To be “woke” means to become aware of something not seen that’s always been there. It’s as if I’ve been oblivious to certain aspects of the world around me.
The term itself comes from Black vernacular. It spotlights issues of racial and social justice, and what needs to be done now to remedy them. Although the term originally focused on racism, it’s now more of an umbrella term that can include (for example) discrimination toward women, gays and lesbians and Native Peoples.
To me, woke lacks ugly meaning. It does not call up images of indoctrination. It does not mean forcing (or just encouraging) me, or anyone, to change their gender, or race, or social class, or ethnicity, or religion, or heritage. Those are unfounded fears created by those who want to use the term for their own purposes.
What woke does ask is that I recognize the diversity in our world that exists today — and has always existed. It spotlights the reality of the world around us. In that sense it is fundamentally educational. What you or I do with that knowledge is entirely up to each of us.
From this perspective, to be afraid of being “woke” is to be afraid of reality. You, or I, may in fact find the world around us unsettling and fearful. That, however, does not deny the accuracy of our new information. To be woke is to become aware; it is the opposite of denial and retreat.
Growing up I was unaware of my isolation from the richness of peoples and cultures, and the variety of ways of being, in the city where I lived. Although I didn’t know it, my family, my friends and I were isolated, without feeling isolated. This was so despite attending public school, playing in public parks, riding buses, going to movies and watching TV. The conclusion I draw from my own experience is that a person can be alert, and clear sighted, and still not see.
For me, to be woke means to become less self-centered. It means awareness of a richness in life around me. To allow woke to enter encourages the slow erosion of the selfish (and self-satisfied) ideas within me that everything other than myself is alien. Can I imagine being Catholic? Or a young black man? Or bisexual? I’m not any of these. Others certainly are. And that’s my point: To be woke is to appreciate the glorious variety of human life in our larger community, and to act accordingly.
To be woke is not a theory, or an organized program, or an enemy attack. It’s an offered gift that’s worth taking.