What does the word “awakening” mean? We asked our panelists | Malaika Jabali, Laura Kipnis, Rebecca Solnit, Bhaskar Sunkara, Thomas Chatterton Williams, Zaid Jilani and Derecka Purnell


Malaika Jabali: “Woke has become deformed to the point of becoming unrecognizable”

It is especially people who do not understand the original connotation of “awake” who say still awake. They can have it. Whether we are talking about the “critical race theory” of black scholars, the “identity politics” of black feminists, or the “awakening” of black slang, the indigenous terms of our thinking or advocacy are being taken up and distorted in the dark. – beyond recognition in the mainstream. company.

Woke was another way of saying “conscious”: to be aware of our conditions and our history in an America that lulls us into the myths of a post-racial, color-blind, meritocratic society. In the midst of police murders in this “post-racial” society, these myths have become untenable.

Slang is organic. It comes from special conditions. There is no authoritative body to determine what terms are used and why. And just as “revival” has turned into a call to action to keep fighting, black Americans will continue to give birth to terms that define what we do. And others will continue to co-opt and distort.

Laura Kipnis: “Wokeness is about style, not substance”

The term “revival” did not exist in 1921, when Somerset Maugham wrote his short story Rain on the fall of a professional rebuke – the Christian missionary, Mr. Davidson, whose public outbursts against sin masked dishonest private impulses . But I think Maugham was animated by instincts similar to mine when I deployed the “revival” against contemporaries whom I find too full of their own righteousness.

The instinct is that something is going on with you, the rebuke, that you cannot see in yourself; all of this harassment and exhortation is compensatory in a way. Excessive. “Woke” is a hermeneutics of suspicion in a nutshell, a shorthand for the kind of characterology Maugham was performing, dissecting the self-relationship and delusions of a fulminator.

I think it’s more useful applied to political style than to political substance, though: I can agree with those awakened on politics – I’m for social justice too! – even though I may be suspicious of righteous vanguards and missionary zeal.

Mr Davidson says things like, “If the tree is rotten, it will be cut down and thrown into the flames,” referring to the South Sea islanders he and his wife intend to convert. “We had to make sins what they thought were natural actions,” she says, her equal in righteousness. Note the punitive rigidity that underlies “good works”, the authoritarian tendency, the religiosity of self-congratulation. Compare with your Twitter feed.

  • Laura Kipnis is a writer. His new book, Love in the Time of Contagion: A Diagnosis, will be released in February

Rebecca Solnit: “Woke was kidnapped and died”

Once upon a time, the past tense of “to watch” left its life as a verb and became a kind of adjective, a term to describe the quality of awakening, especially to injustice and racism. Like other vernacular words in the English language, Woke’s youth was among black youth, but his illness and decline came after his kidnapping by old white conservatives. They were often angry with words, especially new words, especially words that disturbed their rest – woke them up, you might say – and Woke was such a word.

This fairy tale ends badly. Rather than kill Woke, they tried to turn him into a zombie mercenary sent to poke fun at those who were concerned about racism and other injustices. This backfired on him and “woke up” became a marker of the non-OK Boomer, a bilious word whose meaning was more in who had said it than in what it meant or laughed at. In other words, Woke is dead. The cool kids weren’t sad that Woke was dead, because he wasn’t their word anymore, and the mean old people weren’t sad because they didn’t know he was dead. The end.

Bhaskar Sunkara: “The tongue on the left can be a problem”

Being “awake” used to mean being attentive to the lingering realities of oppression, especially the oppression faced by black Americans. But today, its meaning has changed. To be “awakened” is to urgently fail to build coalitions that can win over the working class and actually redistribute money and power to the oppressed.

This is not to say that progressives have to shy away from issues of social justice to win over a mythically conservative working class, but that we have to recognize the reality that working class people of all races basically want the same things: good jobs, housing, reliable health care and the ability to support themselves and their families. Framing universal concerns with identity-focused messages or language stolen directly from academia is a huge mistake.

James Carville is absolutely right when he talks about the Democratic Party’s messages being too far removed from ordinary voters – including the party’s base of black and brown voters. But he is quick to confuse unpopular rhetoric with popular demands like Medicare for All pushed by figures he slanders like Alexandria-Ocasio Cortez and Bernie Sanders.

Our language on parts of the left is a problem. But it’s an easier problem to resolve than the fact that Carville and the Clinton Democrats have lost the trust of millions of Americans with their elite advocacy and decades of unpopular policies. Progressive has an agenda that can win – now we just need the right way to communicate it and new approaches to organize people around their most pressing economic concerns.

Thomas Chatterton Williams: “Woke is not a viable descriptor”

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is right. “Woke” is not, and has not been for some time now, a viable descriptor for anyone who criticizes the left’s many serious excesses while remaining interested in going beyond their own echo chamber.

The term has been co-opted and diluted in meaning by lazy ideologues and bad faith actors on the right, which is a shame, as it is more poetic and evocative than any concise substitute I can think of.

The challenge for anyone interested in something deeper than scoring culture war points is to develop a new language specific enough to persuade those who don’t already agree to consider the same old questions under new ones. angles.

Fairly or not, “awake” and “awake” are now overwhelming signals that you are not fundamentally interested in this rhetorical work, and those who need the most convincing are giving themselves permission to stop paying attention.

  • Thomas Chatterton Williams is the author of Self-Portrait in Black and White. His next book, Nothing Was the Same, will be published by Knopf

Zaid Jilani: “You are either with us or against us”

The word woke loosely refers to a left-wing political ideology fueled by social media that emerged in the English-speaking world in the early 2010s. The term is derived from the state of being awake or aware of structural inequalities in society. and to be hyper aware of its own role in these inequalities. Someone who is awake is constantly inspecting every institution in society, looking for the presence of racism, sexism, and other pervasive forms of prejudice.

What separates someone who is awake from someone who is just progressive is not just this vigilance and awareness, but a fervent belief that everyone should be enlisted in their social causes at all times and that the end justifies the means in the fight against injustice.

Unlike traditional liberals, awakened Americans place very little importance on value-neutral standards like free speech and non-discrimination. As anti-racist activist Ibram Kendi puts it: “The only cure for racist discrimination is anti-racist discrimination. The only remedy for past discrimination is current discrimination. Kendi also informs us that you can only be racist or anti-racist, there is no middle ground, echoing former President George W Bush’s instruction that “either you are with us or you are with the terrorists ”.

Derecka Purnell: “You have to wake people up – then you take action”

From street corners to kitchen tables, friends and I laughed and shouted about the state of black America. We argue over whether our people are “asleep” – oblivious, indifferent, indifferent to the violence white people inflict on us. Such violence can be found in demeaning interpersonal interactions with white individuals and in white supremacist structural violence in our homes, hospitals, jobs and schools.

If “sleep” prevents us from collectively resisting this savagery, then we must remember Malcolm X’s message: “The movement’s biggest mistake has been to try to organize a sleeping people around specific goals. You need to wake people up first, and then you will take action.

Political expressions derived from black activism, including “stay awake”, “Hotep”, “Black Lives Matter“, have strange careers. Like our heroes, they are praised, branded, dehistoricized, co-opted and caricatured. For example, Democratic strategist James Carville calls the “awakening” an unyielding “dumb” commitment to ideas that seek to dramatically improve society. Its use robs the term of its value to make us more politically aware and active on our terms. Why? James Baldwin explains that “to be black in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost, almost all the time.” This rage threatens the status quo, which Carville and other wealthy and politically powerful people are fighting to protect.

Ironically, Carville’s conviction is exactly why black people keep telling themselves to stay awake: elite white actors and institutions profit from the exploitation of black votes, activism and culture while telling us to bury our grievances about their violence. This is how the Democratic Party scribbles “Black Lives Matter” on the banners of its conventions while giving more money to the police who are rapidly killing blacks.

I suspect that, like his right-wing counterparts who are hostile to “critical race theory” and “white privilege,” Carville refuses to learn why blacks historically use enlightenment to inspire our activism.

I suggest he start with Langston Hughes: “Negroes Gentle and docile, meek, humble and kind. Be careful the day they change their mind! Or Malcolm X: “… there will come a time when black people will wake up and become intellectually independent enough to think for themselves … this type of thinking also ends the brutality inflicted on blacks by whites and that is the only thing. . who will end it. No federal court, state court or municipal court will do this. “

  • Derecka Purnell is a columnist for the Guardian US and the author of Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom

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