Posted by Louise Humpington on


In my last Reflections, I noted how it angered me that our society has got to a point where the word 'woke' (which literally means: "alert to injustice in society, especially racism") was being used as a slur.

On the week that Derek Chauvin was convicted of the murder of George Floyd, that Daunte Wright (another young, Black man shot by Police in the US during a traffic stop) was laid to rest, and that we remember another young life cut short following an unprovoked and racist attack through Stephen Lawrence Day, it felt like the right time to unpack this issue futher.

Over the past twelve months far right groups, members of racist political parties, and neo-colonial agitators have commandeered the word 'woke' in order to downplay instances of racism, and to undermine the impact that racism has. They 'poo-poo' examples of racism as being 'political correctness gone mad', another flippant phrase designed to make the other person feel that their objections are unwarranted and unjustified. They use terms like 'making a fuss about nothing', in order to dismiss the effect that those behaviours have and belittle the person making the objection.

This latter phrase I feel especially triggered by, because it is what my Headteacher said to me after I made a complaint of sexual assault and harassment against a group of boys in my school. Apparently, repeatedly groping my breasts and pulling down my tracksuit bottoms was just 'boys being boys'. He was wrong, but the words that he chose to address me with were designed to make me feel as though I was.

And that is what use of the word 'woke' has become. A weapon used to attack those who are challenging social injustice, and refusing to allow a racist narrative to take over the conversation. By attempting to cast objectors in the light of 'troublemakers' whose outrage is unjustified, they simultaneously belittle the objector and dismiss the challenge being levelled without addressing it. Accusations of being 'petals' or 'snowflakes' (things which are easily crushed) are used in a similar way.

The interesting thing is that I have never once seen one of those accusations being used by someone who wasn't seeking to defend behaviour that was actively racist, homophobic, chauvinist, transphobic, ageist, ableist, xenophobic, sexist, or misogynistic. Instead of addressing the challenge, ad hominum attacks and those which seek to deflect attention away from the substance of the issue are used. Belittling and dismissing the challenger has become the lazy way to tap out of the conversation, whilst fighting to remain their place on a precariously balanced moral highground.

However, in rejecting the term you are actually saying you don't care about those things (social injustice and racism). So it is rather ironic (or perhaps apt) that it is used by those who seek to defend racist behaviour by dismissing challenges to it.

Perhaps triggered by the events I opened with, social media this week seems to have had a resurgence of these conversations in the past week. I saw one social media personality (white, cis, male) seek to grandstand by 'telling it like it is', before launching into the most extraordinary rant about how racism and white privilege didn't exist because he had worked hard to achieve what he had.

The point about privilege is that you are born with it; you don't earn it. Irrespective of your background or colour some people will work hard and achieve financial success. Others will work even harder and will not achieve financial success. Privilege and indeed financial success often has nothing to do with how hard you work. You usually have to work hard in order to achieve financial success. But that doesn't mean that if you work hard you will.

It has nothing to do with the fact that some People of Colour do achieve financial success. It also isn't about the fact that many white people do struggle, do face adversity and do have to overcome challenges and struggles. Their skin colour just isn't one of them. This is a great article if you want to read more:

There is a difference between equity and equality. Equality literally means giving everyone the same resources. But when the system has been set up in a way which benefits one group over another equality won't be enough to remedy the injustices that follow. This infographic is excellent if you think about the fence as being what we commonly refer to as 'the system'. Those who built the fence can easily see over it. Some others can see glimpses if they stand on tip toes. Others are so short that they will never see over it. That fence (the system) was built years and years ago by a group of rich, white, cis, male people. It was designed to benefit them. It was designed to prevent others being able to see over it. However, unlike the fence in this picture it was built of reinforced steel which makes it incredibly difficult to change or move.

Ideally we would take the entire fence down and rebuild it in a way which provided equity for all. However as with all reinforced building projects that requires a huge amount of time, money, consideration, and expertise. It also requires a consensus of agreement, because it will take everyone to get that bloody fence pulled down.

Equality isn't the answer because that fence (the system) is still structured in a way which only benefits those who built it, or have subsequently been born with all the privileges that enable them to see over the top. Some others might get a peek over the top every so often if they work extra hard to jump up and down, or stand on tip toes. Others will never be able to watch that game.

So if we aren't able to change the system because not everyone is willing to work towards that goal, the only way to redress those imbalances is to give some people a step up so that they can take part in a fairer way.

The reality is that sometimes things are done really badly and everyone ends up losing their legs so no one benefits and no one can see over the fence. Taking things away from others isn't the way to achieve equity. But recognising the privilege that does exist for some, and then building others up, is.

So being a white, cis male 'these days' most certainly is not a 'disadvantage' as one commentator suggested. It's the same advantage that it always was. What social justice movements hope to achieve is bringing those others who don't have that innate privilege/good fortune/luck up to the same level. Unfortunately to those who have had all the power for so long that can sometimes feel like they are having their advantages taken away from them.

And it is no different when we talk about environmental issues. Marginalised, vulnerable communities and those in developing countries are disproportionately impacted by deforestation, by sea level rise, by climate change, by pollution, by the destruction of ecosystems both on land and in our oceans, and by the stripping away of their cultural heritage and the stealing of ancestral land to make way for commercial agricultural activities which feed the richest on our planet.

Living sustainably is about using less as much as it is about generating less waste. We need to rebalance how much we take and how resources are shared. Part of the reason that we in the West are so slow to react and respond to these issues is because we don't experience the impact of them. Our countries are rich enough and privileged enough to palm off the consequences of our behaviour to other countries, to buy our way out of the impacts that we are having. And that has got to stop. The change will only start when we recognise our privilege and we acknowledge that someone else is bearing the brunt of our choices. That change starts with you.

(If you are interested in educating yourself further on white privilege and how to work towards anti-racism I can highly recommend the Facebook group White People. DOING Something)

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