If you’ve read Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” — and haven’t just accepted the book-banners’ synopsis of the novel — you’ll remember that Sixo, one of the men enslaved on Sweet Home plantation, decides to stop speaking English. Because, the omniscient narrator explains, “there was no future in it.”
Policies that call out oppression are virulently opposed by voters benefiting from said oppression.
Sixo’s rationale for eschewing English — it being his oppressor’s tool, not his — must resonate with Black people from the ivory tower down to the streets who find it near impossible to communicate with the white majority when that white majority has the power to dictate what words mean. The power, even, to make words mean what they don’t.
Yes, the above is a reference to “critical race theory,” but also to “woke” and its tortured derivations “wokeism” and “wokeness” which, according to a glut of shallow opinion pieces, punditry and tweets, is tearing America apart. Or, at the very least, causing Democrats to lose.
When PBS News Hour’s Judy Woodruff asked Democratic strategist James Carville to explain the Democrats’ poor performance in the Nov. 2 elections, he said, “What went wrong is this stupid wokeness.”
Carville represents a party that hasn’t carried the white vote in a national election since 1964, and President Lyndon B. Johnson worried then that his signature on that year’s Civil Rights Bill would cost him. He was hearing from white people across the country that “Negroes are taking over the country, they're running the White House, they're running the Democratic Party.”
Carville names “wokeism” as a new threat to Democrats. But he knows — better than just about anybody — that white people have been accusing Democrats of kowtowing to Black people for 57 years. He ought to admit and grapple with what history has shown: that policies that call out oppression are virulently opposed by voters benefiting from said oppression.
Every serious person who has written about the right’s newfound obsession with critical race theory has pointed out that the term is almost universally misapplied and that what conservatives really have in their crosshairs is any and every curriculum that accurately reveals white Americans as less heroic and more villainous than conservatives want acknowledged.
But there’s no way to stop the ignorant or bad-faith descriptions of critical race theory. Nor, given the stakes, is there a way to let the ignorant and bad-faith descriptions go unchallenged. As Scarecrow from The Wiz sang, “You can’t win, you can’t break even, and you can’t get out of the game.” To choose to play the game is to lose. Sixo understood that.
Bending the language, strategically changing the meaning of terms, is a game that conservatives have played for a long time.
Bending the language, strategically changing the meaning of terms, is a game that conservatives have played for a long time. Look at how they flipped “race-baiter” to mean a Black person calling out racism and not, for example, a white politician exploiting the public’s racism for votes. In addition to that, every Black opinion writer who has ever called out racism has been called a racist in return.
When I once asked a white reader to define “racist,” he said “someone who blames others for their problems.” By that logic, there would be no way for Black people to call out past or present oppression and not meet his definition of racist. All they could legitimately do is shut up. And really that’s all the opponents to progress have ever wanted: silence from those demanding change.
That reader’s definition of “racist,” while absurd, is representative of a mindset held by people who have more control over the language and the popular meaning of words than Black people ever will.
According to an October poll by the University of Virginia Center for Politics and Project Home Fire, only 14 percent of people who voted for Donald Trump strongly agree that in the U.S., “white people have advantages over people of color.” Eighty-four percent “somewhat agree” that “discrimination against whites will increase significantly in the next few years,” and 52 percent “strongly agree.”
On the other side, the share of President Joe Biden’s voters who “strongly agree” that white people have advantages is at a disturbingly low 58 percent, and just as disturbingly, 38 percent “somewhat agree” that discrimination against white people is about to really take off. Yeah, Carville, I don’t doubt that “stupid wokeness” upsets those voters.
For all the Black people urging other Black people to wake up and acknowledge what’s happening around them, polls such as the one from UVA reveal the people who are in the deepest sleep — or, the deepest delusion. They are the same ones who have made a weapon out of “woke,” which was coined by Black people to describe a state of being aware of oppressive systems, policies and people.
While the coinage is relatively new, the concept is old. Whether it’s Marcus Garvey saying, “Wake Up, Africa! Wake Up, Ethiopia!” or Martin Luther King Jr. often likening the apathetic to Rip Van Winkle, there’s a long tradition of describing those just becoming aware of social ills as having woken up.
It’s now white people’s word. "Woke" and Black people have no future together.
Or, in the more recent vernacular, “getting woke.” But it follows that the people who distorted the language to make Black people decrying racism the racists, would make people decrying oppression the oppressors. They’d have us believe that America’s problem isn’t police brutality, sexism, homophobia, income equality or environmental racism but the people calling it out.
Black Americans may dream of being Sixo, but we can’t live here and abandon the whole language, although we have routinely discarded individual words and phrases. So it will be with “woke.” It’s now white people’s word. "Woke" and Black people have no future together.
So don’t think of “woke”as having anything to do with what Black people think. Think of it and “wokeism” as having everything to do with what white people want the world to think Black people think.