I often get asked about what being woke means, and I rarely have a ready-made response because of its subjective nature, different people express their wokeness differently. The concept of ‘woke’ is not an easy one to define and pin down because it’s multi-dimensional. It’s not very prescriptive or monolithic, hence there is no set template for being woke even though some people tend to impose their own interpretation on others. Most people that identify as and with the woke movement have varying explanations for what it means to them, and subsequently, how it manifests in their individual lives. Wokeness loosely stems from the concept of a reawakening of consciousness, a state of awareness and care when it comes to the pervasive and intersectional social issues affecting black communities. Part of being woke is putting the self in a position where you can honestly address the lived realities of black communities, its creating spaces for conversation and actions that transform those conditions. The subject matter could be anything from threats of death of African Americans in the hands of the police in their home country, to the souring rape culture and corruption in South Africa, or continued gender inequality and misogyny within the global society.
It’s important to note that being woke is not just reserved for people of colour, white people can be woke too but this is obviously subject to debate. We shouldn’t forget that the need for this way of thinking was necessary to counter the ideologies that were spread in the interest of white supremacy and colonial conquers all over the world, so white people also need this reawakening. White people played the role of oppressors for centuries, but in so doing, became the animals they treated people of colour as. They upheld a narrow view of the world that rendered them the ‘superior’ race. To paraphrase James Baldwin, ‘you cannot lynch me and keep me in the ghettos without becoming somewhat of a monster yourself’. So, the kind of mindset and socialization that produced that breed of white people needs to be uprooted, a rewiring of consciousness is fundamental to change their superiority complex to reprogramme the way they see and treat people ‘unlike’ themselves. To this day, young white people who didn’t even live through a system like apartheid still feel and act superior, they remain entitled and ignorant as though time has stood still.
For white people, part of this awareness is being able to acknowledge white privilege and understanding that society is still tipped to favour whiteness. It's understanding how even this generation of white people continue to benefit from the system that was set up by the ancestors that came before them. It’s about being able to demonstrate empathy to the people who are still underprivileged by the system that sees whiteness as a superior race, and not being defensive when such issues are being addressed. For white people, wokeness is a reality check. It’s a platform that helps them reconcile their ignorance of the true nature of their privilege vs the reality that’s faced by people of colour, acknowledging and seeing that the world treats one differently when they’re white. Part of the wokeness for white folks should be about finally walking in the world without rose-tinted lenses, understanding that their whiteness, unfortunately, is still synonymous with power. It’s about continuous introspection to reflect on one’s individual role in the machine, and it’s important to note that it’s not the same as having a saviour complex or living in the world with white guilt. People of colour don’t need your pity, nor do they have the room to carry your self-pity. Being woke is a state of being that speaks to shared collective consciousness, this could be likeminded people from different backgrounds who have shared interests but no superior figure.
Thus, recently I was shocked by a video with two white girls from the University-of-Pretoria who were calling a black person the K Word at a party surrounded by other white young people. Nobody in their surrounding seemed alarmed by this behaviour until the video made its way to social media, and to the scrutiny of black Twitter. It was difficult for me to comprehend how it was, that their first primal reaction was to call out the K word when they grew up in a ‘democracy’ because they can’t use growing up and being socialized by an apartheid system as an excuse for such a reaction. How is it that they have that word in their vocabulary. to begin with? How is it that it was instinctive for them to see and think of black people in that way? Its these kinds of things that need to be rooted out in the psychology of some white folks, that’s wokeness comes to the party. The greater part of the movement is understanding and being accepting of difference, being ok with knowing that not everyone will agree with our perspective. There are no woke police to dictate how others should embody their consciousness, or else it goes against the very principle. There is no one way to fully realize this state of consciousness. “There is no litmus test for being woke. You can be aware of racism and fail to see how it intersects with economic inequality. You can become aware of the racialized nature of class and still hold to the oppressive ideologies of patriarchy or homophobia. To be woke is to be malleable—one can always be more critical, more empathetic and more sensitive to injustice” ( Ware L, 2016). Woke black people may want the same things for the black communities they grew up in but disagree on how we get there. And that in itself doesn’t take away from ones wokeness.