Don’t be Misled: “Wokeness” Means “Kindness”

By Jonathan Klate

“Wokeness” is what folks on the political right love to declare themselves as being against these days. But, what is it, really, that they oppose?

The term “woke” was derived from African American Vernacular English meaning alertness to racial prejudice. For those who have used the term positively, something I am not sure anyone actually does anymore, its meaning evolved to encompass awareness of other social inequities and forms of oppression such as sexism, misogyny, white privilege, the oppression of any minority person or community, and human and environmental predations of exploitive corporations. This is sometimes called “intersectionality,” another term that is often denigrated.

The opposite of “wokeness” could be characterized as indifference by those with privileged status to the suffering of others.

This is not to dismiss the criticisms of wokeness as excessive sensitivity to language anyone might find offensive and the demand that everyone change their usage to conform to the prerogatives of anyone who alleges offense. Belittling and harshly calling out others in the name of wokeness is itself not woke at all.

For those on the right it has become a generalized pejorative, almost an expletive for any attitudes they attribute to those who see the patterns of oppressions in the world differently than they do, who strive to bring those oppressions out of the darkness of ignorance, to ease the despair of those who dwell under their yoke, to contemplate how these cultural oppressions can be remedied, and to actively work to actualize those remediations.

It is a placeholder term for rejection of thinking about both history and current social realities outside of the narrow descriptive confines of the dominant biases most of us were indoctrinated with as children.

For an obvious illustration, we all learned about George Washington’s courage, dignity, and leadership. How much did we learn about his immense wealth which was largely comprised by the market value of the people he owned and traded as commodities whose freedom was not even accorded to them upon his death in his will? Emphasize that and you are “woke” and therefore wicked. 

Real education requires actual history, not an attempt to erase the mistakes made or the harms done to groups of people. When teaching actual history is branded as woke and therefore bad, our children are denied the truth that can make future mistakes much less likely.

In the words of the official transcript of his speech on January 3, Ron DeSantis, the ambitious culture warrior governor of Florida, said, “We reject this woke ideology. We seek normalcy, not philosophical lunacy! We will not allow reality, facts, and truth to become optional. We will never surrender to the woke mob. Florida is where woke goes to die!” (Note the “royal we” and the exclamation points.)

And yet, his own general counsel defined wokeness as “the belief there are systemic injustices in American society and the need to address them.” So, why the crusade against this?

DeSantis even decries socially responsible investing as “woke capitalism.” Some people prefer to invest their money in corporations that treat workers decently­­­­, value and promote women and minorities equitably, respect the environment and avoid polluting and try to ameliorate catastrophic climate change, do not produce assault weapons for civilian use or addicting products.

But according to DeSantis and those of his ilk, this is “woke capitalism” and nearly half the states have passed resolutions or legislation forbidding pension fund managers from making investment decisions based upon environmental, social, or governance principles or any other concerns other than where they can make the most money free of any other values.

Elon Musk called socially responsible investing “the devil incarnate.” I guess that’s what “woke” is to these folks.

When I hear or read someone put down “wokeness” I perform a simultaneous mental translation and substitute “kindness” for “wokeness” and this clarifies their actual sentiment.

Simple kindness; a recognition that we are all in our essential human nature of the same kind and it is imperative that we recognize we have far more similarities to one another than differences between us, with equal entitlement to the essentials of a healthy and comfortable life, safety in our communities, and a sustainable environment in which to live and to bequeath to those who follow on. To oppose wokeness is to oppose all of this in preference for unbounded selfishness, tribalism, and the preservation of privilege for the few.

Kindness, and its cousins sympathy, compassion, and the recognition that we are all in this together, are not always so easy to practice, but they are the only antidotes to selfishness and ceding power to demagogues who would turn us against one another and exploit our differences to extract power for themselves.

Standing up to bullies requires courage and doing so is most noble when it is someone else who is being bullied, when your privileged position allows you to simply stand by and watch in silence, or skulk away. Kindness is not passive. It often requires bravery.

Placing kindness in the foreground of our thinking, including opening to all the facts of our shared heritage, even those that may make some of us feel uncomfortable, can lead to a spiritual renewal. Opposing equal rights for those who may in some respect differ from us is not just anti-wokeness, it is anti-kindness.

Jonathan Klate writes regularly about spirituality, political ideology, and the relationship between these two.

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