“Woke” is a beautifully designed term of derision. Aiming a verb misused as an adjective at a well-educated, generally grammatically correct population is uniquely irritating. Then again, it is very hard for those of us to whom it can be applied to categorically deny it. This is especially true for me, a woke Boomer. I can easily look back and see the arc of the transformations that have been happening over the past two decades, having lived through the before and after.
For example, through much of the first half of my lifetime, it was given that gender was both binary and biological. If that wasn’t the case with someone, it was a matter of psychopathology, inherited or environmental.
I was content with my racial colorblindness and felt that was the best I needed to do.
Having read Charles Reich’s Greening of America and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, I felt adequately aware of the world’s environmental foibles and duly angered.
I wouldn’t actually say it to them, but there were people I knew who were fat–drunks and crazy people who lived on the streets in cities, and there were rich people and poor people, but most of us were somewhere in the wide belt of the middle, not seeing far beyond the white picket fences of our similarly white middle-class suburbs.
When I was a liberal arts student in college in downtown Boston, I started to see things a little differently. For one thing, I had the draft and the Vietnam War waiting for me when I got out. And a lot of students were asking What Are We Fighting For? and finding a lot of flaws in the answers we were getting. Some people who dared to refer to themselves as gays and lesbians started to venture out of their mandatory closets and seek recognition and acceptance of who they are, and a bunch of very smart, well-educated, and articulate Black people were getting very angry about the fact that over a century after they were technically freed, their people were still being profoundly suppressed. People weren’t speaking of wakefulness then–they were talking revolution (which would not be televised, with the possible exception of the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention).
I’ve always been the sensitive sort, easily hurt and particularly afraid of inadvertently hurting or offending others. I was also the kid who got beat up for being Jewish and cast out from the Jewish kids because my family didn’t belong to a temple (“too expensive,” my father always said). So maybe I was woke in a way back then, but still generally unaware and uninformed.
Looking back on the past couple of decades, I can see some remarkable changes in the world. People can fall in love, get married, and just be who they are no matter what their internal and external gender wiring happens to be. People are starting to become aware of the profound economics of race and that corrections need to be made that will be uncomfortable for a lot of people who have unfairly and inequitably benefited from the status quo for so long. And we now have much bigger environmental worries than insecticides and abused natural resources.
Millennials to the Rescue
Now, suddenly, I seem to be fitting in somewhere, and that’s comforting. I’m also looking out at a generation of millennials that is moving forward with the good work we tried to start way back then and who have been making admirable, arguably remarkable progress, highlighted by their unanticipated show of force in the 2020 midterm elections. It’s true that there are a lot of my fellow Boomers and Gen-X’ers doing their damned best to nip that in the bud and calling them bad names like “woke.” But they are dying off, losing their grip and doing some really nasty things to prevent the next generation from looking up, waking up. They all know that a change of attitude can threaten the long-dominant status quo maintained by widely accepted bias and social injustice that had been hiding in plain sight in our society.
In any case, we are going to be hearing the term “woke” a lot over the next couple of politically charged presidential campaign years and will be in need of a counter-offensive. If we’re woke, then they’re still asleep, dreaming of a world that just isn’t there anymore, one where everyone fit quite comfortably into their own little pigeonholes and damn well better stay there. As we did long ago, we again need to call out, “wake up world!” to hang onto the amazing progress the kids have made in this millennium and keep moving forward with it. If not, the results are going to be really hard to sleep through in spite of what the Sleepers are saying.