Content Warning: This article contains mention of racist killings.
We all know what woke means, or rather, what it has come to mean for conservatives who fear “woke” people corrupting their schools. White liberal culture has appropriated the word from its origin in African American Vernacular English (AAVE), and conservatives love to respond to the appropriated concept.
In the song “Master Teacher Melody” Erykah Badu repeats “I stay woke” as she describes her search for herself and beauty in a racist society. Written by soul singer Georgia Anne Muldrow, who sings the refrain “I stay woke,” the song imagines a hopeful future for African Americans while acknowledging the reality of the systemic issues they face.
Can we step away from woke as an appropriated buzzword and recognize AAVE wokeness’ role in social and psychological healing? How can we learn from Black culture, rather than appropriating it, in amplifying the message of heightened social and self awareness?
What could it mean to awaken or to be in awakening, for all people?
Awakeness is worth exploring in a time of immense global change and promising interest in cultural harmony. Our generation buckles under a mental health crisis, yet we are also working hard to create social and organizational connections where there was previously estrangement, to heal and learn together.
Awakening is an ongoing awareness that we live in an unstable world built on the cruel labor of people who were colonized, and it is learning how to accept negative emotions (anxiety, guilt, rage, fear) so we may learn how to have hope and to repair through relationships. Without processing emotion, it is difficult to take the next steps.
Most of us are in a stage of awakening, whether it is existential, social or both. Many are expanding and contracting, feeling pain and suffering — or are blocking it out.
People are ignoring their emotions as global consciousness begins to shift — and I understand why. The labor of emotional social dialogue and earnest self-reflection would be unbearable, I imagine, for someone who did not grow up in a setting where honesty was readily practiced and modeled.
We must model appropriate emotional honesty to one another. We must also recognize the symptoms and systems of ignorance which allow people to lie to themselves about their existences. The psychological and physical toll of racism and other systems of marginalization weighs heavily on all of us. Breaking through these burdens is a slow and deliberate process of awakening.
Awakening to one’s social identity tends to begin with a shock to the system, but it shouldn’t have to. For many white people in our generation, for example, awakening to the power of racism begins with highly publicized killings of Black people — this should not be the case. The pandemic was also a huge shock to society which caused a cascade of diverse awakenings, situating the individual in societal issues from of racist healthcare to the ongoing rise of domestic violence. Lockdown was a time where many were forced to self-reflect on one’s social power, and as a result, many participated in mutual aid. We should not have needed a pandemic for social awareness and community citizenship.
We shouldn’t need to wait for the next climate disaster to steward our planet. We shouldn’t need to wait for sexual assault headlines to educate young people about consent. We shouldn’t need to wait for another shooting to advocate for gun control. The list goes on.
Awakening takes hard, active work and rest. Don’t forget that we are never alone as we figure out how to exist in 2022. Let your peers know if they seem too stressed, and show them that it is okay to take a break. Self-care is not extra, nor is it optional. Awakening is not going to be comfortable, but we all go through it so we can build conscientious lives and an ethical world.
ED Plowe is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. With Gratitude runs every other Tuesday this semester.
Students may consult with counselors from Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS) by calling 607-255-5155. Employees may call the Faculty Staff Assistance Program (FSAP) at 607-255-2673. An Ithaca-based Crisisline is available at 607-272-1616. For additional resources, visit caringcommunity.cornell.edu. To connect with peer support from the Empathy Assistance & Referral Service (EARS), visit https://www.earscornell.org.