US politics has been inundated with heated debates about demolition culture, “wakefulness” and critical racial theory. What do these three topics have in common? Some would say that they are all supposedly progressive ideas seeking understanding and accountability regarding the history of oppression. Others may argue that they are all facets of an illiberal and regressive left that seeks to force everyone into submission. However, if you ask most people (regardless of their political background) to define these terms, you will likely get “I know when I see” responses from Justice Potter Stewart.
It is telling that all three come from black communal, online, or academic discourses that were co-opted and then caricatured as they made their way through the political spectrum. CRT is a legal theory that examines how historical and contemporary racial injustices are embedded in laws and policies that are color-blind at first sight. Although it is not widely used outside of graduate school, it has been accused murder the souls of white children. Professor Meredith Clark and the writer Clyde McGrady have written about how the word “cancel” from Black digital discourse to become Mainstream buzzword about censorship and mob justice. But in my opinion, the mutation on “Wake” was the most egregious.
“Woke” was used in the black community to convey the need to become familiar with anti-black suppression systems, ideas, etc. A simple analogy would be the code in The matrix– just knowing it’s there can help a character survive. Woke could be from James Baldwin in “If Black English Is Not A Language Then Tell Me What Is?” or Laurence Fishburne’s character, the “Wake up!” in Spike Lees School anesthesia, or Georgia Anne Muldrow says: “Woke is definitely a black experience. “
Black people have also (often, but not exclusively) used Afrocentric spiritual, cosmological, or metaphysical discourse. The topics could be anything from “opening your third eye” to staying tuned to the energy of the people around you, to more charged discussions like not praying to White Jesus or what the “right” religion for Pan-African people is.
Although the term has often been used unironically, blacks have also made fun of waking up – satirizing people in our community who take it too far and become too conspiratorial, and associate very separate things with the “white man”. Dave Chappelle’s character “Conspiracy Brother” argued that saying “good morning” was racist. In A Black Lady Sketch Show, Dr. Hadassah Olayinka Ali-Youngman makes a completely inappropriate toast to her sister’s wedding. If you follow Black Twitter you know there is no shortage of memes dealing with the overly performative aspects of waking up.