David Brooks devoted a recent column to explaining the concept of “cool” to hep-cat readers of the New York Times. The cool aesthetic is on the wane these days, but Brooks sees a plausible successor in the concept of “woke.” Woke shares with cool a “rebel posture,” but where coolness is politically detached and individualistic, wokeness is “nationalistic and collectivist.” Cool is “emotionally reserved,” but “woke is angry.” “To be woke,” in short, “is to be radically aware and justifiably paranoid.”
Uncool, David. No sooner had he laid it on us than Kelly Macias took him to school from the Daily Kos: “David Brooks tries to explain ‘woke’ to the rest of us, fails miserably.” She wasn’t the only black activist to take umbrage. The cultural-appropriation police were on his case.
Brooks correctly credited Erykah Badu’s 2008 song “Master Teacher” (“What if there were no n****s, only master teachers? I stay woke.”) as a key source of the term. Like other pieces of black slang, “woke” has traveled to some unlikely destinations, including the alt-right, but “wokeness” definitely stems from radical black politics.
When I was a kid growing up in Brooklyn in the late ’90s and early 2000s, “conscious” was what we said. Woke means the same thing, updated to include “intersectionality” — the notion of overlapping forms of oppression (race, class, gender, etc.). The new word provides opportunities.
Someone like Colin Kaepernick becomes woke by immersing himself in the writings of Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael. He’s woke when he accepts the inescapable nature of white supremacy and oppression. No one is more woke than best-selling writer Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Whites too can be woke. When Matt McGorry in 2015 Snapchatted a bare-chested photograph of himself reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and posted a series of pro-feminist memes on Instagram, social-media activists cheered him for being a white guy who gets it. And the accolades didn’t stop there: BuzzFeed honored McGorry months later with an article titled, “Can We Talk About How Woke Matt McGorry was in 2015?”
As the McGorry example shows, woke often means uncritically accepting black political opinion. It can also require looking the other way when the facts don’t fit the narrative. Hating cops is de rigueur among the woke, regardless of how many thousands of black lives have been saved by aggressive policing.
Black writers dismiss whites’ use of the #woke hashtag by complaining that it’s a shallow form of virtue signaling. Writing for The Awl, Maya Binyam accused whites of being participants in “the Woke Olympics,” a game in which white participants take turns attacking social-media posts that allegedly project white privilege.
At issue for Binyam is whites’ focus on Halloween costumes rather than whole of Western civilization of which they are inextricably apart. This makes it easier to understand why black students at Mizzou excluded whites from a demonstration protesting the killing of Michael Brown and why white students don’t challenge black students who demand such segregation.
A belief that whites are irredeemably racist and therefore incapable of dealing faithfully with blacks flows from the logic of wokeness. This actually impedes reform on issues that blacks wish to address and inclines conservatives to wash their hands of black complaints.
And Brooks wasn’t wrong to say wokeness is “paranoid.” It makes blacks think that whites are always thinking about blacks.
Wokeness isn’t a tool for thinking critically about issues.
Wokeness isn’t a tool for thinking critically about issues. It’s a demand for in-group conformity and a reason not to pay attention to, say, rising black-on-black murder rates in Chicago. And it helps explain why elite colleges’ hands are tied when black students demand segregation. Policymakers either tell blacks what they want to hear or ignore key issues altogether.
Perhaps it’s time to rouse ourselves from the hypnotic appeal of wokeness. Reducing politics to identity claims keeps the racial-grievance script alive but doesn’t point a way forward. If black leaders want results in their communities, they’re going to have to play a role in changing the rules on how we discuss black issues. Big Daddy Brooks’s readers at the New York Times will eventually catch up.
— Dion J. Pierre is a 2016 graduate of Hofstra University. He’s currently a research associate at the National Association of Scholars where he leads a study exploring racial self-segregation in higher education.