In 1962, the novelist, Jessamyn West wrote “A religious awakening which does not awaken the sleeper to love has roused him in vain.”
What does it mean to be awake?
Is it to be aware of ourselves: our hopes, dreams, flaws, strengths, beliefs?
Is to be aware of the beauty of the earth and the marvel of creation?
Is to be aware of the plight and suffering of others around the world?
It is all these things and more.
What springs to mind when you hear the word woke?
Is it the negative media narrative?
Or are you attuned to the root meaning of what it actually means to be woke?
From African American Vernacular English, Woke is a term used in Black communities around the world that simply means: “being aware of and sensitised to issues of injustice”. Originally focussed on racial injustice, it has since been used as a term that encompasses all social injustices.
In a recent YouGov Survey in 2021, of those who said they knew what woke meant (which was only 41% of respondents), only three in ten (29%) considered themselves to be woke, while more than half (56%) did not.
One in four considered being woke to be a good thing (26%), while slightly more than a third (37%) thought it was a bad thing. Another third (33%) weren’t even sure and said that wokeness is neither good nor bad. So it is clear that there is much confusion about what the term even means and it is a shame that a word, whose root meaning was a positive one, has been reduced to a political insult.
It is not the first time that a positive word used within social justice circles have been hijacked by the media in this way. I have memories of the tabloid newspapers in the 1980s often having headlines describing the ‘loony left’. This was a popular term used as an insult to describe social justice initiatives that were publicly funded. British anti-racism work, which was one of those social justice initiatives, was attacked by the conservative media. The Times accused anti-racism of ‘encouraging black hatred of white society’ and was generally described as “an unwanted and dangerous threat”. The true definitions of anti-racism were not shared by the media: definitions that explained Anti-racist practice as an active practice that “genuinely empowers all of us: educators, leaders, parents and learners to recognise the
complex ways in which different forms of injustice intersect in education to reproduce disparities. Anti-racism as a way to engage educators as active agents in addressing these disparities. Anti-racism as a pedagogical approach concerned with confronting systemic and structural oppression. An approach that “seeks to identify and change institutional policies and procedures and individual behaviours and practices that may foster racism”. None of these definitions, which are easy to find within anti-racist work, are ever ‘put out there’ for the general public to understand. Unsurprisingly, the domination of negative descriptions of anti-racist work resulted in its demise, with many local councils at the time choosing to distance themselves from it. The Greater London Council and the ILEA at the time both had highly developed anti-racist programmes in the 1980s. However, by 1990, both had abolished their programmes. The change of government and a series of new legislations brought in by the conservative government led to many local authorities withdrawing from addressing issues that were deemed ‘controversial’. Then a new term began to be used by the media in negative ways: the idea of political correctness. The purpose of the 1988 Education Reform Act and new National Curriculum was clear. The Minister of Education at the time, Kenneth Baker, said,
“The pursuit of egalitarianism is now over” and the new bill would enable “a return to the underlying values of our society”. The National Curriculum sought to reinstate the idea of Britain as a White monoculture and leaders such as John Major, were unapologetic about their views:
“(student teachers should) not waste their time on the politics of race, gender and class”.
I would argue that egalitarianism is a desirable goal to pursue, and that the underlying values in our society should be based on equality, equity and justice for all. Anything less is just not good enough.
The Macpherson Report, published in 1999, highlighted institutional racism in a range of public services, including education, and suggested that the school curriculum should be transformed to promote racial justice and diversity. However, although the National Curriculum has been revised a number of times since then, the anti-progressive foundations remain; through not addressing anti-racism in any overt way, it continues to sanction the maintenance, reproduction and extension of inequality in society.
However, in spite of this, scholars, campaigners and activists have continued to develop approaches to tackling racism, developing resources and creating teacher training programmes. From guidance on how to prevent and deal with racist incidents and bullying in schools, to The Runnymede Trust’s research and resources for educators and school leaders, to, more recently, The Black Curriculum, who seek to ensure that British black history is embedded in the curriculum. Nevertheless, I cannot help but feel that history is about to repeat itself yet again. With the surge of racist incidences and the way in which the media chooses to cover them, coupled with the politicising of terms such as ‘woke’ being used as negative insults in the media, it feels all too similar to the accusations of the ‘loony lefts’ in the late 1980s, and the negative connotations around being ‘politically correct’ which culminated in the destruction of many anti-racist movements. The DfE’s very recent guidance on ‘Political impartiality in schools’ has come at a time when many schools around the country are trying to embed anti-racism and social justice within their work. This, coming off the back of what is known as the Sewell report, written by commissioners selected by the British government who were not all specialists in the field. It has been widely discredited for “cherry-picking data” and ignoring evidence for racial disparities in the UK. It did not pass peer review. It comes as no surprise that the findings and recommendations of the report align with the ideological position of the current government and make no mention of the existence of institutional racism. David Olusoga, a renowned historian, reviewed their report in detail and said that their recommendations regarding the curriculum can only be described as historically inaccurate, disturbing and inconsistent, with incorrect descriptions of what calls to decolonise the curriculum actually means and showing a worrying lack of understanding of the main tenets of Critical Race Theory- which is another topic that is being demonised in the media with most people not really having any understanding of what it is, but yet saying that they are against it. Others argue that the Sewell report perpetuates White supremacy in education through a failure to recognise and deal with different forms of racism within education. The myth of British meritocracy has resulted in many people believing that we are all on a level playing field and that all we need to do is work hard and we will succeed. This myth negates people’s lived experiences and ignores the structures that have held up racism, sexism and many other ‘isms’ for far too long.
In my view, awakening in this context is about being hyper-aware of our own thoughts, beliefs, values and actions. Thinking deeply about why we think what we do. Reflecting on where our understanding of a certain word or topic has come from: is it through the media alone, is it something you may have read or seen, is it through discussion with others? Often there are no right or wrong answers to this, but being aware of the process you went through to reach your conclusion is what’s important. When you do reflect, if the answer is ‘because they said so in the paper, on the news or the TV’, it is likely that you might want to spend more time thinking deeply and reading widely.
Unitarians have a long history of radical spirituality. Whether you choose to align yourselves to the word woke or not (I know that us Unitarians are not always keen on labels!), it may be worth thinking about what it means to not be woke.
It means you are asleep.
It means you are unaware of injustice
It means you are desensitised to injustice
As unitarians, ideas of unity, the oneness of all life, of being together as one are key features of the faith. We cannot be one if we are not awake to each other’s needs.
The Bantu term ‘Ubuntu’ springs to mind here. It is sometimes translated as "I am because we are", or "humanity towards others".
Being woke essentially means to be human. The term itself, in some ways, is irrelevant, it is the meaning that we must live by: being human, being accountable, being awake.
I will leave you with a quote from one of my favourite authors, Maya Angelou:
“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
Sabrina Edwards is a member of this Chapel and has served on our Board of Trustees. She’s also an experienced primary school head teacher, with particular expertise in curriculum design, values- based education, creating a coaching culture and cognitive education. She is speaking today though as the Director of Educating for Equality, an education consultancy committed to supporting schools on their journey to becoming anti-racist and gender equal.
Director of Educating for Equality and Chapel Member