Shame is an epidemic in our culture, and to get out from underneath it, to find our way back to each other, we have to understand how it affects us.
—Brené Brown, “Listening to Shame”
The sharp uptick in public shaming over the past several years, and specifically since the 2016 election, has sparked a heated discussion about whether the perceived righteousness of the practice overshadows possible damage and likely fallout. As my initial look into the phenomenon revealed, shame is linked to PTSD, which means it disproportionately affects people who are already suffering from past trauma and stress disorders. Digital shaming can lead to digitally mediated trauma, and the CDC now acknowledges the impact of “electronic aggression” on mental health.
During my research, a specific subset of public shaming kept cropping up. It had to do with online activism and a word that had recently been added to the dictionary: woke. An increased impetus for offering correctives has arisen around “woke” discussions. Online, the term has assumed an association with newfound awareness and enthusiasm for social justice issues at large, even if it is often used derisively. Like plenty of popular American slang, “woke” is a historically Black phrase appropriated for mainstream usage.
The first traceable use of the word as slang appears in a 1962 article in the New York Times by Black novelist William Melvin Kelley. “If You’re Woke, You Dig It,” Kelley titled his article, a piece that the Oxford English Dictionary described in its research as focused on “how white beatniks were appropriating black slang at the time.” Decades later, in 2008, Erykah Badu used woke in the song “Master Teacher” on her album New Amerykah. At the time, her use of the phrase “I stay woke” puzzled listeners, but it stuck around and was later popularized by Black Lives Matter and related movements; one even chose StayWoke.org for their website.
Use of the word reached a fever pitch around 2016. That year, woke was everywhere; its journey from Black activism to meme status was tracked by Splinter, while The Awl published an incisive piece on watching the Woke Olympics unfold (mostly among liberal white people). Even the New York Times covered the strange phenomena of earning the “woke badge.” Oxford defines this new usage: “Well-informed, up-to-date. Now chiefly: alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice; frequently in ‘stay woke.’”
In 2018, we live in an era of hypervigilance when it comes to speaking out on issues of social injustice. Eager to signal support for these issues and be seen as helpful allies, newbies to the cause often jump into the deep end, hastily tweeting their thoughts or butting into conversations they know little about. Foot-in-mouth syndrome abounds, and those who have long been fighting these battles often turn on the well-meaning but flawed new supporters, using the full force of their often substantial followings to humiliate them.
“Woke shaming,” then, is a specific type of public shaming done in the name of social justice, or the practice of calling out those who weigh in on discussions of marginalized groups and participate in movements that target inequalities like racism, sexism, and the nonacceptance of queer/trans identities. These social justice causes could span any number of small in-groups where specific knowledge is key but sparse, public support is trendy, and factors like privilege and oppression are involved.
Digital shaming is currently most rampant on Twitter, but it can spill into comment sections, Instagram posts, and anywhere else online public statements are being shared widely. The pro-Clinton Facebook group Pantsuit Nation, for instance, faced intensive, over-the-top criticisms that amounted to woke shaming; backlash to the Women’s March on Washington in early 2017 is another prominent example.
Plenty of activists argue that shaming those who err while striving to help build a resistance is a counterintuitive practice. “To organize such a movement necessarily means that it will involve the previously uninitiated — those who are new to activism and organizing,” writes Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, a Black female activist and author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, in a piece reflecting on critiques of the history-making Women’s March. “We have to welcome those people and stop the arrogant and moralistic chastising of anyone who is not as ‘woke’… [movements] are built by actual people, with all their political questions, weaknesses, and strengths.”
Shaming is strongly correlated to the emerging prominence of “call-out culture,” or what writer and historian Shaun Scott defines as the “extremely online practice of denouncing racist, sexist, or otherwise problematic statements on the internet.” As tempestuous call-outs seem to crest new waves every other week, for many, the fear of publicly misspeaking is rivaled perhaps only by the worry that silence will be perceived as a stand-in for complicity.
And while call-out culture can be positive when it’s about whistleblowing in a community, woke shaming is what happens when it goes past accountability and into unwarranted, targeted harassment. “In many ways, holding each other accountable has come to mean punishing each other,” writes queer activist Maisha Z. Johnson on the often toxic, self-serving nature of call-out culture. “Sometimes it feels like we’re all competing on a hardcore game show, trying to knock each other down to be crowned the movement’s Best Activist.”
Johnson writes about how this kind of behavior is motivated by fear and pain, a virtue-signaling that loses sight of the goal of social justice, to create a world free from oppressive cycles. “In standing against oppression, we end up replicating the same harmful cycles,” she concludes.