By: Isaiah Montoya
The idea behind the word ‘woke’ was common within African American communities since before the movement made its way worldwide. The notion is that staying “woke” and alert to the deceptions of other people was a basic survival tactic. But in 2014, following the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, “stay woke” suddenly became the cautionary watchword of Black Lives Matter activists on the streets, used in a chilling and specific context: keeping watch for police brutality and unjust police tactics.
In the eight years since Brown’s death, “woke” has evolved into a single-word summation of leftist political ideology, centered on social justice politics and critical race theory. This framing of “woke” is bipartisan: It’s used as a shorthand for political progressiveness by the left, and as a denigration of leftist culture by the right.
On the left, to be “woke” means to identify as a staunch social justice advocate who’s abreast of contemporary political concerns — or to be perceived that way. At times, the defensiveness surrounding wokeness invites ironic blowback. Consider the 2020 Hulu comedy series Woke, which attempted to deconstruct the identity politics behind ideas like “wokeness,” only to garner criticism for having an outdated and too-centrist political viewpoint — that is, for not being woke enough.
African American El Pasoan LaVontae Miller says being woke is a black thing that stems from slavery but others have tried to change it into something else. “Am I down with the woke movement? No. It’s just another thing that White and Spanish people have taken from us,” he explains. “They like basketball and rap music and dancing but they don’t want us to be their neighbor. I do feel racism sometimes here in El Paso but so many swear they aren’t prejudiced.”
El Paso is less than four percent African American and according to Miller, El Paso isn’t very woke, although many people in El Paso call themselves democrats. Ronny Simmons is an El Paso native who is also African American and he believes El Paso is woke. “Ever since the shooting at the Wal-Mart, El Paso is woke because most of them see what it’s like to be targeted for their ethnicity. Before, El Paso might have been insulated from the problems going on in the south and cities like L.A., Chicago and Baltimore.”
On the right, “woke” — like its cousin “canceled” — bespeaks “political correctness” gone awry, and the term itself is usually used sarcastically. At the Republican National Convention in August, right-wing Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) scolded “woketopians,” grouping them together with socialists and Biden supporters, as though the definition of a “woketopian” was self-evident.
But as use of the word spreads, what people actually mean by “woke” seems less clear than ever.
Shifting a Black Lives Matter slogan away from its original meaning is arguably the least woke thing ever — yet that seems to be just what happened with, of all things, “woke” itself.
Then again there’s an anti-woke movement going on. The Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees (Stop WOKE) Act proposed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis this year empowers citizens to go after “woke indoctrination.” The bill blunts what he has warned is liberal ideology influencing the teaching of history in schools and coursing through corporate diversity training. Stop WOKE prohibits any teaching that could make students feel they bear personal responsibility for historic wrongs because of their race, color, sex or national origin, and blocks businesses from using diversity practices or training that could make employees feel guilty for similar reasons.
El Pasoan Octavio Enriquez considers himself a Republican and he believes the woke movement (as has been defined by mass culture) compromises nature as God created it. “I am conservative and I see the acceptance of any and everything as taking us away from what God wants,” he explains. “This woke movement is wrapped in an enticing cover but underneath it all is our desire to sin with no consequences. This movement makes sinners think there’s no consequences but there is…in the long run.”
Downtown resident and bartender at a ‘gay’ bar, Herman Wiles believes the woke movement is a continuation of the civil rights movement “If it weren’t for the woke movement and others like it, my life might constantly be in danger,” he says. The woke movement is a necessary step for us Americans to recognize the worth and validity of all citizens whether they are gay or bi or black or transsexuals. We need to be warned and protected just like anyone else.”
As people in America become more woke are they progressing or are they becoming more evil? El Pasoans are contemplating the movement but they do not all agree….such is a functioning democracy.