“That’s not woke.” My heart sinks a little when I hear that sentence. In today’s political climate, the word “woke” causes anxiety for a variety of reasons. While the purpose of the word is to empower communities and raise awareness to systems of oppression, it can cause anxiety in an intellectual environment focused on social justice. At Urban, if an individual doesn’t share the same socially liberal beliefs that characterize the majority of its students’ political perspectives, they are viewed as not “woke” and shamed for their social conservatism in today’s politically-polarizing time. This pressure is real, if often rooted in ignorance.
The metaphorical significance of the term originated in the black community and continues to be used as a way to describe a member who is quite literally “awakened” to internalized oppression. According to the Oxford English dictionary, the term “woke” was contextualized in Garvey Lives, a 1972 play by Barry Beckham. In it, Beckham writes, “I been sleeping all my life. And now that Mr. Garvey done woke me up, I’m gon stay woke. And I’m gon help him wake up other black folk.” More recently in 2008, “stay woke,” was employed in Erykah Badu’s song “Master Teacher”, according to the Odyssey online. Since then, the Black Lives Matter movement mobilized the #staywoke to protest police brutality.
In an interview with the Urban Legend, history teacher Charisse Wu said, “wokeness as a term comes from the black community; in terms of vernacular I think that it is deeply rooted in issues that are often new to white Americans that they’re like ‘I didn’t know that this happened’ like police brutality. It’s something that’s been long-standing and known [in] American life by a lot of black communities.”
Given Urban’s roots in social justice, it’s not surprising that “woke,” “stay woke” or “that’s not woke” are often used in both classroom discussions and casual conversations. However, at Urban, another stress is added when we use the word apart from its original purpose and instead as a way of gauging and identifying political correctness in our peers.
I value Urban for its atmosphere that encourages complexity in the form of intellectually stimulating conversations and ideas in and around both identity and experience. While Urban provides students with the opportunity to explore and contemplate expressions of identity, when students actually begin analyzing identities based on the words that an individual uses or fits, expressions like “stay woke” are reduced to something you either have or you don’t.
Over this past spring break, a handful of Urban students visited a public high school in rural Mississippi on an Urban organized trip and had the opportunity to consider their own “wokeness” outside of the context of Urban. Skylar Baker (‘18) reflected on the Mississippi trip: “there was some talk on the trip that I found very un-woke… it showed up as this idea that somehow coming from Urban… we had a higher capacity to understand complex social ideas. Even one person on our trip mentioned that she thought she had to change the way that she was going to speak so that people in Mississippi, people at Gentry High School, would understand us… After that, we realized that even though these kids are poor black Mississippian kids from the Delta in a school that is wildly underfunded does not mean that they can’t understand or they don’t want to understand the world in the way we do because of our privilege.”
Sophia Robb (‘18) said, “at Urban, it’s like a social currency. It’s like who is the wokest and who can make the most like philosophical and woke point in class rather than this idea of like ‘we all want to be aware of what’s going on in our society.’”
At Urban, words are used to guilt or shame, include or exclude, identify or alienate. The difference in words such as “woke” or even “intersectionality” is that their presence or absence has the power to shape our identities. This has to change because it impedes our ability to learn and evolve and also obfuscates the actual issues of social injustice.
In a past Women’s United States History class, the word “intersectionality” took on a similar weight and role. Wu reflects, “People were talking about it and using the phrase in a way that created a lot of stress and anxiety and prevented them from really learning. They wanted to make sure they were saying it right and I’m like, ‘It’s a framework of being.’”
For freshmen coming into the school, this can be intimidating. As a first-year student, Tess Cogen (‘22) recollected, “In my Identity and Ethnic Studies class, whenever someone brought up a slightly controversial subject everyone would rag on them and looking back on it, it feels really icky. Urban prides itself on being super open-minded, but I don’t know if that’s necessarily true because if the majority of people are what’s called “woke” then you have an outlying group which is unawakened which is problematic.”
At an academically competitive school such as Urban where students are expected to participate in Socratic seminars and even some difficult conversations, it is not surprising that words can take on new meanings. Often, they are what helps us get good grades. We take classes dedicated to learning through community service, but how can we connect with individuals outside of the “Urban bubble” if we are so quick to label and judge? In a time when younger generations are feeling disillusioned by the Trump administration’s agenda and growing up to face that climate, it’s important that we maintain healthy dialogue and continue to advocate for our rights in a productive way. As a student body, we need to be more intentional about how we use words such as “woke” and “intersectionality,” not only because it creates an environment where students are reluctant to make mistakes and learn, but also because it creates more division within the Urban hallways and beyond.