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 It has been replaced by a trendier, more sound-bitey, more (intentionally) vague villain: “Wokeism” or what Elon Musk called “the woke mind virus.”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.