If I should die before I’m woke
In the last week, my future plans have begun to solidify underneath my feet. The world that had seemed so complex and impossible before have turned into the inevitable consequence of centuries of the conversation between human determination and ingenuity. The channels on which preeminent figures travel have become increasingly apparent. I feel that I am on a path where success is possible.
At the same time, the path to success also seems like walking a delicate tightrope as an untrained layman. And I’m not talking about multi-billionaire or incomparable fame success; I’m referring to the not living in your parents’ attic success. Literally, at least for me, one slip-up could take away my life of seemingly unlimited possibility to one of very limited resources and freedom. Life is funny that way.
Life is also funny in that people like to make up grammatically incorrect expressions to represent often profound ideas for which we have no other means of expressing. There are many of these expressions that go around on the college campus, but the one that I was first introduced to is the concept of “woke”. Someone who is woke has been awakened to issues and ideas that were not apparent to the general suburbanite. This will often refer to racial disparities in health, economic well-being, and racism in general. People who use the term are often ardent pursuers of racial and civil equality and are often the loudest voices in the college-activism conversation, if not the mainstream activist conversation.
Personally I find the concept of being “woke” very beautiful, but its usage to be ironic and self-contradictory at times. My first introduction to the idea was at a “Faces of the Community” congregation where a few brave souls from around my university stood up and talked about their struggles with a variety of issues ranging from race, disability, addiction, and social issues among others. After the whole affair, I was a sobbing mess. I was just so touched by the obstacles that my peers had traversed and conquered. But probably what has been on my mind the most lately was the statement of one young black man at the very beginning that I hadn’t taken much notice of the night I had actually attended the event. Later in the debrief back at my dorm, someone said that they agreed with the speaker’s position in feeling that he didn’t feel “woke” enough, and suddenly it was all very important.
Living in an Asian theme dorm, I’d say that most people here are more “woke” than the general populace by the conventional use of the word. There are activists and people who voice their concerns and launch social media campaigns: youthful vigor, passion, and optimism at its finest. But are the people who are involved in these campaigns really awakened to reality? What students know are what students share to each other or at meetings, and these views are often rather homogeneous and quick to condemn the authority as one of wicked or selfish intent. There is rarely much thought taken as to the challenges of implementing change by the people who have the power to do so. Protests and campaigns are all well and good, but it is important to remember that Stanford is not a democracy of the students, but rather an oligarchy of people who hopefully are working in the interests of the students. In certain cases, rigorous protest is needed such as in the case of blatantly racist educational leadership that needs to be changed, but in most cases it is safe to assume that the faculty is there leading Stanford because they want to make Stanford a better place for everyone. Of course there’s the issue with the university image… how they only care about issues once it becomes visible to the media and might affect the university’s reputation, and that is certainly the case is in certain instances. I don’t know. The way some protests are carried out, I feel like would be more effectively accomplished by connecting with faculty or high-up student leaders who can advocate for those issues mano-a-mano with the university board, with protest as a “by the way the students say that if you don’t do this they will protest” kind of a back pocket “speak softly and carry a big stick.” Radical protest that risks arrest or is illegal or borderline illegal should be our nuclear weapon, not our reputation.
Also, another rather ironic aspect of being “woke” is that there is no room for nuance. It’s always 100% racist and needs drastic action. I’m not saying things don’t need to be changed to protect victimized groups from being hurt or feeling marginalized, but being a group that attacks viciously without considering the opinions or feelings of the opposing side is counterproductive. Take the path that mainstream feminism has gone. Recently there has been a revival of feminism, clarifying for people that feminism means believing that men and women should have equal rights. Often this centers on the fact that no law says anything about women being created equal. But why is it that people who say they believe that men and women should be equal don’t identify as feminists? Well, for starters people don’t realize that that’s what feminism means. Most people end with that, that the lack of identification is simply an act of ignorance on the part of the public. But I think it also has something to do with the rhetoric of mainstream feminism and how their advocacy is conducted.
Take Meghan Trainor’s “Dear future husband,” which describes in detail what a man should and should not expect of her as a wife. It’s all fun and smiles when applied to her personally, but when extrapolated to a general audience, it becomes touchy. The man should buy her a diamond ring and treat her right with dates and not expect her to cook and clean, well, that sounds like tyranny to me. The man doesn’t HAVE to buy every woman a diamond ring and serve her every need just the same way as a woman doesn’t HAVE to cook and clean. It’s a partnership that has a different balance of responsibility for every couple, and I can understand how the message of this song has elicited resentful comments from male listeners. Although the main message of feminism is equality for all genders, the way that it has been advocated for has been one that refuses to let go of the inherent sexism present in the idea of “chivalry” that women insist on. It really isn’t fair to be expected to be treated like a “lady” and an equal. If women want equal respect and pay, the fact that they should do equal parts of the holding open doors for other people and paying for the check on dates should be advertised in the rhetoric of feminism too. Often times, this does happen. Women do all those things: do their job, are polite and chivalrous to men, cook and clean, and beyond. And yet they still don’t get equal pay and respect that they certainly deserve. THAT IS FEMINISM.
And interestingly enough, different social change causes often conflict with each other, and have done so throughout history. For instance, there was quite some squabbling between women’s suffrage and the rights of black Americans during the civil rights era. Today it’s done so in a much more tacit way. When stars advocate for the dilemmas of one race in a music video, they’ll leave out others that face many of the same issues. Take the issue of the criminal justice system, policing, and imprisonment. Blacks and Latinos are faced with similar circumstances, but the conversation around reform only speaks to black communities. How can one be truly “woke” when you only care about one side of the issue? It’s more like the state when you just wake up and are still too drowsy to accomplish anything. Maybe here, in the silicon valley, where action is everything, we’re all too eager to jump into action before we take the opportunity to learn all there is to the issue. We’re at a world class university. Contact professors, sift through the archives, talk to the people with similar views to you, and to people who disagree with you. You will never have another opportunity to become such a well-rounded person again. You cannot call your dorm lounge a “safe space” if speaking an unpopular opinion will leave a student ostracized.
Well, there are also amazing things to being woke in a way many people aren’t. For instance, it makes you feel that you truly have a unique point of view and contribution to a conversation. For instance, today I attended a session where high level faculty spoke about science policy, but they mostly focused on where they were going to get their money. It made me realize that most of these people are so deep into academia that they lose sight of the fact that it really is people who know little to nothing about science who have control of their money, and that if they really want responsible handling of scientific funding, you have to have people who are educated on and care about science allocating that funding. That requires a scientific academia that is friendly to the public. Today’s level of scientific reporting and understanding is simply insufficient, and scientific publications often have no section that is friendly or engaging to the everyday public reader. IMO, I feel like every paper should have a short companion piece reviewed by a non-science individual that should talk about what their research is about and why the public should care. Not only will this help people better understand science, it will also help people be more aware of how important funding science really is. This is a way that I might employ the term “woke” outside its traditional context. Taking a unique insight that the establishment does not have, and sharing it or capitalizing on it. Idk. I can’t call myself woke. I don’t think anybody really can if they think about it. We’re all in various stages of wakefulness, attentive to different aspects of life, and we become more woke when we understand different aspects of it in different lights. And this often requires going beyond your comfort zone, reaching out to people you thought you’d never agree with.
I realize that it’s hard. It sounds like we’re seeking out pain, seeking out an argument, and you really are in a way. Think about it like this. If every privileged white person who were instilled with the idea that history has already given equal opportunity to all people were to only talk to people they agreed with, where would we be? It does hurt sometimes to talk about something dear to you with someone who might be callous about it. Nobody is going to force you to do it. YOU DO NOT HAVE TO BE THE ONE WHO PUTS THEMSELVES IN THE HARDEST POSITION. But what you can do is stop demonizing the other side.
I personally believe that everyone has something that everyone else can empathize with as long as we take the time. Fundamentally we are all human. But in all our lifetimes, we will never be able to have the time to learn about and empathize with everyone. So if I should die before I’m woke, well then, I will have lived.