“You are so woke,” remarks one of my closest friends.
Subsequently, I am catapulted into a double take. Is that a compliment or an insult, ironic or unironic? I think my friend means well, but do I want to be called “woke?”
Woke culture has spent a considerable amount of time in the limelight lately, especially with its rise — or should I say trendiness — in the mainstream media earlier this year. Black boxes upon blank profile pictures upon aesthetic posts: Virtually, it was abnormal to not repost anything.
One day, its momentum suddenly diminished. After all the #BlackoutTuesday posts, the appropriation of Breonna Taylor’s name into pop culture, the avows to change Aunt Jemima’s brand and the apologies for racist behavior in the past, optical allies started to move on. This time, however, it was okay to be complacent. After all, we are brandished with “wokeness” now, right?
While woke culture has its positive effects, white people have twisted it into a practice of performativity. Sure, a black screen projects solidarity and support for the Black Lives Matter movement, but what else does it accomplish? Ultimately, the emergence of woke culture has given white people an opportunity to practice optical allyship and exceptionalism.
According to Merriam-Webster, woke culture actually originated in the Black community, with the term “stay woke” referring to those who were self-aware. After the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, the term became more associated with the Black Lives Matter movement and the awareness-raising of social justice issues.
However, with the appropriation of this term by the white community, the phrase has become a medium of emblazoning “I’m one of the good ones” through meaningless methods of practicing allyship. “Wokeness” has turned into a compliment and a mode of instant gratification for doing the bare minimum. It has literally become trendy for white people to practice anti-racism because it makes us look good.
I recently completed the “Me and White Supremacy” journaling challenge, in which author Layla Saad includes a chapter on optical allyship. Some specific examples she discusses are, “Bringing activism words and BIPOC images into your brand to make your business look more ‘woke’” and “Reading this book today because you secretly hope it will make you look more ‘woke.’” White exceptionalism and optical allyship go hand-in-hand, and they both revolve around woke culture.
For more examples, we can look to pop culture — the removal of past racist episodes in “30 Rock,” Jimmy Fallon apologizing for blackface and Lady A changing its name (only to subsequently file a declaratory judgment lawsuit against Lady A, a Black singer in Seattle who already has the stage name). We wanted systemic change: defunding the police, abolition of mass incarceration and education equity, among other necessary policy changes. However, we incited performative wokeness instead.
After completing this challenge, I cringe every time another white person refers to themself as “woke.” The term is thrown around freely, like instant doses of dopamine as a reward for educating oneself about issues they had the privilege of ignoring before it flooded their social media. Silence is violence, but optical allyship introduces a plethora of problems that make it just as harmful, if not worse.
Wokeness is not a gold star to make white people feel better about historically oppressing marginalized communities, just like slapping a Band-Aid on an elbow won’t fix a broken arm. It is inherently counterintuitive to claim one wants to enact structural change, only to write “woke” across one’s forehead with a washable Crayola marker.
We see this same level of superficiality with “cancel culture,” which is intended to hold people accountable for problematic behaviors. However, the media tosses it around like new slang, ultimately burying its original intention of calling in and calling out. We “cancel” so we can unsubscribe momentarily while whoever we “canceled” learns from their mistake and grows — not to prove our “wokeness.” For instance, J.K Rowling perpetuates harmful stereotypes about the transgender community, so we cancel her for being a TERF, or a trans-exclusionary radical feminist.
Despite the existence of “cancel culture,” we will readily subvert it. I am talking to non-Black people who will acknowledge anti-Black companies but will still consume their products. I am talking to the “ally” who will order “How to be an Antiracist” from Amazon instead of a local bookstore.
Again, allyship is not an identity — it is a fluid practice. The purpose is to educate each other about how we continue to perpetuate white supremacy values. I highly recommend that every person with white privilege and white-passing privilege read “Me and White Supremacy” and actually complete the journaling challenge.
I, myself, was guilty of exceptionalism and thought I could read the book without keeping a journal. Oh, how I was wrong, and I am continuing to learn how I am wrong every day. I would be embarrassed, but I am not because that’s normal. It’s something that society — and the Socratic method — has drilled into our heads since childhood: Without mistakes, we could not learn.
At this point, seeking to garner clout through being “woke” is frankly embarrassing. The world has been too loud to not be an insomniac.
Matthew Eck is a junior writing about culturally relevant social issues. His column, “The Eck’s Factor,” runs every other Wednesday.