues they are so busy tweeting. As my mum would say, all mouth and no trousers.

Isn’t ‘Woke’ just political correctness gone mad?
African-American journalist Charles Pulliam-Moore mourns the co-opting of the term ‘woke’, highlighting how “a phrase that was meant to encourage critical thinking about social issues and injustices, has slowly morphed into something that occasionally comes across as a derogatory jab at the very idea of staying ‘woke’.” According to him, by 2016, if you claimed to be ‘woke’ you were either misguided or pathetically attempting to show how ‘sensitive’ you were. Whether that’s true or not, it’s now obvious that the right-wing media has fully co-opted ‘woke’ as a term of lefty abuse like ‘political correctness’. This is sneaky, because there is a big difference between being ‘PC’ and being ‘woke’, and lumping them together reduces both their power. PC focusses its attention on words and expressions, for example, knowing when to call someone ‘they’ instead of ‘she’ or ‘he’. Woke is different. Woke came from the idea that to survive as a person of colour you need to be alert. If you think you are woke because you tweet #blacklivesmatter: #change-the-date before you go and enjoy your Australia Day barbie, then you may be #woke, but you are certainly not ‘woke’.

‘Woke’ as a fashion statement
So what went wrong for ‘woke’? Dr Brock, a professor of black digital studies at Georgia Institute of Technology, suggests, “The mainstream picked up on ‘woke’ right about the time when Black Twitter was done with it and twisted it to their own ends.” In other words, the power of being woke was deliberately diluted into a meaningless symbol of fashion. When marketing people start talking about the pros and cons of ‘woke capitalism’ you know that something has gone very wrong for a word that started life as a reminder to be on your guard in a racist, violent world.

Finally, if you feel like you have ‘woke’ fatigue and would much rather go back to sleep, remember that you are lucky you can sleep safely. While only 3 per cent of our population is made up of indigenous Australians, they make up 29 per cent of the prison population. Remember that, drink a strong cup of black coffee and get up.

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