Rev. Robert L. Montgomery Ph.D
Are you as tired as I am of hearing people complain about “woke?” Many politicians use the term today as a code word to criticize efforts they don’t like, but they rarely offer to define it. Based on what they are criticizing, it would lead us to think that “woke” to them could be defined as being sensitive to social injustice, especially toward minorities or other groups. It is time to recognize “woke” as pointing to something good, which is awareness of the need to make needed changes in society.
The term was popularized among African Americans referring to those aware of racial prejudice and discrimination expressed in the Ferguson and Black Lives Matter protests. This gives “woke” a natural meaning of awareness of injustice. Since injustice is widespread, “woke” can be used in many settings. It is not necessary to accept the negative meaning of “woke” that many who oppose any change in the status quo or promote a right-wing agenda would give it.
Majority groups of people can be unaware and easily ignore what minority groups experience in the way of discrimination and unfairness. That has been true for many years in America and in other societies as well. Being “woke” means being aware of what others are experiencing. In other words, in a healthy society people have empathy and compassion for one another and seek social justice.
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When I lived New Jersey, I was in a group that discussed race relations. I remember one white lady saying, “I am not a racist.” At the same time, in the same meeting I remember every non-white person in the group told of an incident of being stopped in their car, of being followed in a store by a clerk to see that they did not steal anything, or of people crossing the street to avoid them. Most white people in the meeting, including myself at that time, were not aware of these kinds of incidents. In other words, we were not “woke” to what other people were experiencing.
It is not easy to put one’s self in another person’s place or “walk in their shoes,” but that is what Americans need to do. We ordinarily do not do it because it takes a special effort to do so. Being woke or being aware of what others experience, not just on the surface, but below the surface, is a gift that needs to be cultivated in our diverse society. Traditionally, women were better at this than men. It was called “women’s intuition.” Women needed to be aware of what those with more power intended to do. It was a matter of self-protection. This was actually true in general for all people with little power.
It would be good to return “woke” to its natural meaning and to strive to live by it. Being conscious of what others may be thinking or of what is taking place below the surface is a positive attribute in a society like ours with many diverse heritages. Leaders need this ability to make wise decisions. Adverse society like ours should be a society in which everyone is “woke,” namely seeking to be aware of the thoughts and feelings of others. Of course, one must do what is right regardless of what others may think or do, but being “woke” or “aware” of the thoughts and experiences of others will enable people to prepare to do what is right regardless of what others may think.
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In democracies, the thoughts of individuals and groups should be taken seriously. This is the major purpose of free speech and a free press. People on all political sides need to make a special effort to understand the intentions of political leaders, especially the intentions of those with power and wealth, but also the experiences and views of ordinary people who do not have special power.
Our free speech and free press are supportive of research in a variety of locations, including academic institutions and research organizations, which can reveal views and activities that are not generally known. Being “woke” is important in a democracy in creating an aware electorate. “Being woke” is not something bad. When people are “woke,” they are aware what needs to be changed. Only those who recognize the need for change can improve the level of “liberty and justice for all” and build “a more perfect union.”
Rev. Robert L. Montgomery Ph.D lives in Black Mountain.