Essay | July 18, 2021
Rise and Shine: It’s Woke O’ Clock!
I’m not sure if I have ever encountered an unironic use of woke in the wild. The first time I ever heard the word was on The Daily Show, where the usage of woke was benignly funny in the same way a middle-aged late-night host saying on fleek or some other newfangled lingo was. Nowadays, I only encounter woke in its pejorative sense, as the root of the problems of late modernity, real or perceived.
This is a pity because woke is a useful word in describing the cultural phenomenon that emerged out of the 2010s in progressive circles, around when the phrase stay woke hopped from African-American Vernacular English into the mainstream by way of Black Twitter, which gave us such gems as on fleek, based, and you finna die. Any progressive or conservative today would agree that the following sentence, whether or not they agree with its message, is obviously woke.
We must center the experiences of black women as we save this country from the forces of white supremacy
There is something in its jargon, style, and affect that is instantly recognizable.
However, the sentiment expressed above would not have been entirely unintelligible in an earlier era. It was no secret that the spotlight of the civil rights movement of the 1960s was dominated by charismatic men. To be a Black woman in the segregationist South was to be doubly condemned, on the basis of race and then of gender. In that light, I can perfectly imagine an old preacher from Atlanta calling on his congregation to remind themselves of the experiences of Black women in the shared struggle against segregation. And it would have been good advice, too! The movement needed the energy of women organizers—many of whom were written out of and belatedly added back into civil rights history—and it hurt the movement to alienate them.
However, there is something to 2010s progressive activism that can not be translated to the 1960s. And it is by pinning down that missing element of cultural understanding that we can begin to define wokeness, not as some vague cultural tendency, but as a particular thing that emerged at a particular time to address a particular need.
I will try my best here to arrive a neutral definition of wokeness, as something other than a bogeyman to fear or as part of a political program to promote. Because although wokeness is associated with a set of specific political positions, it is not inherent to them.
Let us consider the phrasing of same-sex marriage versus queer rights. The somewhat clinical, even neutral, phrasing of same-sex marriage simply asks that society tweak its existing notion of marriage to consider the alternative where the sex of one partner has been interchanged. On the other hand, the language of queer rights demands that society acknowledge the existence of queer identities up-front. It recognizes that non-heterosexual relationships aren’t merely an extension of a franchise developed by heterosexuals, but something distinct unto themselves.
From a branding perspective, calling it same-sex marriage may have been the better pitch when convincing skeptics about legalization. However, the second approach strikes me as a more honest one. The dynamics of queer relationships do generally differ from those of straight relationships. And queer couples do generally view their queerness differently than straight couples think (or not think) about their own straightness. Although I do not think these differences matter from the legal standpoint of granting marriage licenses, I do think they are meaningful to talk about.
As Steve Valocchi wrote in The Class-Inflected Nature of Gay Identity (1999): The definition of ‘the homosexual’—a unitary label characterized by same-sex object choice—emerged first in middle class urban cultures during the first half of the twentieth century as sexologists and other medical specialists pursued the profession-enhancing project of naming and categorizing. The emerging definition, however, coexisted with a variety of alternative definitions in working class and African-American urban communities as segments of the middle class homosexual community adopted the scientific definition of same-sex object choice. This middle class definition became the definition that was pushed from above as the American psychiatric establishment allied itself to state power in the mobilization for World War II.
Fundamentally, saying neither same-sex marriage nor queer rights conveys a different view on equal legal rights, but they do suggest different ways to get there. The former especially appeals to a middle-class sensibility in keeping with the rest of polite society, while the latter is explicitly affirmational. By asserting one’s pride of place, one directly confronts an unjust society and one’s own internalized grief about it simultaneously.
I’m here and I’m queer
Progressivism, speaking broadly, seeks to reduce the imbalances between disadvantaged groups and advantaged ones by securing equal resources and rights for all. Wokeness is the view that this material and legal process is intrinsically tied to securing representation in the cultural realm, even if it means—especially if it means—an uncomfortable confrontation with the majority. There is no option for a marginalized group to just be folded into the majority culture while enjoying equal benefits, because meaningful equality cannot truly happen without full recognition.
History is littered with examples of ethnic and religious minorities who, despite coexisting with their neighbors quite well for centuries, were suddenly uprooted by pogroms and expulsions. Blending into the background seems like a pretty good deal until it’s not. As such, it’s not a bad idea to attain some degree of cultural visibility as a form of protection against that. Minority cultures have always tried to curry such cultural favor: assuming high offices in the imperial court of the reigning monarch, writing themselves favorably into popular literature and poetry to drown out their usual depictions as child-snatchers or whatever ghoulish caricature, and so on. Along the way, they also develop pride about their own identity and can participate fully in life without keeping heads down.
Where wokeness diverges from history is that its form of identity politics isn’t attached to a specific marginalized identity. Its state of flux is reflected in its evolving acronyms, which both refine (POC to BIPOC) and expand (LGBT to LGBTQIA+) categories as they acquire more letters.
It is by listing out the numbers, 0, 1, 2, 3, … that we arrive at the notion of the set of natural numbers denoted by the symbol of the double-struck capital N, which isn’t a number at all. Similarly, the identity in identity politics has no identity, except as an eternal variable or placeholder for posterity.
This lack of specificity is perfectly logical if one wishes to avoid accidentally marginalizing any particular identity. In practice, there may be implicit or explicit hierarchies depending on what people are present in a given context and the views they hold, but in theory, the framework of wokeness does not want to commit itself to any set list of sanctioned identities. Instead, it encourages the exploration of new identities among its members as part of liberation from forms of marginalization that they may not even perceive except intense personal interrogation. Under wokeness, diversity is not simply a signal that the progressive project of securing benefits and rights is working, an indicator that the distribution of advantages is probabilistically even. Diversity is an end in itself, part and parcel of liberation.
This presents a challenge. Organizing a diverse group of people is very hard. Organizing people based on a non-specific idea of identity is astronomically more so. That is, unless you evolve some interchangeable set of practices and language that can be shared even among hyper-specific categories of identity.
While we all may not have the same identity, we all at least have one (or more).
Hence, there is a strong focus in wokeness about personal experience. By commiserating about how our identities have brought us personal adversity in one way or another and celebrating the moments where we triumphed in affirming those identities, this communal activity provides the vital link that holds the whole enterprise together. By intentionally embracing some degree of fragmentation within—celebrating diversity and difference as an end in itself—the resulting structure is resilient, even antifragile.
Take for example, the straight male. If he chooses to participate, he is now reborn as a cishet, which is both the same thing and yet different. While cishet may be statistically, the majority, it is now just another category under the whole spectrum, just as valid as all the others. He can participate in the same commiseration and celebration with his newfound allies, albeit in a different form. His confrontation with marginalization is at the opposite end, as the one historically imposing marginalization on others. An outside critic might think it a raw deal, assuming a historical debt he does not owe to anyone, but he may feel just fine. He might even feel more in tune with who he is, not just as a random guy who popped into being one day and really likes video games or something but as an individual aware of his own place in the larger sweep of social history. He is, in its own way, welcomed to the ever-expanding club.
Because personal experience is the connective tissue that holds it all together, there isn’t a boundary between one’s personal and political life. The drama of political struggle plays out in the theater of everyday living, and vice versa. The constant awareness of this added dimension to everyday life becomes a back-and-forth between the general and the particular until you can no longer (want to) distinguish between the two.
The use of whiteness and anti-blackness refer as much to faceless, structural forms of discrimination as to specific instances of white individuals one encountered recently. In fact, even in the same breath.
There also isn’t a boundary between one political issue and another. As all politics is about people, and all peoples suffer some form of marginalization, there is a dimension of identity to all the major issues of our time, whether it be racial justice (obviously) or climate change—now as climate justice because it is also about protecting Black and Brown communities impacted by rising sea levels and the like.
To return to the beginning, wokeness is not a policy platform. It is a paradigm that is layered onto different progressive policies to glue them into one cohesive movement by using a generalized construct of identity and encouraging a constant level of awareness about it.
I would be careful not to conflate the rise of wokeness within a secular trend of rising social progressivism, where people are genuinely becoming more open-minded and less spiteful about differences. A lot of people across the country, on the coasts or in its vast interior, many of whom would not even be remotely considered woke or familiar with the jargon, turned out in the streets for George Floyd. A decade or so ago, they would have been content to privately condemn the offending officer’s conduct in polite company but stayed off the streets altogether.
The role of fun in politics is often underrated and de-emphasized to preserve the sanctity and seriousness of the venture. But the essence of having a good time every now and then would have been as relevant to a peasant revolt then—imagine an Instagram post captioned “me and the boys torching the debt ledgers”—as it is now.
But considering its explosive rise over the last decade, I would say that wokeness is actually pretty successful at mobilizing people, if that is the criterion by which one considers success. All politics is unnatural, which is why, as a general rule, people are reluctant to “get political.” By incorporating a personal dimension, wokeness makes politics highly accessible and even fun.
Wokeness is genuinely an innovation to progressive politics. It is no coincidence that I cited examples from queer history when trying to explain the phenomenon. I don’t think it could have emerged except as a response to the rise of the queer and trans rights movements and the need to position them organically within the broader coalition for social justice. Like any novel development, it will draw on elements and jargon from older left-wing political and academic traditions, which leads critics to pin its origins on post-modernism, critical theory, the Frankfurt School, political correctness, Marxism, communism, or what-have-you. However, all these explanations fail to explain why this highly recognizable phenomenon came about so rapidly in the 2010s rather than in the 1960s or any other era of left-wing college activism.
Noon: The Tumblr Hypothesis
Enter the Tumblr hypothesis, presented by Katherine Dee Better known as @default friend on Twitter which basically pins the origin of wokeness on Tumblr. The chronology checks out, as both emerged around the 2010s. It struck me in its simplicity—I do like me a parisimonious theory—and inspired this whole essay in response, though I have to admit I was initially skeptical and still somewhat am.
But that insight prompted me to think of an online conversation I had lurked on (out of curiosity) involving a group of anti-police protesters. It was at the height of tensions in the summer of 2020. There were real stakes, given that police were definitely surveilling the chat and arrest was a constant worry in their IRL activities. These guys talked the anarchist talk and walked the anarchist walk. But occasionally, they would start comforting each other, reminding each other to “self-care” amidst the revolution. Now and then, one of the accounts with a furry profile picture would also chime in.
While the above image might jar with existing conceptions about what black bloc anarchists are supposed to look like, it is instantly recognizable to anyone who frequented Tumblr in its heyday. It was as if a community, who were first exposed to politics and social life on an online space, simply retained that vibe when trying to build real-life spaces. Given how online every one is nowadays, this is not too much of a stretch.
There is more to Dee’s Tumblr hypothesis. Tumblr served as a platform to connect activists organically with non-activists. To look at a Tumblr feed was to scroll through activist posts, personal confessions, and fandom. Non-activists may not have posted their own activist messaging, but they almost certainly reblogged it.
Academia doesn’t exactly pull a crowd, but do you know what does? Media properties like One Direction, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Supernatural, Steven Universe, and Harry Potter.
Tumblr’s interface made it particularly easy to share and remix content—meaning streams between fandoms and niches was a hallmark of the website. In other words, popular media content that was going to go viral anyway regularly had activist messaging appended to it.
The graduates of Tumblr brought their particular habits and aesthetics to college campuses, where they picked the bits of academia that suited them, not the other way around. Moreover, the rise of Tumblr fed a burgeoning clickbait industry, propelling it into the mainstream.
You have a dual problem of writers needing content and going to increasingly obscure sources to procure it, and people strip mining their own lives for content in the service of having an audience read their “personal essays.”
What do either of these have to do with what the identity politics landscape has become? Both Tumblr and digital publications like Vice, Buzzfeed, Jezebel, Bust, and Rookie (to name just a few) had a much wider reach than academic literature, or even activist groups. You were much more likely to encounter a bastardized interpretation of the meaning of “emotional labor” on your Tumblr feed, or a Vice article regurgitating that Tumblr post, than you were in a classroom.
Once something is trending online, it’s fair game for a struggling publication, particularly if it lends itself to a catchy, clickable title.
Even early news articles about topics like “privilege,” or even “trigger warnings,” reference their ubiquity in online spaces, as opposed to within academic ones.
Take this article 2013 article at The Conversation about trigger warnings. Writer Lauren Rosewarne, a lecturer at the University of Melbourne, describes them as “used mostly on-line to head up discussions of topics like sexual violence, depression or self-mutilation.” It was not a term popular in academia, in activism, nor one that originated in a psychiatric setting for sufferers of PTSD.
I really like the Tumblr hypothesis because it’s concrete where other hypotheses about the rise of wokeness are vague (overproduction of elites and college credentials might certainly drive more college students to radical ideologies, but why would they embrace wokeness in particular?) or insinuating from academic obscurities few have ever read. It tickles my confirmation bias to believe that college kids are far more likely to internalize dank memes about academic themes, rather than be radicalized by reading impenetrable theory. The hypothesis is also falsifiable, in that I could conceivably trawl through the corpus of all Tumblr posts and metadata and survey all Tumblr users about their platform usage and political engagement over time, to either prove or debunk it.
Even without those research means at my disposal… well, it just makes a lot of sense?
The proliferation of marginalized identities is formally similar to the proliferation of micro-identities on the internet. Everyone was weirdly obsessive about some particular fandom and you just needed to accept that as a normal thing, because you were probably also part of some micro-community as well. It was a straightforward application of doing unto others as you wished them to do unto you. The internet also encouraged the constant exploration of narrower and narrower subcultures and subgenres in anything imaginable, with an undercurrent of over-enthusiastic tolerance. What appears to other people as a hyper-uncomfortable blurring of boundaries between highly personal affairs and politics is instantly familiar to any young teen who was following anonymous Tumblrinas post about sex on the internet or reading the dime-a-dozen confessions from the personal essay mills. Callout culture and constant self-affirmation makes a lot of sense in decentralized circles—online or activist—because shouting is literally the only remedy you have at your disposal.
At this point, one might be inclined to infer that wokeness is when a bunch of weirdly online fans ended up adopting politics as their new fandom. But what I am arguing, is something far more specific. A generation of people, of varying participation or even just passive observation of online culture, were first presented with a certain etiquette and experience in a specific online context (that of Tumblr and the clickbait media industry it spawned) and ended up being highly receptive when those elements were presented later in an altered political context. Some of them were ex-Tumblrinas, but I’m sure a lot of them weren’t.
It doesn’t actually require a lot of people to shift the cultural conversation, and considering how many millenials were on Tumblr (I joined to share my modest art with my more talented friends in high school), it is entirely plausible that a critical mass of receptive Tumblr/Tumblr-adjacent users was achieved to do just that. Once this took hold, it became self-sustaining. There are boomers and zoomers now who have never been on Tumblr, but became woke on TikTok or Facebook or Twitter or whichever platform it is these days.
Like any framework, actually existing wokeness has its blind spots and unresolved questions, many of which are also obvious to its proponents. To name a few:
When personal experience cannot be rejected and is always valid, how do you deal with dissent?
How does one deal with corporate or political actors who cynically invoke identity to justify their ends? No one is fooled when the CIA flies the rainbow flag on its social media account. But if you genuinely believe the struggle for material improvement is inseparable from cultural representation, such that neither can be sacrificed for the other, how do you react when a corporation offers genuine improvements in the diversity of its white-collar cadres while continuing to exploit its blue-collar workforce? This is an area where woke pro-capitalist liberals are divided from woke anti-capitalists.
The focus on the realm of cultural criticism can also divert energy from other more tangible initiatives. Amid the culture wars, embracing identity often means making enemies of potential allies who are economically progressive but dislike the other stuff.
The blurring of the general and the particular is a poetic conceit I am partial to in literature—I find Ta-Nehisi Coates to be an utterly compelling writer—but one that does not hold up well in daily living.
I generally refuse to dismiss anyone’s trajectory into political participation. It is hard to summon the activation energy to get involved. Many of us don’t vote or care because we rightfully perceive that the systems that govern us don’t really care about us either. And if we look through the arc of history, political consciousness is a pretty arbitrary process. The leaders of a nascent movement might have just been in the same unit at the military academy or the same reading circle. My own formative political experience began with suggested YouTube videos and finance blogs. But however we get inspired to act, woke or unwoke, we should always look back and see if the framework we inherited can be improved upon.
If we look at the history of the synthesis of Christian faith and politics, it was pretty sordid and bloody. One recalls Franciscan and Dominican friars whipping up Crusader zeal in Medieval Spain to expel the Jews. Yet, the same formula, linking the notion of salvation and the Passion of the Christ with one’s earthly attempts to do good, is not at all dishonorable and still informs Christian socialists and liberation theologists to this day. And that’s okay.
I consider myself unwoke—even if I do check the boxes on progressive social views—in that I hold to more traditional notions of building solidarity that don’t explicitly center identity. But I would still ask, is it possible to retain the potency of woke identity politics, the union of social progressivism and deep personal experience, while resolving some of its deadlocks?
I do think that wokeness, specifically its formula about identity, is here to stay, especially in activist circles. Given its continued existence, I think it is a losing proposition to stay unduly angry or fearful about it. If I must, I would prefer to be asleep.