Ayishat Akanbi, a celebrity fashion stylist and cultural commentator living in London wants us to think about wokeness. Or rather, the problem with it. Unpacking the “burden of wokeness” can be complex and challenging, particularly in the current cultural climate where opinions that provide a critique of “progressive ideologies” can be labelled as “problematic.”
Ayishat is a woman of colour with a big platform and she is well aware of the weight her opinions, particularly those that may impact on minoritised people, can carry. Before releasing her viral video, The Problem With Wokeness, she was worried that her key message would be misconstrued, placed out of context or interpreted as an attempt to minimise the efforts of activists or the experiences of minoritised others. The video, which has been viewed and shared by thousands, discusses how wokeness can be performed, politicised and commodified, making it a product that can be purchased and consumed by capitalist groups and individuals for the purposes of making profit.
What is wokeness?
“Woke” is a historically black phrase which has more recently been appropriated for mainstream usage. It's a colloquial term that loosely translates to the state of “being awake.” It means having the awareness or “being awake” to the social, political, cultural and structural realities surrounding one’s life. It is essentially an ideological stance that asks people to recognise and examine how structural factors inform and punctuate their personal lives.
For example, the Black Lives Matter movement has co-opted this terminology to expose white supremacist ideologies underpinning the law enforcement systems which have led to the increased criminalisation, brutalisation and killing of black people, particularly black men, in the United States.
With time however, wokeness has become a performative trendy buzzword that is used to gauge the level of people’s awareness, commitment and sophistication within progressive movements. Wokeness has shifted from its primary focus, which is about developing “consciousness and awareness” of social justice issues, to “performing activism”, which is mostly concerned with policing, moralising and silencing people who may struggle with the discourse surrounding this conversation. Ayishat says that to a large extent “this creates moral superiority, which complicates social justice efforts.”
There is often an insistence that the information about these “obvious” things is freely available, accessible and understandable to everybody who consumes it. But the reality is, for example, a cis-heterosexual person may not fully understand in the first instance why it’s exclusionary to assume everybody is straight, particularly if that’s not common knowledge within the context they’ve been socialised into.
Personally, I was raised in a deeply religious and homophobic country. I was never given the space to explore an alternative discourse about people’s sexuality and identities. Upon encountering a different discourse however, it was easy for me to undo my ignorance, but it was much more difficult to undo my homophobia.
Although I was ready and willing to confront my own bigotry, the knowledge that was “obvious” to others was not obvious to me. So I needed time. Put simply, awareness+ willingness to confront internalised bigotry+ time= wokeness. The moralisation of wokeness often does not take into consideration the lengthy and often challenging and complex process that it takes to unlearn deeply rooted ideologies. People learn these belief systems over time through the complex processes of socialisation and it may take years to unlearn or undo them.
Ayishat argues that deciding whether people are good or bad depending on how they tip the “wokeness scale” is a problematic approach because, “the way conversations move in these movements leave little space for context, or for any meaningful dialogue”. These pseudo-baked conversations often lead to oversimplified analysis of people’s beliefs systems through a strict binary that demonises people with “problematic opinions” while also simultaneously minimising the context in which their ideologies are bred and cultivated.
Wokeness tends to overlook the nuances and the complexities of people’s lives, placarding them only in black and white posters, and essentially robbing itself of the ability to understand the interconnectedness of issues. Yes, there is a thin line between ignorance and bigotry, but woke politics assumes willful offense on both counts.
The problem with wokeness
The concept of wokeness itself, just like for every progressive ideology, stems from a good place with good intentions. However, it has been commercialised to garner social capital for individual people and for corporate businesses. Principally, this means commercialising and profiting off people’s pain and suffering. Ayishat argues that the ability to garner big profits by aligning with 'woke politics' “creates the possibility for ulterior motives” where corporations may care less about actual social justice issues and more about profiting from them.
Last year for example, Nike signed Colin Kaepernick to star in their 'Stand For Something' advert, which prompted record sales shortly after the commercial was released. Kaepernick (a professional football player) was at the time an avid supporter of the Black lives Matter movement and was actively protesting police brutality towards black people In the United States. His political action of kneeling (instead of standing) during the national anthem before each game was met with a national wide controversy and a backlash that cost him his football career. Nike however, utilised the controversy and profited massively from it. While it’s important for big corporations to take a stand on social justice issues, their financial motives often remain unexamined.
David Brooks of the New York Times argues that while wokeness functions to challenge people to rethink their relationship with place and space, its biggest failure is that “instead of inspiring action, it freezes it. Instead of inspiring people to speak up, it silences them”. It makes them afraid of being wrong. The irony here is that undoing toxic knowledge does not occur within the context of fear, but within a space of acceptance.
Brooks adds that wokeness’ zero tolerance to “not knowing”, which is often confused with “not caring to know”, “inspires separation —a building [of a] wall between [a person] and the problem — not a solution.” The fear of being wrong separates people from social justices issues, making it “harder to practice the necessary skill of public life, [which is] the ability to see two contradictory truths at the same time.” It is this divisiveness and “righteous intolerance” that Ayishat and many others struggle with when the doctrine of wokeness is invoked in progressive movements.
Does wokeness diminish compassion?
In her viral video, Ayishat asks, “Is wokeness robbing us of compassion and replacing it with moral superiority?” She asks us to examine our motives to wokeness and how we define oppression. She asks:
“Does a stranger touching your hair or being asking where you are from qualify as acts of oppression? Are the people who perpetrate these actions bigots or just ignorant? Or does naming some of these experiences as oppressive diminish and flatten what most tend to see as real oppression… and to what extent does politicising our personal day to day unpleasant experiences subvert the dominance of the systems under which we live and work?”
She adds that the revolution we seek is not just about memorising buzzwords such as 'wokeness' and 'intersectionality', it is about understanding how all oppression and all its intersections are interconnected. Thomas Sankara surmised this thought quite succinctly by saying:
“Our revolution is not a public-speaking tournament. Our revolution is not a battle of fine phrases. Our revolution is not simply for spouting slogans that are no more than signals used by manipulators trying to use them as catchwords, as code words, as a foil for their own display. Our revolution is, and should continue to be, the collective effort of revolutionaries to transform reality.”
What wokeness must fix is its expectations for perfection and its insatiable yearning to “call out” out those who step out of line. Those who make mistakes. Ayishat warns that, yes, “calling out injustice, sexual abuse, corruption, and industry-protected violence is necessary …but too often we’re aiming at the wrong target”.
The rage with which we meet innocent mistakes or past mistakes is reactionary rather than responsive. This intolerance is not radical. Policing others into silence is not radical. She concludes that; “What is radical is kindness. What is radical is understanding. What is radical is compassion. What is radical is empathy. Arguing and shaming each other is not radical…It is very conformist actually”.
Ayishat Akanbi will appear at All About Women at the Sydney Opera House on Sunday, March 10.