Columnist Carl Kline: Conservatives wrong to weaponize the term ‘woke’

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For some months now, I wake up at the same time. It may vary by 15 minutes, or less. But I can be laying on my side, sound asleep, back to the clock; and all of a sudden wake up; turn to look at the clock, and am constantly surprised at my internal alarm. It woke me up again.

I learned somewhere in English grammar class that the correct usage of the word was wake, woke, waked. Woke meant that my eyes were now open! Woke was usually spoken with the word “up!” I was no longer going to be in a prone position, but I’d be swinging my legs off the bed and moving into the day. Snooze time was over!

The word “woke” has been used in African American communities for at least a couple of generations to describe an awareness of social and racial injustice. It’s an awareness that something is built into the systems of our society that is racist, and not equitable. It is also a call to action! Don’t go back to sleep! Swing those legs out of the bed and move into the work of the day.

These days the word “woke” has been weaponized. It’s used against those who would like to see our country wake up to the flaws of our past and correct the inequities of the present. It’s especially used as a “dog whistle,” for those who enjoy white privilege and wish to protect it at all costs. The critics of being “woke” are especially concerned that their children not be exposed to “wokeness.” They don’t want their children’s sleep to be interrupted by alarms from others, aware of our social problems.

I have to admit, there are days when I would just as soon stay in bed a bit longer. And there are days in this South Dakota winter when I will get up for a few minutes, go to the bathroom, then get under the warm covers again, for just a few more minutes. I’m not about to beat myself up because I’m not always as awake and ready to go as I should be. It’s the same with wokeness. I’m not always as active as I might be.

But it’s hard to understand how one can stand by and watch the beating of a Rodney King or a Tyre Nichols, and not be awake to unnecessary police violence against black people. King and Nichols made the news in different decades, some 30 years apart. Yet there doesn’t seem to be much improvement in how law enforcement handles their racial interactions.

I’m speaking about this from the position of one who is awake to social and racial inequality. I’ve seen it! I acknowledge it! I found myself testifying against police violence against black folks years ago in Massachusetts! I recognize my own white privilege!

What I try to understand is the position of those who are so adamant against “wokeness.” One possibility is they prefer hiding under the covers. Why get up? They have retired from any activity to better the human condition. They prefer their slumber. Some, we might say, are “conked out.”

Some may find ideas of social justice and equality so threatening to their power and privilege they have to attack it as a path to their own survival. This seems to be behind the plans and paths chosen by so many political figures of our day. Governor DeSantis of Florida seems to represent this position best. In a 2021 speech he said, “What you see now with the rise of this woke ideology is an attempt to really delegitimize our history and to delegitimize our institutions, and I view the wokeness as a form of cultural Marxism. They really want to tear at the fabric of our society.”

Another possibility people are troubled by looking at social and racial inequities is denial, based on ignorance or fear. There are certainly those who are so sheltered from the larger world they hardly know there are other races; have never met someone of a different cultural or ethnic background. They most likely learn little of racial reality and relationship in their schools, either. I remember taking a program in creative conflict resolution to a rural South Dakota country school. One of the teachers there became irate that I would suggest there might be racial concerns in their classrooms, with both white and Indian students.

Some prefer to shelter in the dark of ignorance as a way of avoiding the difficulties and challenges of interrupting, and trying to change, long held social patterns and human interactions. They prefer their freedom to live simply and ignore the complicated.

In one of his poems, the Persian poet Rumi writes: “The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you. Don’t go back to sleep.” He encourages us, whatever our predisposition, “Be woke!”