I get it. You’re concerned about being lambasted for using the wrong word or not having the most nuanced understanding of geo-politics. You don’t want to be put on the “hot seat” for committing a gaffe or being imperfect when it comes to understand diversity and inclusion. In other words, you are tired of the “woke” culture.
And guess what? To some extent, so am I. I have been called an “Uncle Tom” for reasons that continue to befuddle me. I have been accused of supporting “respectability politics” as a Gay man. I have also been accused of being “comfortable with the oppressor.” And although those who know me personally and professionally would soundly reject those assessments, that fact that some would hurl those accusations is not really important in the larger scheme of things. Yet, as a consultant, professor, and speaker, the fact that I was said to not be “woke” was a stinging rebuke of my identity and even caused me (albeit briefly) to rethink whether I should engage in dialogue with others around diversity, inclusion, and equity issues. For a moment I thought, I don’t recognize the progressive world I thought I lived in anymore.
Even after nearly 20 years of doing diversity and inclusion work, I continue to make mistakes and I continue to learn. And with any developmental model, shaming or cancelling people – which has become so prevalent with “woke” culture – is highly problematic, if not downright ineffective. Learners (which is what we are when engaging new cultures) are not likely to absorb new information and transform their behavior if the learning container feels punitive (Holley & Steiner 2005). If we make good-faith attempts at learning exceedingly risky, then the learner, ally, or new social justice adherent will simply avoid conversation or any attempt to become more culturally-intelligent for fear of walking onto a landmine. No one wants to feel like they are walking on eggshells in order to become more diversity mature. Learning must come with the appropriate space to take risks and learn from our mistakes without fear from judgment.
However, as problematic as “woke” culture can be, status-quo culture is equally if not more problematic. When we stay “unconscious” and allow the traditional norms of white supremacy, patriarchy, heterosexism, classism, religiosity, ableism, and cisgenderism to burn incessantly without remedy or recourse, we are normalizing outcomes in which underrepresented cultures continue to suffer, struggle, and die. And this last point is not a matter of embellishment.
Consider the following: on October 20th, millions of people across the world commemorated the Transgender Day of Remembrance to honor the lives of transgender and non-gender conforming people across the world. Unfortunately, in just this past year, 331 transgender people have been killed globally (Forbes, 2019). In the U.S., violence against the transgender community is at epic proportions and despite this fact, none of the current U.S. presidential candidates has addressed how they would deal with this issue in a forceful way. To be clear, this very fact is an example of people not being “woke” or mindful of the realities that exist around them.
The very idea of being “woke” is not to castigate those who are uninformed or unsophisticated on particular topic, but to stir us from the painfully-quiet reality in which acts of violence and discrimination fester. When we are not “woke” or awakened to the suffering of our friends, family, colleagues, and neighbors, we are helping to preserve a status quo that destroys the soul and conscience of our fellow global citizens. In fact, the status quo prevents too many from becoming “woke” to their own potential and unlimited capability. Given the geo-political realities we are facing now – including climate change, automation, nationalism, and the like – we need every person to become woke and aware of their power in order to save humanity.
So while I get fatigued when fellow social justice warriors and DEIB practitioners employ an arbitrary and unforgiving litmus test in assessing the bona fides of people who profess to love and support this work, I also understand the place from where it is coming. Marginalized people do not have the luxury of always watching those in privilege clumsily wade into waters of inclusion and equity. We need leaders and everyday citizens to be focused, intentional, curious, diligent, and empowered. We need people to act as advocates and not as armchair allies.
In the end, I won’t blame you for not being perfect. Neither am I, and I don’t describe myself as “woke” in the strictest sense of the word. But I won’t live as a social sleepwalker either. My experience, my journey, and my consciousness cannot abide by you if you remain comfortable with the tragic reality that we are witnessing in 2019 and beyond. I cannot support being comfortable with the status quo.
Dr. Joel A. Davis Brown is a consultant, coach, speaker, storyteller, and soon-to-be author based in San Francisco and Paris.