Recall when Black Lives Matter meant nothing more than a movement to stop the arbitrary police brutality and murder of people of colour? Recall when Colin Kaepernick took a knee as a memorial in protest of the very same? In their headlong determination to spread division and hate, Republicans have kidnapped such blameless words and gestures and turned them into objects of derision and scorn.
The latest Republican pet hatred is with all things “woke.” It should be noted that, like BLM and taking a knee, the term “woke” started life as an idea used principally in African American circles. It derives from African American vernacular and originally meant “awake to injustice and racial prejudice.” It has somewhat evolved to mean something more generalized as “enlightened.”
But I hope you’ve noticed that in the three examples I gave, each began existence as peaceful expressions of African American calls for justice. That is no coincidence. Republican hatred of these ideas is nothing more than a dog whistle for bigotry. Their attempt to co-opt those ideas and reenlist them as symbols of scorn are deliberately contrived expressions of racial prejudice.
Today the term “woke” is applied by Republicans to everything from the supposedly wrong-headed “Democrat culture” at Disney World to the root cause of the collapse of the Silicon Valley Bank. Bill Maher has transmogrified it into his favourite reason to despise liberals. If something is “woke” it’s automatically seen as going too far. It’s a word that is now used to heap ridicule on anyone who is too easily “triggered,” someone who is deemed to be too sensitive.
This is nothing new. It’s a common reaction from people who have problems with positive change to despise progressive movements. After all, the very word “conservative” gives itself away. It’s an antonym of “progressive.” The conservative movement is one that wants to conserve the ways of the past. It’s an attempt to stop change and revert to old ways, to — you guessed it — “make America great again.”
Republicans were severely traumatised by having a black President so they elected Trump. They couldn’t come right out and applaud the murder of George Floyd, so instead they attempted to associate peaceful protests of his murder with violence. They were so intent on making that association that they even hired thugs to cause violence during BLM protests.
The bottom line is Republicans want to stop change, and being “woke” is a symbol of that change. Republicans have always been good at divesting words of their meaning and repurposing them to cause angry reactions. The term “elite,” for instance, has ironically been redefined to mean anyone with an education. Alleged billionaires like Donald Trump routinely use it derisively with a straight face on social media while sitting on their golden toilets. Trying to teach kids about slavery has been rebranded as “critical race theory.”
Being woke means being sensitive to the needs of others. It means acknowledging that even when other people have special needs that we don’t share and don’t necessarily relate to, we should believe them anyway, even if it’s slightly inconvenient to do so.
The worst people on earth use the term “woke” as a slur against tolerance. That’s as good a reason as any for us to become woke — and a good reason for us to stay that way. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.