The “Woke” Olympics

I recently interviewed my colleague Shilpa Alimchandani (her episode will drop next week so tune in!) and she said something that has been ping-ponging around in my mind ever since we talked.

Shilpa said we need to stop competing in the “Woke Olympics,” where we’re all in competition to prove we’re more enlightened than the next person.

Woke Olympics. I love it. I’m imagining a SNL sketch where people are climbing over one another to show how well versed they are in obscure facts about inequity, quoting from Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States” and pre-empting every sentence with trigger warnings.

But that’s not what woke really means, and there’s a danger in permitting the concept to be manipulated as such.

“Woke” as defined by Merriam-Webster is being “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice).”

The term “woke” has become prominent in our lexicon, especially over the last few years with the rapid polarization and us vs. them rhetoric that has taken over our country.  As with many terms that have become a more prominent part of mainstream culture, it has become hijacked and manipulated to mean something it’s not intended to mean.

“Woke” is not intended to be used as a measurement of how enlightened or ignorant a person is. It is not a metric of one’s levels of racism or anti-racism. It is about being willing to reflect honestly on our own lenses, and to challenge others to do the same, so we can shine a light on systemic issues and practices that keep some people in a one-up position in our society and some in a one-down status.

Essence did a beautiful job of asking prominent social justice advocates to define the term. In the video, they talk about the actions people take when they are trying to stay woke. It’s about wading into the discomfort of conversations around racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. Shonda Rimes describes the meaning of “woke” as “you recognize that the world is not a simple place, that everything is not all equal, that justice has not happened yet for everyone, and that there is a lot of work to be done.”

I’ve been speaking to a lot of diversity, equity, and inclusion practitioners and advocates about they maintain their our own curiosity and non-judgment when they encounter people who have diametrically opposed values and views. But we often don’t talk about how advocates may also fall into the trap of judging their peers and colleagues who DO share many similar values and views, who are doing this work together but all still bring their own unique beliefs, experiences, and blind spots.

Instead of trying to prove how much I know, the best thing I can do to demonstrate that I’m trying to “stay woke” is to listen to others, and to constantly ask myself where I may be making assumptions or judgments about others that don’t explore the full story of that individual. Staying woke


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