Are you woke

One of the things that some people love about English is its ability to pick up new words and to change the meaning of other words. Once gay was a term for happy and frivolous behaviour, but today it signals something about sexual preferences. Woke has also taken on new meanings.

Woke started in the 1880s as a word meaning the act of not being asleep. By the mid 20th Century, it meant to be well informed and up to date. Used extensively in African American communities, it recognised political unfairness and became shorthand for calling out society’s racial ills.

Other social groups, almost entirely white, have changed its meaning further, watering it down to paying no more than lip service attention to racial inequality and claiming to be woke. The entry of woke into jokes and humour, including #staywoke, has further weakened its intended meaning but still indicated that something is wrong and reminding awareness is important.

In its broadest sense being woke is thinking beyond oneself and being aware about how you fit into a global system that is bigger than you. In considering racism, being woke is first an acknowledgement of the problem. But this is not the view of some politicians in the United States who have broadly aligned being woke with left-wing politics. It has been listed with other social ills to be addressed by the Republican party’s Florida Governor Ron DeSantis as his “war on woke”. Tapping into the racial, immigration, education fears and prejudices of people in Florida, he has labelled them a product of wokeism. This political campaign bears little resemblance to being woke and instead encourages non-thinking about the very issues each person needs to be woke about.

A new twist on wokeism has been articulated by Yannick Thoraval (SMH 24/3/23) I’m a university lecturer and wokeism is stifling free debate in my classroom. Ignoring the turning of being woke into an “ism”, Thoraval complains that sensitive social political, racial and sexual issues cannot be talked about in class because some students are so woke that it triggers in them deep emotions. Being woke has placed these students in a psychological state that leaves them incapable of engaging others in discussion especially if there might be opposing views. It’s all too upsetting for everyone.

Thorval goes on to site several methodologies that can be used to teach about controversial issues, ensuring the reader that he is implementing some. My question would be: why would university classes find it difficult to discuss sensitive topics? Could the answer lie partly in school education.

In schools, controversial topics are avoided. While the curriculum provides some contexts for discussion of social controversies, curriculum writers and teachers, have become increasingly wary of tackling topics that may be divisive in classrooms preferring to steer pathways that will not have students arguing and parents concerned. Yet, public education in NSW has always provided guidance to teachers in how to deal with controversial topics through its Controversial Issues In Schools Policy and recommended teaching methodologies. Together with ideological and religion based non-government schools who may give little time to different viewpoints and perspectives, students may not be prepared to handle sensitive issues in the classrooms including university classrooms because they have not been exposed to such discussion at school. Thoraval is right to focus on providing a caring, safe and respectful classroom environment and to use teaching strategies that provide a better framework for discussion. Wokeism in a university setting may just be the product of deficient school education. They simply don’t know how and have had no practice in discussing controversial issues.

Christians want what God wants and for the same reasons. They embrace the love, acceptance and forgiveness of God and want to share that with others. They are not generally cloistered away from the world and its problems. They are encouraged to be the salt and light and this means engaging with the world, but not absorbing its values. In short, Christians want to be woke: aware of the background to social issues, able to see different perspectives, recognise prejudice, including in themselves, and able to engage in dialogue with opposing views. But being woke involves more than awareness, it calls for involvement, not only grandstand viewing.

John Gore