Boulevard of Woken Dreams

Dion J. Pierre

Dion Pierre's article originally appeared in National Review.

David Brooks devoted a recent column to explaining the concept of “cool” to hep-cat readers of the New York Times. The cool aesthetic is on the wane these days, but Brooks sees a plausible successor in the concept of “woke.” Woke shares with cool a “rebel posture,” but where coolness is politically detached and individualistic, wokeness is “nationalistic and collectivist.” Cool is “emotionally reserved,” but “woke is angry.” “To be woke,” in short, “is to be radically aware and justifiably paranoid.”

Uncool, David. No sooner had he laid it on us than Kelly Macias took him to school from the Daily Kos: “David Brooks tries to explain ‘woke’ to the rest of us, fails miserably.” She wasn’t the only black activist to take umbrage. The cultural-appropriation police were on his case.

Brooks correctly credited Erykah Badu’s 2008 song “Master Teacher” (“What if there were no n****s, only master teachers? I stay woke.”) as a key source of the term. Like other pieces of black slang, “woke” has traveled to some unlikely destinations, including the alt-right, but “wokeness” definitely stems from radical black politics.

When I was a kid growing up in Brooklyn in the late ’90s and early 2000s, “conscious” was what we said. Woke means the same thing, updated to include “intersectionality” — the notion of overlapping forms of oppression (race, class, gender, etc.). The new word provides opportunities.

Someone like Colin Kaepernick becomes woke by immersing himself in the writings of Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael. He’s woke when he accepts the inescapable nature of white supremacy and oppression. No one is more woke than best-selling writer Ta-Nehisi Coates

Whites too can be woke. When Matt McGorry in 2015 Snapchatted a bare-chested photograph of himself reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and posted a series of pro-feminist memes on Instagram, social-media activists cheered him for being a white guy who gets it. And the accolades didn’t stop there: BuzzFeed honored McGorry months later with an article titled, “Can We Talk About How Woke Matt McGorry was in 2015?

As the McGorry example shows, woke often means uncritically accepting black political opinion. It can also require looking the other way when the facts don’t fit the narrative. Hating cops is de rigueur among the woke, regardless of how many thousands of black lives have been saved by aggressive policing.

Black writers dismiss whites’ use of the #woke hashtag by complaining that it’s a shallow form of virtue signaling. Writing for The Awl, Maya Binyam accused whites of being participants in “the Woke Olympics,” a game in which white participants take turns attacking social-media posts that allegedly project white privilege.

At issue for Binyam is whites’ focus on Halloween costumes rather than whole of Western civilization of which they are inextricably apart. This makes it easier to understand why black students at Mizzou excluded whites from a demonstration protesting the killing of Michael Brown and why white students don’t challenge black students who demand such segregation.

A belief that whites are irredeemably racist and therefore incapable of dealing faithfully with blacks flows from the logic of wokeness. This actually impedes reform on issues that blacks wish to address and inclines conservatives to wash their hands of black complaints.

And Brooks wasn’t wrong to say wokeness is “paranoid.” It makes blacks think that whites are always thinking about blacks.

Wokeness isn’t a tool for thinking critically about issues. Wokeness isn’t a tool for thinking critically about issues. It’s a demand for in-group conformity and a reason not to pay attention to, say, rising black-on-black murder rates in Chicago. And it helps explain why elite colleges’ hands are tied when black students demand segregation. Policymakers either tell blacks what they want to hear or ignore key issues altogether.

Perhaps it’s time to rouse ourselves from the hypnotic appeal of wokeness. Reducing politics to identity claims keeps the racial-grievance script alive but doesn’t point a way forward. If black leaders want results in their communities, they’re going to have to play a role in changing the rules on how we discuss black issues. Big Daddy Brooks’s readers at the New York Times will eventually catch up.

Image: coates2 by Oregon State University // CC BY-SA 2.0

  • Share

Most Commented

December 7, 2022


New Study Tracks Rise of DEI in STEM Departments, Associations, Grants, and Literature

A new study published today by the National Association of Scholars, Ideological Intensification, offers an in-depth quantitative analysis of just how far DEI has advanced into STEM fields....

January 9, 2023


NAS Celebrates the Nomination of Reform-Minded Trustees to the New College of Florida Board

The National Association of Scholars is delighted with Governor Ron DeSantis’ nomination of six education reformers to the Board of Trustees of the New College of Florida....

October 20, 2022


NAS Statement on Nomination of Ben Sasse for University of Florida President

We believe that Senator Sasse would make an excellent president of the University of Florida, and we urge the Board of Trustees to follow the search committee’s recommendation....

Most Read

May 15, 2015


Where Did We Get the Idea That Only White People Can Be Racist?

A look at the double standard that has arisen regarding racism, illustrated recently by the reaction to a black professor's biased comments on Twitter....

October 12, 2010


Ask a Scholar: What is the True Definition of Latino?

What does it mean to be Latino? Are only Latin American people Latino, or does the term apply to anyone whose language derived from Latin?...

September 19, 2022


How Many Confucius Institutes Are in the United States?

UPDATED: We're keeping track of all Confucius Institutes in the United States, including those that remain open, those that closed, and those that have announced their closing....