It all started when Multiracial Media posted this provocative meme on their social media asking people to examine their definition of Woke.
Here’s where it started:
I chimed in with a brief response:
Let’s look at how many of us are simultaneously woke and hypocrites, beginning with definitions of the two words.
“Woke” is a recently-trending term to describe a fairly new level of social consciousness and awareness. Here’s the entry from the reader-supplied Urban Dictionary:
And here is the traditional definition of “hypocrisy,” from Dictionary.com:
For this conversation, let’s focus on the issues in Multiracial Media’s original post: race, religion and gender-sexuality identity. First, we have to ground everything in context. Since we’re living and functioning in a country, society and culture that are deeply and inherently White Supremacist, patriarchal and racially xenophobic (which Merriam-Webster describes as “fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners”), we are all likely to be hypocritical in one area or another.
Being “woke” suggests a relatively new dawning of awareness or consciousness. One can be exposed to information and even digest that information intellectually before it trickles up to actual awareness or activism. And when someone does achieve a new level of wokeness, that doesn’t fast-track them to a flawlessly consistent brand of political consciousness in all of their attitudes, beliefs and behaviors.
Real growth, real consciousness-growing is messy, inconsistent and full of our human contradictions and flaws. Especially when it comes to race, religion and gender-sexual identity—all of which most folks have very deep feelings and ideas about. Some of us are born into families, cultures and communities that program us about ourselves and those considered “other.” Others develop these feelings and attitudes en route to adulthood. Whatever our beliefs and actions, they’re unfolding against a backdrop of institutionalized programming so deep, wide and pervasive that it’s unreasonable to expect most of us to zoom from “woke” to absolutely consistency without traversing the difficult, awkward obstacle course of real growth and activism.
This reminds me of the lyrics to Tower of Power’s 1976 jam, “Can’t Stand to See the Slaughter”:
I can’t stand to see the slaughter
but still I eat the meat
I can’t stand dishonest people
but still sometimes I cheat
I can’t stand that air pollution
but still I drive a car
Maybe them’s the reasons why
things is like they are
Political activism cannot wait for or rely upon everyone to be completely free of their own contradictions, biases and hypocrisy. Social movements don’t have the luxury of requiring political purity.
All of us have internalized some of the racial, religious, gender-sexuality oppression of our environments, often unconsciously. It’s snaking through our DNA, ingested from every system and institution with which we interact every day of our lives. And even if we’re woke in one area, we are likely to be lagging in others.
One recent example is the tensions between growing progressive anti-racist movements and Zionist Jews. In “Jewish Groups Decry Black Lives Matter Platform’s View on Israel,” the Washington Post reported a year ago that,
“Dozens of Black Lives Matter organizations jointly released a wide-ranging platform Monday spelling out standpoints on dozens of issues … On almost all of the issues — including education, food insecurity, criminal sentencing and policing — progressive Jewish groups heartily agree. But the new platform’s stance on Israel has angered major Jewish organizations.
“The platform calls for an end to U.S. federal aid for Israel. By providing aid, the platform argues, the United States is “complicit in the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people,” [and] describes Israel as ‘an apartheid state.’
“That inflammatory language drew a strong response from Jewish leaders Thursday. ‘It’s never helpful, never helpful to use phrases like ‘complicit in genocide,’ which is patently false, or to make unfair analogies to apartheid,’ Rabbi Jonah Pesner told The Washington Post.”
This is a conundrum that won’t be quickly or easily resolved. It also reflects the realities of our times, our passions and clashes in wokeness from different groups.
There are countless other examples of these kinds of conflicts: the overwhelming Whiteness of the mainstream U.S. feminist and LGBT movements. Deep-rooted homophobia in the Black U.S. and Diasporic community, often rooted in religion.
Insert your own examples here _________________________________________________________.
We all embody and are going to encounter contradictions at the nexus of race, religion, gender-sexual identity and other such issues. And few of us are politically pure enough to claim freedom from any form of hypocrisy.
We simply do not evolve in big steps or straight lines. Even when we become more woke, we’re still grappling with the prejudices, biases and contradictions that make us and others human.
We’ve can’t confuse the need for progress with a need for consensus—we’re simply too complex and nuanced to all be on the same page at the same time.
There are no universally agreed-upon definitions for most of the terms around these issues. Look at the Multi-racial community—we grapple endlessly with definitions from Black and African American (which some use interchangeably and to which others assign different meanings), Latina/x and Hispanic, etc. We also have relatively new terms like Multi-generational Mixed, hypo-descendant (subscribing to the one-drop-makes-you-Black theory), and White-passing, not to be confused with passing for White. And while the term “Mulatto” remains controversial and historically problematic, some Mixed folks claim it proudly. As a Boomer, the “Negro” on my birth certificate is a neutral term to me, yet it’s being removed from the 2020 Census as a “slur” because younger Black people shun it.
Millennials are also grappling with replacing gender-specific pronouns. We consider the dynamics of switching to gender-inclusive bathrooms, and consider how to respond to the presence of transgendered people in formerly cis-gender-specific spaces, while on a learning curve in the rapidly-evolving terminology—such as androgynous being replaced with gender non-conforming.
Look at history. Some called the Civil Rights Movements hypocritical because one of the major architects, Bayard Rustin, was kept behind the scenes for being gay. While that seems ludicrous these days, when many of the Black Lives Matters founders are out and proud, consider the context of the 1960s in which the Civil Rights Movement took place. Rightly or wrongly, the leaders determined that it was too risky to reveal Rustin’s sexuality because it might deflect attention from the goals and momentum of the movement.
The Civil Rights Movement also obscured the fact that nine months before Rosa Parks famously refused to stand on a segregated bus, a teenaged Claudette Colvin did the same. As NPR reports, the adult Parks was considered more reliable. And then there was the colorism factor. “‘Her skin texture was the kind that people associate with the middle class … she fit that profile,’ says Colvin.” Thus one woman is an historic icon and her predecessor languishes in near-obscurity.
I explored the intersection of wokeness and interracial love this blog piece, “Just Because I’m ‘Woke’ Doesn’t Mean I Won’t Swirl: At the Intersection of Race, Sex and Black Activism,” prompted by news of actor/activist Jesse Williams’ divorce.
The road to progress is paved with zigs and zags, mazes, detours and dead-ends—all of which we must navigate without losing sight of our goals and purpose. Each of us brings our complicated history and nuanced issues to the party. As humans—particularly those who are committed to fighting the status quo in hopes of something better—we can’t simply check our various baggage and enter any space free of these inconsistencies. We’ve got to acknowledge them and know when to set them aside in the name of solidarity and unity for the cause.
These situations can be super-complicated in the Multiracial communities, especially in families. Many of us Mixed-race folks know what it’s like to have close blood relatives who are racist, even in the midst of genuine love. Sometimes we’re called hypocrites for the ways we look and how we choose to self-identify, especially if those identity definitions shift throughout our lives.
Progress is a come-as-you-are situation. And sometimes even those who seem to be completely on the same political page and aligned in their thoughts, attitudes, beliefs and practices inevitably find areas where they differ or clash. We’ve got to embrace these complexities and keep working together to move forward.
As the popular saying goes, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
No matter how diligently any of us is working for external progress, the real struggle is deeply internal as well. We learn, we grow, rinse and repeat. There is no consensus to strive for, and no final conclusion to be reached. There is only the never-ending journey to move onward and upward in hopes of something potentially better.
Rather than calling for or requiring an end to all forms of hypocrisy before considering wokeness or activism credible, let’s acknowledge the inherent messiness of bringing our multi-dimensional work-in-progress selves to any struggle. Let’s embrace our various contradictions and remember that the goal is evolution, not perfection. Struggles are the nuanced creations of human attempts to make sense of the world we inhabit, and our one-step-forward, two-steps-back dance to make it a better place as best we can along the way. After all, we can’t fight for humanity if we’re not willing to work with those things that make us human in the first place.