On Feb. 1, Linda Sarsour, political activist and co-organizer of the Women’s March, came to Vanderbilt to speak at an event called “Intersectionality and Allyship.” Given Sarsour’s impressive activist track record, I figured that I could probably use the opportunity to feel momentarily empowered or enlightened. I did not, however, expect to leave feeling uneasy.
Sarsour spoke about the issues in this country that mean the most to her — racial and religious discrimination being at the core — and told us that we should be concerned about them too. She barely skipped a beat before she turned to the audience, calling out those of us who are a part of what she, like many, calls a “silent majority.” We cannot sit in idle anger, she chastised, pretending our rage is productive just because it is directed at the right people.
This made me wince. I know that I am not the only person who sometimes gets caught up in my own anger, draining myself to exhaustion after reacting emotionally to social injustices or human rights abuses. When I turn on the news and see that yet another boat full of fearful migrants escaping political strife has capsized in the Mediterranean Sea, or learn about the horrifying labor conditions that the person who made my phone is forced to work under, I wonder: how will the people of the future look at someone like me? Will I be viewed as a good person just because my beliefs are morally sound? Because I’m getting mad at the right things? In other words, will it matter that I was, by society’s definition, “woke”?
It has gotten to the point where even the word “woke” has become an “aesthetic.”
I don’t want to discount the work of hardworking nonprofit organizations and advocacy groups; rather, I am more uneasy with how content we are as a generation with just being informed. We glorify celebrities who stick up for feminism once or twice, lauding public figures as paragons of egalitarianism when they’re spotted sporting a Black Lives Matter t-shirt. When we happily declare that they’re “woke,” we are effectively establishing the idea that to be seen as a positive force of change, you just have to have the “right” opinions and make them public. I have been guilty of perpetuating this sort of idea, and it is only recently that I am starting to realize how toxic it could potentially be.
It has gotten to the point where even the word “woke” has become an “aesthetic.” The very concept has become pleasing to the mind. It also seems that the less marginalized you are, the more impressive it is that you’re woke. We are more dazzled when a wealthy person speaks out about income inequality than when a lower-income individual does, more enchanted when we hear a white person speak about police brutality than when a black individual does.
It’s easier to visualize a “woke” person as being a white, well-to-do male who has access to a good education and a platform for his voice. We don’t picture a low-income woman of color because we already expect her to be socially conscious due to her position in society. As a result, an issue somehow becomes more legitimate when a person detached from the problem speaks out about it.
By acting like just knowing about issues makes us honorable or noble, we are fostering a culture of inactivity. Will future generations look back on us and wonder how it’s still possible that most people are wearing clothes made by laborers working for just a few cents an hour? Will they look back at us with scorn, wondering how we didn’t do more to help those who make our daily lives possible?
The people of the future will not care that we were woke. History will blur the lines between those of us who were apathetic and those of us who were passionate but inactive. We will be assigned the label of complacent, neutral. Many of us can agree that this is not comforting considering how bitterly history looks down upon those who were neutral in times of injustice.
By acting like just knowing about issues makes us honorable or noble, we are fostering a culture of inactivity.
For example, many today are disgusted by the way Native American tribes were decimated in the name of colonial dominance. Sure, it may have felt productive in 1831 to feel angry, but today we only group the quiet dissenters with the oppressors because they didn’t do anything to stop the abuse. Are we doomed to the same fate? Does simply being aware of and against the idea of the Dakota Access Pipeline protect us from harsh judgement by future generations? If the end result is a risk posed to the health and identity of Native Americans, then this scenario sounds awfully familiar.
Simply caring is not enough, Sarsour said. She’s right. We cannot lean on our self-proclaimed consciousness as a crutch; simply being “woke” doesn’t determine our capacity for change. We need to reevaluate the way we approach dialogues concerning issues involving human rights. It is okay to have important conversations and engage in softer forms of political activism, but we need to also realize that our work cannot stop there. By wondering how society will view us and the causes that we helped remedy as a society, we are effectively molding our legacy as a generation to be something we won’t have to be ashamed of.