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Phillips: The problem with “woke” culture

Ruby Phillips, Columnist

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This weekend, I was able to see the Wirtz Theatre’s MFA Lab production of White, a theatre production that addresses how everyone is complicit in problematic institutions and the tokenization of people of color. The show delved into how being socially conscious about issues of race has become more so a facet of elite cultural capital than a substantial method of critical consciousness and enacting tangible change.

The show really forced me to think about how it has become trendy to feign social awareness instead of engaging with institutional issues around us. It made me wonder why in our campus culture — and that of society at large — accountability, uprooting social norms and pushing ourselves to be uncomfortable has become a competition privy to white people who can put on a #blacklivesmatter button or gloat about how they are not in Greek life.

I hate the word “woke.” There’s a certain currency to wokeness that has become popular to spend around college campuses. I have been in far too many classes where anyone who brings up the question of identity or race has been lauded as “into social justice.” But what’s more important is that we should all be thinking about these issues on different levels, no matter who we are. No sect of people has earned this badge to do so more than others, hold people to a higher standard of engagement and push their thought processes. These conversations are not exclusively for people of color or marginalized communities.

Of course, learning is for everyone to do at their own pace. But it is crucial to remember that we shouldn’t give up even though there is no clear solution. What does it mean to be successfully engaged and resisting? I honestly don’t know, and I definitely have not gotten there. But I think the problem is that “there” doesn’t exist. There is no boiling point where someone will have read enough books, engaged with enough communities or attended enough rallies to be free of the burden of complicity. I am sick of people using their engagement to shame other people to prove that they are smarter or cooler.

On the flip side of this conversation, I am not asking more people of color or marginalized communities to bear the brunt of explaining how racism, classism and sexism still exist. I understand that some people of color are done with explaining, with screaming, with trying to force change when nothing is working. White people must understand this as well. In one essay by Alicia Garza, one of the founders of the #blacklivesmatter movement, she aptly articulates my feelings on how we perceive wokeness and different levels of social consciousness.

Garza talks about how she was not born with the knowledge she now has — rather, someone else taught her and was patient with her. She learned it earlier than most white people, as she says it was beaten into her brain to the point where she felt like she had to act. She says, “I can be critical of white women and, at the same time, seek out and join with women, white and of color, who are awakening to the fact that all lives do not, in fact, matter, without compromising my dignity, my safety and radical politics.” She stresses the necessity of working together at this point in time while still holding white people to a certain standard.

Moreover, I want to highlight that everyone is coming from different perspectives and starting points when it comes to these conversations. Recognizing this fact and not belittling people is a responsibility we all share. If people of color are tired of repeating themselves, than maybe white people can try to make sure they don’t have to.

The line between allyship and appropriation is far too blurry these days, and woke culture contributes to that. It is hard to know who is actually following up on their beliefs and doing the work and who is just putting up a facade. But we are at the point where everyone should be thinking about these concepts. Everyone should be trying to know when to listen and educate themselves through ethnic studies classes and teach ins.

Wokeness can’t become just another facet of elite cultural capital, a new kind of language that lets you engage in certain kinds of spaces and not others. If being woke means you are awake and you have seen the bad parts of the world, such as racial oppression, sexual assault and ableism, then you shouldn’t feel liberated or redeemed. These things should stick with you. They should sit with you and crawl on your skin. Because even living with that discomfort won’t compare to the years of injustice our society has caused so many.

Ruby Phillips is a Weinberg sophomore. She can be contacted at rubyphillips2020@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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