NEW WOKE: How Wokeism Became the Right’s Latest Bogeyman

The first time I ever heard the term “Critical Race Theory” I had just taken an online diversity course at work.

The course was pleasant enough, if not exactly radical. It talked about being aware of cultural differences and differences in perspective. It talked about respecting other people’s lifestyles and choices. It talked about mindful inclusivity. In short, it advocated for basic human decency.

When the CRT demonization and distortion started gaining traction, I thought: They’re going to accuse even the most ubiquitous and widely accepted corporate diversity training of being CRT. Damned if I wasn’t right.

According to Forbes magazine, the day before Juneteenth, no less, in 2021, Trump called so-called CRT “the left’s vile new theory’ [that] teaches students that ‘judging people by the color of their skin is actually a good idea’ and that the U.S. is ‘systemically evil,’ instead of ‘helping young people discover that America is the greatest, most tolerant, and most generous nation in history.’”

The argument against CRT is basically that teaching about racism is, in fact, racist. That a white child, confronted with America’s history of racism might feel badly about both herself, and her country, so best not to teach it at all (and they call us snowflakes). To that end, any book, class, article, or training session that discusses slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, and most definitely the ongoing effects of systemic racism should be outlawed.

The whole notion seemed so ridiculous, so antithetical to all the progress we had made as a nation, I almost dismissed it as too dim-witted to gain any traction. Let this be a helpful reminder that nothing is too dim-witted to gain traction among America’s right.

CRT panic went on for a while and helped the rise of odious figures like Ron DeSantis, but you don’t hear about it much anymore. (That’s at least partly because Critical Race Theory is actually a multi-disciplinary academic subject and is definitely not taught in high schools, let alone elementary schools.) It has been replaced by a trendier, more sound-bitey, more (intentionally) vague villain: “Wokeism” or what Elon Musk called “the woke mind virus.”

So what is wokeism? At one point, it was a word used exclusively in the Black community to suggest a political awakening or awareness of racism. Then it got appropriated by well-intentioned (if overly eager) white people. Then it kind of become synonymous with “political correctness” (the wokeism of the previous generation). Finally, it got distorted beyond all measure by the right. At this point, who the hell even knows what woke means to the right? It’s a catchall. It stands for anything they don’t like, or fear, about the current social climate.

Famously, conservative pundit Bethany Mandel shit the bed when asked to define the word on Briahna Joy Gray’s podcast. After fumbling and stammering for a few seconds, and fretting that she would “go viral,” she replied that woke meant to “totally redo society to create hierarchies of oppression.” She then added: “It’s hard to explain in a 15-second soundbite.” Indeed.

But Mandel was actually onto something. At or at least she inadvertently bumped up against the truth.

If you are anti-woke you are against anything that pushes our society to be more inclusive. You are happy with the current Christian patriarchy and completely freaked out by the rising social justice movements, be they Black Lives Matter or trans rights. You see a societal shift coming and you fear that you will lose what you consider to be your God-given status. I should clarify that the people who are pushing the “woke mind virus” narrative are the ones in positions of power who don’t want to lose their status. Very often the audience for this term is white people who are not doing well, financially or otherwise, and are looking for someone to blame. “Do you feel privileged?” the pundits ask pointedly. “Do you feel like you’ve given advantages because you’re white?”

As always, complex systems of oppression are hard to parse and can’t be reduced to a single example. Yes, there are plenty of downtrodden white people. That doesn’t mean systemic racism isn’t real. But folks on the right aren’t exactly champions of nuance. It’s why they’re often heard saying, “It’s 45 degrees in May. So much for global warming, amirite?” Or, when it comes to race: “Look at how successful Oprah Winfrey is! Look at Obama—he was president! There can’t be systemic racism.” Single examples do not a system make.

It’s not exactly revelatory, but my overarching theory of how we got into this current state goes like this: Social media gave an unprecedented megaphone to the marginalized. It allowed them to band together, to find allies, to speak their truth. Much of the social progress we’ve accomplished in the last 20 years can be traced to social media. But it’s been an unusually rapid amount of progress, so it has seen an equally rapid backlash (also organized on social media). The rise of Black Lives Matter, of the #MeToo movement, of the pronoun revolution, of the awareness of trans rights, it all seems like a scary and destabilizing cultural shift to those who don’t understand or reject these movements. And right wing politicians and pundits are all too quick to take advantage of that fear: Immigrants and minorities are coming for your jobs! White children are being taught to be ashamed of being white! Children are getting gender reassignment surgery on demand!  

All the ugliest chapters in recent history—from the Holocaust to Jim Crow to Apartheid—have been based on demonizing the other, but that hasn’t stopped folks like Tucker Carlson, Ted Cruz, MTG, et al from their fear mongering. Neither, of course, has the steep rise in white supremacist violence shaking the country.

Anti-wokeism is such a nasty term—a term of oppression basically—I’m shocked it has become so prominent in the discourse of the right. It’s a euphemistic way of saying, “I don’t like the progress made by Black and LGBTQ people.” There’s literally no other way to interpret it. And yet Florida recently passed a “Stop Woke Act” and Ron DeSantis has made anti-wokeism a cornerstone of his inevitable presidential campaign. That’s some Jesse Helms shit.

The other term that gets bandied about liberally is “cancel culture.” Generally speaking, no one gets canceled unless they’ve done something truly egregious—like explicit racism or sexual assault. And even then, there are rarely consequences—Lauren Boebert refers to the Squad, which includes two Muslim members, as “the Jihad Squad” and still sits comfortably in Congress; Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar have both spoken at a White Nationalist conference; Justice Kavanaugh was credibly accused of assault; Donald Trump has been caught bragging about sexual assault on tape, and so on. Often, instead what happens is someone is made to feel uncomfortable on social media for a few days. Maybe they lose a job if they’re considered a financial liability. Maybe, if they’re an actor or filmmaker, some people boycott their films. Sometimes, they loudly quit an institution like a newspaper or a college in a huff (but when the story is repeated, we are told they were forced out or fired). They rarely lose money, or if they do, they are quickly able to regain it by going on some sort of professional victim tour (or turning to Substack). More often than not, there are no consequences of the so-called cancelation.

It’s true. The ground is shifting under the feet white Christian men and those who seek to elevate them. There was a time when the casting couch was an open secret, when men who are considered geniuses were indulged in all sort of tyrannical behavior, when male professors blithely bedded undergrads, when you could, in a phrase, “get away with stuff.” But you can no longer have a secret button under your desk that locks the door from inside (all the better to sexually assault underlings), you can no longer ruin the career of any woman who doesn’t sleep with you, or casually jerk off in front of women who sought your mentorship. There was a time when there were zero consequences for such behavior, now there (occasionally) is. It’s a shift, from absolute freedom to . . . a little less freedom.

What’s funny is, when I see someone like Elon Musk talking about how cancel culture and the woke mind virus is the worst thing happening to our culture, I can’t help but to laugh. To him, it is! People who whine about cancel culture are generally lacking in empathy—they can’t advocate for or feel compassion for anyone who isn’t just like them. These progressive social movements have limited every societal advantage they’ve casually taken for granted, and they’re not going to go down without a fight.

But here’s the good news: Society actually has progressed. When Amazon is doing commercials with a female-presenting nonbinary person who learns to embrace their mustache, when Bud Light is giving sponcon to trans influencers (the backlash to that showed the anti-woke movement in all their ridiculous fragility), when Disney is sponsoring Pride Day, when Black stories are being told more and more and opportunities for Black and queer artists are multiplying—we’re winning. Indeed, it’s the very fact that we’re winning that freaks Team Patriarchy out so much. It makes them get louder, more angry, more hateful. But they can, in a phrase, stay mad. I’d much rather stay woke.

As always, the views in this blog are entirely mine.

Dear Americans in the Year 2121

Hey, how’s it going? How’s the planet? Still habitable? (Don’t answer that.)

But I’m not here to talk about the environment. Well, not specifically at least.

I’m here to try to convince you that 2121 is not as far away from 2021 as you think. I mean, I’m sure it feels far away. We drove cars while you all drive individual space capsules. We watched things on screens while you have images directly beamed into your cerebral cortexes. We attend Zoom meetings while you converse via holograms.

But here’s the thing I’ve learned. Humankind makes advancements but human nature is fixed. I wish that weren’t true. I wanted to believe that it could evolve. But I know better now.

Let’s start with the elephant in the room: Donald Trump.

I used to think dictators only rose to power under two circumstances: When the people were powerless or when they were misinformed.

I would see images of Mussolini—such a ridiculous dude, waddling around the dais, screaming at people, getting red-faced and apoplectic with patriotic fervor—or Adolf Hilter, that sweaty man, with that greasy hair of his stuck to his forehead, that smudge of a mustache, that utter lack of charm—and think: The people just didn’t know better. There was no CNN, no cable news, no way to really see what pathetic losers these guys truly were. If they actually had full access to these men, they’d reject them.

But then along comes Trump with his frizzy combover, his ludicrous orange-painted skin, his bloated physique (rivaled only by his bloated self-regard)—in some ways, the most ridiculous of them all. Donald Trump is, quite plainly, a buffoon. If you’re reading this from the future and you think those of us in the 21st century didn’t know he was a buffoon, you’re mistaken. Many of us did. And yet many others—people with televisions, people who saw him every day, people who were informed still voted for him. Yes, yes, they were misinformed, too. Led astray by FoxNews (really hoping you’ll need to look up what FoxNews was in 2121) and websites like OAN and Breitbart and Newsmax that told them Trump was a great man, a winner, a leader, a patriot. But they had eyes, right? They saw him, too, right? And yet, they still idolized him. Part of what they liked, mind you, was how angry he made the libs. I wrote a bit about that here.

Okay, let’s talk about pandemics. I remember reading about the flu pandemic of 1918 and thinking, “Oh those poor bastards.” They didn’t have the most modern medicine. They didn’t have a flu vaccine. They didn’t have access to the kind of public health information we all enjoy today. Something like that could never happen again, right? Right?

But as COVID cases rose, so did the conspiracy theories: It was a hoax. It was overblown. It was a way for the government to control us. Wearing a mask—a simple and only mildly inconvenient safety measure—was seen as a massive infringement of one’s individual freedom and rights.

When vaccines finally came, I thought that would be the end of it: a free, widely available, and effective way to put this tragic and debilitating crisis behind us. But somehow, vaccines got mixed up in the divisive politics of our day. Somehow, even as the unvaccinated were dying—people who derided vaccines as dangerous and unnecessary and later begged for the vaccine on their deathbeds—it didn’t change people’s minds. And to make matters worse, people who were in charge of the serving public trust, people who knew better—politicians, cable news hosts—were actively encouraging their followers to defy public health guidelines. Because to do otherwise would be to lose viewers and/or votes.

I always knew that politicians would do almost anything to keep power, but I thought they would draw the line at actively killing their constituents. How naïve I was. (I could do 1,200 more words on how, between climate change skepticism, gun love, and COVID denial the Republicans have essentially turned into a death cult, but that’s an essay for another time.) So here we are as I write: Still losing thousands of people a day to a senseless virus that could be greatly minimized, if not gone completely.

My biggest takeaway from all of this is that tribalism, being part of Team Anti-Vax or Team Freedom or Team Trump, is more powerful than the will to live. I will say that again: The will to be part of a tribe is more powerful than the will to live.

Never forget that.

Finally, I want to talk about social progress. By 2021, we’ve made a fair amount of progress. Gay marriage is legal. Equity and anti-racism have become part of the lexicon, slowly but surely. There’s a revolution underway in terms of how we talk about gender and identity. But here’s another thing I’ve learned. Progress does not always move in one direction.

A few weeks ago, a draconian anti-abortion bill was passed in Texas, and upheld by our extremely right-wing Supreme Court (fodder for another 1,200 word essay). The overturning of Roe v Wade seems all but inevitable.

What’s more, the social progress we’ve achieved has sparked a backlash, one that Trump and his allies have seized upon. FoxNews host Tucker Carlson (picture the most punchable face imaginable, then put a bowtie on it) openly talks about replacement theory. Congressman Steve King says things that would not be out of place at a KKK rally. (Speaking of nonwhite people, he said, “I would ask you to go back through history and figure out where are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people you are talking about. Where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization [than whites]?”) Trump referred to the tiki-torch-carrying white supremacists who marched in defense of a Robert E Lee monument in Charlottesville shouting “Jews will not replace us!” as “very fine people.” Later, his followers stormed the Capitol wielding confederate flags. (“Go home. We love you. You’re very special,” Trump told his seditious supporters while the riot was happening.)
At the border, children were ripped out of their parents’ hands and put in cages, kidnapped and tortured basically— and this was acceptable because they had brown skin, because they were “murderers and rapists” (according to Trump), because they were here to replace us (according to FoxNews).

A panic over “Critical Race Theory” bubbled up—and it became an all-purpose boogeyman to decry any interrogation of racism in our nation. Lots of white people had a sad over it—“I teach my children to be colorblind and all you want to do is talk about race!”—while actually having no interest in exploring inequality or systemic racism (and having no idea what Critical Race Theory actually is).

The point of this letter is this. You’re no doubt technologically advanced in 2121. You’re sophisticated compared to us 2021 rubes. You’re progressive in your values. You’ve read your history. But never get comfortable. People are people. They are easily manipulated, fearful of the “other.” They resist change and cleave to the status quo. They crave leadership, even if that leadership is morally vacant. They deny obvious scientific truths out of convenience or tribalism or greed. They can’t resist when someone gives them permission to succumb to their worst instincts. The same people who had slaves, who attended lynchings, who enforced Jim Crow laws, who voted for Trump, who denied climate change, who allowed people to buy semi-automatic guns without a permit, who refused vaccines and masks, who stormed the Capitol—they are us. They are you. They are Americans.

Thanks for listening.


P.S. Did they ever get to the bottom of that whole Julianna Margulies/Archie Panjabi feud on The Good Wife? If so, time travel back to 2021 and spill the tea, bestie.