Note: Today is my son’s birthday. Today’s essay has nothing to do with that, so I want to give a shout out to him here. Daniel, you are a treasure and I love you beyond measure. See what I did there – I was channeling your father. Wishing you a wonderful day and an even better year ahead with your fabulous family!
Last week Gary and I were visiting with family and friends in Florida. Several different people made the same comment: ‘I don’t know what ‘woke’ means. I don’t get it. What does it mean?’
It wasn’t entirely clear to me where the folks raising the question were coming from. We were in Florida after all, where, I imagine, the word gets bandied about regularly – most often by Governor DeSantis who uses it as a punching bag, a politically expedient bogeyman. In those conversations I didn’t want to pursue the topic too far because we were having a relaxed, enjoyable visit – we were on vacation. Now I am back home, and the question lingers, and I feel unsatisfied in not addressing it.
I believe I have something to offer to the discussion. I’d like to suggest an analogy. Let’s say you have a longtime friend, someone you’ve known since childhood, whose nickname was Shorty. You and his family and friends have always called him that. Now, as an adult, this person, whose given name is Joseph, tells you they don’t like the nickname and would prefer to be called Joe. I would hope, as a sentient human being, who respects the years of friendship, you would say, “I didn’t realize it bothered you. I will call you Joe.” To my mind, that is an example of being ‘woke.’ You have heard someone’s concern and you have responded accordingly.
You might be tempted to respond by saying, “We call you Shorty with affection. It’s cute. You aren’t short anymore, what’s the problem?” You may be thinking, ‘it’s no big deal, why is he making a thing of it.’ But, while you may have those thoughts, hopefully you would resist giving voice to them and respect their wishes.
I think a ‘woke’ person responds with an open mind, is willing to hear a person’s concerns and change the words they use in accordance with their wishes. It is really that simple.
Human behavior, though, isn’t that simple. At the risk of stretching the analogy too far, I’d like to take a closer look at the dynamic.
The first step is Joe being willing to say how they feel. It may have taken years of feeling insulted or uncomfortable for him to finally tell people to stop calling him Shorty. I don’t know about you, but I want to be a person that Joe can approach. I want to communicate to my friends and family that I am open to hearing what they need. I don’t want anyone to worry that I would make fun of them or be dismissive. To me that is part of being ‘woke.’
Let’s say some time passes and the next time you see Joe you call them Shorty – old habits die hard. Here’s another opportunity. It is possible that Joe loses it and gets angry. To my mind that would be unfortunate, perhaps understandable, but an extreme reaction. Let’s assume for the moment, he doesn’t react that way, but instead just gives you a look that communicates his displeasure. Hopefully you would apologize, saying that you will try harder to get it right and please be a bit patient. In that situation, if you offer a sincere apology and offer to do better, you are ‘woke.’
Now instead of this operating on a personal level, expand the idea more broadly. Representatives of a community disavow a term that has long been in use. Why not stop using it? Not every single person in that community might agree, some may not find it insulting. Communities are rarely monolithic. But, when a consensus emerges, why not respect it?
Similarly, when we come to understand more about our history, for example we learn more about treatment of Native Americans at residential schools, we need to acknowledge it. It doesn’t displace everything else we know, it doesn’t necessarily become the focus of the narrative of the story of our country, but it can’t be swept under the rug and ignored either. There is a balance. Our children are capable of understanding that – the good, the bad and the ugly. Again, there may be extremists who want the story of America to be shaped entirely by slavery. I think that would be a distortion. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington should be examined as the complex figures that they were – the great ideas and leadership they provided along with the things they got wrong.
The truth is, we shouldn’t need concepts of ‘woke’ or ‘politically correct.’ If people exercised compassion and empathy, we wouldn’t. If people acknowledged that there is always more to learn about history, about cultures other than our own (and even our own), we wouldn’t need ‘wokeness.’ Sadly, many people are not capable of that without being ‘policed.’
There is no doubt there are people who overreact. There are those who are unwilling to be forgiving of others who slip and use outdated language, or of those who simply haven’t kept up. It takes two to tango. There is nothing gained by being so strident and rigid. Some of that may come from a lack of trust, from not believing in the sincerity of those who profess to be trying. I come back again to a tenet of Anti-Defamation League training – which says that you should start by assuming the best of intentions on the part of the other person. They may prove unworthy of that assumption but start by giving them the benefit of the doubt.
Based on my understanding, I see nothing wrong with being ‘woke,’ or ‘politically correct.’ It is something I work on.