On Being ‘Woke’ and out of Touch

BY: DEVONTAE TORRIENTE

Before I came to college, I wasn’t able to hold a coherent conversation on capitalism, sexism or racism. They were never topics that were adequately covered in my high school classes, despite the fact that they were integral to telling the stories of those we read about in our textbooks and novels.

At the time, I did not realize that having NYPD officers patrol the hallways of my predominantly minority middle school was an extension of racism, nor did I realize that the homophobic slurs I encountered from my peers was a manifestation of toxic (and deadly) masculinity. I knew they were inherently wrong, but I wasn’t able to properly contextualize and analyze those experiences until many years later.

Being a college student at a seemingly progressive institution, I became equipped with the language needed to verbalize the systematic obstacles marginalized people experience. Whether it was because of the articles I read for class and the discussions that followed, or because of the conversations with my peers outside of the classroom, I gained the ability to have the same conversations that seemed inconceivable just a few years ago. It wasn’t until my sophomore year in college that I began to parse through the problematic aspects of my level of access to information and education.

What I describe as the ability to identify and unpack social issues dealing with identity and systems of oppression, others sum up as being “woke.” I never use the term and I typically avoid labelling anyone else as such because I believe it fundamentally misses the point.

“Wokeness,” much like allyship, confers a status of enlightenment for people to aspire to; it implies that as long as you check items off of a list, you’ve leveled up to the next stage of being a progressive. It neglects the fact that dissecting and dismantling these systems is a journey with a destination that many of us may never reach in our lifetimes. In short, it places more importance on theory over praxis. Being “woke” is a self-aggrandizing label that prioritizes reciting quotes by radical activists over doing actual social justice work.

Now don’t get me wrong; it is difficult to put into practice what we cannot clearly think through and verbalize. But over the last three years, I have watched my peers (and myself) participate in competitions to prove who knows the most about social issues without realizing the irony of it all: While we sit inside these ivory towers debating who is the most “woke,” we are only here because our privilege allows us to be; that once the semester ends and we put our sociology books down, many of us will resume living our lives unburdened by the very systematic issues we spent an entire semester proving we know the most about. The ideas cultivated, fraught as they may be, are undoubtedly important, but so is the application of those ideas once everything is said and done.

There are certainly those who routinely speak out about these issues and are also the ones most impacted by them. But the culture we have fostered in progressive circles, particularly on college campuses, reeks of entitlement and elitism. While it is critical for us to continue to use the access we have to expand our minds in ways we may not have imagined, we have to deflate our egos and stop the arrogant competitions. After all, the people fending for their lives because of these violent systems need more than just inaccessible theories filtered through academic institutions; they need practical solutions.