What ‘woke up’ really means (and how it is abused)

Everyone has an opinion about ‘wake’, it seems. ‘The Awakened Terror’ would ravage the Netherlands, according to author Özcan Akyol in one of the many columns on ‘Awakened’. Especially the academic world would be in danger. Henk Kummeling, rector magnificus at Utrecht University, finds the ‘monstrous wok culture’ ‘extremely threatening to the university and academic development’. ‘Everything must be said and done there that any intelligent person can think of.’ Member of Parliament Nicki Pouw-Verweij (JA21) is also afraid of ‘woke’. She suggested a study of self-censorship in higher education.

So there are plenty of opinions about ‘waking up’, but no one seems to be able to agree on exactly what that means. “You know what a wake is, don’t you?” early Nieuwsuur presenter Jeroen Wollaars to SP leader Lilian Marijnissen. “Please explain.” “No, please explain.” There was no explanation. While ‘woke up’ is certainly not a new term. Black Americans used the term almost a century ago to warn against racial violence. How did a call for solidarity become a loaded word that some use as a dog whistle for people who want to stop the liberation?

‘Wokeness’ has been around for almost a century

In 1962, African-American author William Melvin Kelley wrote “If You’re Woke You Dig It,” in The New York Times. In it he took (white) beatnik writers1 on the heel, who pretended to have invented words from the African-American slang, such as ‘cool’ and ‘chick’. In the same 1960s, African Americans also used the word “woke up” to warn each other about white racist violence.

Erykah Badu introduced ‘stay wake’ to a new generation

But we can go even further back. In the 1930s, black American blues singer Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter sang the protest song “Scottsboro Boys” about a group of innocent black teenagers traveling in Alabama who are accused of raping them by two white women. In an interview in the 1940s, Ledbetter recounts how his 1938 song was a call to black people to be vigilant – to stay awake – to racist behavior and violence by white people.

In 2008, ‘stay wake’ was introduced to a new generation of singer Erykah Badu – the same generation that the protest movement Black Lives Matter was born of in 2013. In ‘Master Teacher’ (on Badu’s album New Amerykah), ‘I stay wake’ the hypnotic chorus in a song about the search for a world where black people are not defined by racism. ‘Stay awake’ means for Badu to be on guard, but also to keep dreaming.

Is ‘wake’ the new ‘political correctness’?

British author George Orwell is often quoted in the conversation about ‘wake’. Not only did he invent the language Newspeak in 1984, which is to safeguard the ideals of the totalitarian state, but in his classic essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ (1946) he also warns against ‘smuggling and perversions’ with the language. , which leads to the goal of ‘selling lies as truth’. According to many opponents, ‘awake’ people are mainly busy lecturing others about what language they should or should not use. But the battle for the word “woke up” is about more than language or misunderstandings. It now appears to be a political code word to stifle the discussion of institutional injustice in the Netherlands.

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Right-wing and mostly white politicians, journalists and academics have taken over from black and left-wing circles for some years now and redefined it to portray progressive movements as extremist and dangerous. In 2018, for example, the young political scientist Yasha Mounk warned about the dangers of ‘awake culture’. Something similar happened earlier with the word ‘politically correct’: an expression from communist circles in the 1930s, with which progressive people in the 1970s made fun of dogmatic positions in their own circle. “It’s not politically correct, buddy,” left-leaning students joked with each other when someone made a bad joke.

But in 1987, philosopher Allan Bloom opens a book in which he attacks what he sees as the emergence of political correctness at university. Left-wing teachers would poison young minds with their relativistic view of life, instead of teaching students what is right and wrong. Journalist Richard Bernstein sparked a heated debate in 1990 New York Times when he expresses his concern about the ‘growing hegemony of the politically correct’ at university, where he says that essays on literary classics have been replaced by articles on discrimination and civil rights. This criticism is reminiscent of the accusation that ‘awake’ students are now being criticized by people like Principal Magnificus Kummeling.

Teachers who warn against awake students place themselves in a victim role

In the Netherlands, right-wing politicians and journalists in the late 1990s seized on the idea of ​​political correctness to argue for a tougher approach to immigration and immigrants. In 1995, Elsevier editor-in-chief HJ Schoo paints a picture of a left-wing elite abusing the memory of World War II to welcome and pamper immigrants. Schoo, the head of the largest right-wing weekly in the Netherlands, complains that he feels limited in what he has to say of the ‘guardians of politically correct thinking’. Journalist and sociologist Herman Vuijsje writes in 1997 in his book Correct that there is a ‘politically correct taboo’ in the Netherlands to discuss problems with minorities who have been tackled with the velvet glove ‘too long’. And VVD politician Frits Bolkestein welcomed the new and strict Aliens Act in 2000 with the statement that ‘the price of ten years of political correctness on this subject has been high’.

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Picture of:
Rueben Millenaar

Will the real victim please rise?

‘Woke’ seems to face the same fate as ‘politically correct’. Yet the attack on Awakened differs in important ways from the discussion of political correctness. The struggle is, firstly, not so much about the content of politics, but about who is the victim of politics. Teachers who warn against awake students place themselves in a victim role. For example, the emotions of the (white, male) teacher emerge in a conversation that was originally about structural injustice at the university that mainly affects students. Reports of discrimination at Dutch universities have more than doubled in two years by 2020.

The white resistance to the awake wraps itself in sacrifice

Kummeling – Rector Magnificus from the beginning of this article – complains about students who ‘apply the idea of ​​being awakened to the extreme’ and thus ‘confront teachers’. As an example, he cites students who protested in 2019 against a lecture by Leiden professor and senator of the Forum of Democracy Paul Cliteur at the University of Groningen. Kummeling does not defend the students’ right to demonstrate, but portrays Cliteur as a victim of vigilant extremists.

You may be wondering why the white resistance movement against wake is shrouded in sacrifice. ‘Anti-vigilant brigade’ often has a demonstrably powerful position at the university, in politics or in the media, which certainly does not apply to minorities and people of color. At the University of Groningen, for example, in 2016, only 12 of the 469 professors were colored. But positioning yourself as a victim is an effective strategy for masking power relations. Awake critics like to portray anti-racists as players with a political agenda, while proclaiming themselves exponents of common sense.

‘the war against the awakened’

Yet it is primarily the white counter-movement that uses its political power to stifle the social conversation about, for example, racism with laws. This is happening not only in the United States but also in the United Kingdom and France. Laws have been passed in 13 conservative US states promoting ‘critical race theory’2 should be banned from the classroom. Although the Dutch media mainly write about the ‘culture of cancellation’ among progressive students, it is the Conservative Republicans who are leading this crusade. Such laws are on the political agenda in a further 16 states dominated by Republicans.

In the UK, schools should stop teaching the ‘controversial theories’ about white privileges, claims a recent recommendation commissioned by the UK Ministry of Education. And in France, Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer set up a think tank to put an end to the ‘waking movement’ blown over from America. “The French Republic is completely opposed to Wokism,” he said.

That war against the awakened it is therefore about much more than ridiculing anti-racists as ideological opponents with simplistic and historically incorrect thoughts. The aim is to reverse progress in anti-discrimination and minority liberation. In the Netherlands, the fear of wake is still mainly in the column and opinion sections, and every now and then it leads to a book. It has not yet led to repressive legislation, as in the United States.

From left to right: Lulu Helder, Rahina Hassankhan, Otmar Watson and Mitchell Esajas

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  1. The term ‘beatnik’ refers to the young generation in the late 1950s and early 1960s, who imitated the lifestyle of the famous ‘beat’ poets of the 1940s.
  2. Critical race theory is a conceptual framework in which social and legal rights are studied, and in particular the influence of a person’s race or origin on them.

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