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What Wokeness or “Get-it-ness” Affords Us

Do I want to be woke to be awake, or do I want to be woke to seem awake for others?

“Woke,” while a relatively new term, is actually dealing with a very old concept: enlightenment or “get-it-ness.” In consideration of how the term is used colloquially, if I am “woke,” I “get it” more than someone who isn’t. It’s status. It’s used to distance from those people and/or ideas that aren’t. Because we live in an age of appearances (more so than ever, commodity fetishism has infiltrated our appearances and social interactions/performances), the idea of being “woke” comes with rather seductive and enticing social capital in the right circles. In fact, the appearance or performance of “wokeness” is seen as equivalent to if not better than the ideal definition of what it might truly mean to be “woke.” Let’s define “wokeness” as “the degree to which something or someone is woke”.

So, it’s 2018, and we now find ourselves dealing with many people who self-proclaim wokeness without actually having done or learned anything. This includes people whose “work,” done, in their opinion, garnering the result of wokeness, was subjective; they researched by only seeking positive reinforcement/agreement. They discussed their wokeness with peers who were doing the same thing as them, creating ideological echo chambers in the process. They never considered that they might be wrong.

An easy way to point out these people is if they use said wokeness to broadly put down entire demographics (e.g. all republicans are bad), if their wokeness is tied more to performance and maintenance of image than concrete ideas, if they are hypocritical with their claims in their application to themselves v. others, and if they are entirely disinterested in hearing views/arguments that don’t further validate their own; any and all external readings of their arguments/views are considered to be, and thus dismissed as, presumptuous - i.e. “we as individual people can’t understand each other and must understand that this is the case.” This argument prevents progressive, empathetic discussion before it begins.

Making a choice to align oneself with a particular role/identity/demographic that colloquially is associated with a more woke demeanor can be seen (rightfully so) as a fast track to being recognized as and rewarded for being woke by one’s peers [1]. Nowadays, the greatest potential for social capital stemming from claiming membership to a group (in this case, “the woke group” or even, “the woke group that you might assume isn’t woke because of, for example, their race or gender”) exists in white, wealthy, liberal spaces. Both those in these spaces and those who belong to that demographic have the most to gain from this social capital, because 1) it’s cathartic for them and 2) the alternative of not being woke comes with the risk of being ostracized by the same peers who perform wokeness and for whom wokeness is performed. For these people (and in this environment), being woke often means nothing more than participating in a masturbatory, pseudo-intellectual, curated environment that allows for the avoidance of progress, responsibility, and accountability while pretending as if those things actually are present.

The truly confounding paradox is this: By creating and supporting environments which thrive on an economy of performance, making the choice not to perform becomes “nonviable;” i.e. if one’s currency is performance, not performing can leave one bankrupt. So, as toxic as performative wokeness is, the environments in which it thrives leave the participants no clear alternative but one: they must collectively decide to make this currency worthless, or at least make it far less powerful than they’ve allowed it to become.

The capital we’ve ascribed to wokeness is a problem that sucks for everyone, and we allowed this problem to grow, unchecked. Thus, it requires a collective and comprehensive solution, the first step of which is acknowledging that this problem exists. To end with a continuation of this economic analogy, I ask the following: has this currency of performance become “too valuable to fail?” And if so, what will be this economy’s equivalent to the 2008 financial crisis? Who will bail us out? I’d rather act now, and not wait to find out.

[1] An extreme but conceptually valuable example of this is Rachel Dolezal, who relieved herself of having to grapple with the socio-political significance of being a white woman in America — a role as oppressor — by self-claiming the identity of a black woman — a role as oppressed. In her mind, she can no longer be criticized or take responsibility for belonging to an oppressive demographic because she simply doesn’t belong to it anymore. She would go so far as to say she never had to begin with.