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The millennial performance of wokeness

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I’m not the biggest fan of the term “millennial.” Although I can technically be counted as one — according to the Pew Research Center, a “millennial” is anyone born between the years 1981 and 1996, and I was born in the late 80s — I oscillate between cringing at being associated with some of my generation’s habits and silently applauding younger generations for calling out the issues we see around and getting shit done — from leading the rescue efforts in devastated Kerala, to questioning gun violence in America, to leading the safe abortion movement in Argentina, to standing our own ground at work.

But the social good our generation does is undercut by a generationally unique problem: the pressure of being “woke.”

Popularized by the #BlackLivesMatter movement in 2014, “woke” refers to being aware of and active regarding issues of social justice and inequalities. While the concern millennials feel about issues such as global warming, xenophobic political leaders, fundamentalist forces, and the war on immigrants is generally genuine, we also feel pressure to perform that concern. Being woke has become a way of presenting ourselves. This whole performance of wokeness has become something of a social mandate for millennials.

To clarify, this performance is a social mandate for a certain class of millennials. Staying apolitical "by choice" is no longer an option for those with the privilege of access to the Internet. As a concept that took off in online spaces and movements, it has excluded lower-caste and lower-class people who cannot access the Internet or, even if they can, find online activism a privilege which they don’t have complete access to or space within. The millenials who identify as woke have the privilege to expend their time and energy on an education that goes beyond lecture rooms and classroom walls. We learn about ongoing political debates on social media, subscribe to certain podcasts and daily news channels, and learn about news as it’s happening because we see it’s trending. We change our profile pictures to images featuring messages of solidarity and use viral hashtags. We are exposed to online content that reflects, and even helps evolve, societal trends, like when mental health awareness became a trending topic after people started discussing the Netflix show 13 Reasons Why, when we took the kiki challenge like there was no tomorrow (and no logic), and when we helped transform #MeToo from a hashtag to a global movement that serves as a testament to countless stories of survival and exposé of the misuse of power and privilege.  

One could argue that it doesn’t matter why someone’s being woke as long as they are in effect being socially, politically, and environmentally conscious. But doesn’t being woke out of a desire for a form of elevated social status undercut the whole point of wokeness? Wokeness in this form isn’t born out of a real desire to understand contextual complexities of social justice issues, or to do the hard work of acknowledging one’s own privileges as they identify oppression, but out of the fear of not knowing a trending topic that's ruling discussions at work or the shame they’d receive from peers if they’re blind to a viral hashtag. Are we counting our carbon footprints because we want to save the planet, or because someone talked about it at work? Are we being intersectional in our feminism because it’s the right thing to do, or because it’s the latest buzzword in the movement? Perhaps we should pause in the midst of our competitions to be the wittiest person on Twitter and ask ourselves if wokeness is an identity we want because it's ”cool” and aspirational and everyone else around us seems to be? Or do we really want to be socially conscious and aware of all the news we see and consume?

There are consequences to these motivations for wokeness, for wokeness is, indeed, becoming a title everyone is expected to self-appoint. The #MeToo movement, for examples, has taught us about how the universalization of being woke has become something of a disguise for some cisgender males to behave problematically. We have witnessed men disguising themselves as woke feminists while being perpetrators of violence and harassment all over the world, including veteran actors, respected journalists and people in the field of stand-up comedy.

Essentially, performative wokeness has enabled some men to effectively mansplain their way into infiltrating “woke” spaces without any true understanding of what that wokeness entails. Popular meme maker and stairist Imaan Sheikh has animated this very phenomenon through her memojis ”Bare Minimum Basheer” exposing the hypocrisy of men disguising themselves as woke dudes doing literally the bare minimum and wanting to earn brownie points by calling themselves woke feminists. In this series, Sheikh exposes woke feminist men, unpacks emotional labor of women, even introduces the feminist’ man’s fictional girlfriend, while satirically exposing the delusional understanding of gender equality that many supposedly woke men seem to share.

In order to dig even deeper into performative wokeness, we must ask who gets to decide who is woke and who is not? Again, all the social media hashtags and office and coffee shop conversations that promote performative wokeness are generally limited to people of a certain class, caste, and gender identity. It’s likely that a conversation about the #MeToo movement happening by the office water cooler does not address the complicated ways in which sexual harassment affects Dalit women or trans women, for instance, who are denied such positions of power and privilege in the first place. Perhaps, therefore, we should change the framework of wokeness from being a permanent state to one that is a work in progress, especially if we want to be mindful of our own privileges and pass the mic to others. Feeling the need to be woke is the least of our problems; acting on it is where the real struggle begins.



More articles by Category: Feminism
More articles by Tag: Black Lives Matter, Equality, Intersectionality, Social media, Twitter
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Deepa Ranganathan
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