Are We Too Woke For Our Own Good?

Social Commentary

Are We Too Woke For Our Own Good?

Illustration: Arati Gujar

Sitting at a Bandra restaurant the other day, I managed to eavesdrop on a fascinating conversation between two girls at the next table.

It started vapidly enough, with the ponytailed, yoga mat-wielding girl espousing the virtues of her hot yoga class, which most people would just dismiss as an outcome of a broken AC. Her insights on how “the heat just like really makes you zone out” were cut short by the waiter, and the girl with the septum ring ordered a vegan quinoa bowl before explaining her new, environmentally friendly diet with the appropriate dash of smugness. Not to be outdone, Ponytail Heatstroke leapt into the fray, accusing Septum Vegan of contributing to the destruction of the Amazon rainforest with her quinoa addiction. Septum Vegan countered that with how it was “definitely local or something”.

Finally, the clueless waiter was recruited to determine the origins of the quinoa. After a brief, and no doubt trying, sojourn with the chef, he confirmed that the grain was indeed grown in India. Septum Vegan had won the day, ratcheting up her smugness by a good few points, while Ponytail Heatstroke fell back, defeated.

Meanwhile, I sipped my organic-but-not-fair-trade almond milk flat white and contemplated the scene before me. I had just witnessed a classic, very unvegan example of the woke eating the woke.

The dictionary describes woke as “an incorrect tense of awake, a reference to how people should be aware in current affairs”. The word which denoted black struggle, was revived in 2013 after Black Lives Matter activists started the website. Today, it has been reduced to internet slang and finds itself in the hall of fame along with “on fleek” and “bruh”.

Still, many earnestly defend the inherent value of being woke – a radical, unflinching new-found awareness of the impact your presence can have on the world, of the structures and hierarchies that create oppression, inequality, and baseless discrimination. The recognition of privilege is, to be sure, important, but hopefully it’s also the first step of a complicated, collective process to effect real change.

Taking UberPool means supporting a company that has had a toxic work culture for women. Hail a rickshaw and you’re complicit in the exploitation of poor migrant workers. Ride a cycle and you’ll be killed in a road accident.

And who is the Grand Arbiter of what does and doesn’t qualify as woke behaviour? Presumably, the people performing it.

“Performative wokeness” is a term usually applied to token attempts to show solidarity with a cause or minority group – for example, doing the Wakanda Forever salute to show how you’re totally down with black people, or calling your cook a “domestic” because you don’t believe in class distinctions. But there is a particular brand of millennial woke theatre in which all the world’s a stage to prove that you are better than the asshole next to you, someone who’s never even heard of bell hooks or worse, uses animal-tested cosmetics.

It’s all fun and games until it turns into some sort of a competition – what Maya Binyam calls the “Woke Olympics”.

Driving a car is irresponsible because it contributes to pollution and drives up petrol prices. Taking UberPool means supporting a company that has had a toxic work culture for women. Hail a rickshaw and you’re complicit in the exploitation of poor migrant workers. Ride a cycle and you’ll be killed in a road accident. Surely it’s better to just stay home, where your very not-woke mother is the only person who will lecture you on how much electricity and toilet paper you use – not because she has just woken up to realise that we need to save the environment, but because she wants to save money.

When everything is problematic, none of your decisions are going to cut it. So how do earn the woke badge or win the neverending Woke Olympics? Especially when you are only fighting it out with other people who, essentially, think just like you do. As Binyam points out in the essay “Watching The Woke Olympics”, “Woke Olympians are frenetic curators of the most obvious aggressions; they launch a series of condemnations –  in tweets, Facebook statuses, album reviews  –  and call it cultural critique.”

You’ve chosen to Know Better and Do Better, to Educate Yourself and Check Your Privilege, along with all the other buzzwords that allow you to, in the words of “Redbone”, #staywoke.

And yet, your greatest concern remains the most bourgeois, unradical one of all: Log kya kahenge? What will people say if instead of working for a socially conscious startup or becoming a slam poet, you take up a job in a corporate firm despite being aware that its CEO was asked to step down on sexual harassment charges? What will it do for your woke cred if you confess that you don’t really get the distinction between a transgender and transsexual person?

We’ve reduced the idea of being woke to a competition that is all about winning points. All it does is force you to be more careful – to point out holes in someone else’s theories – while continuing to do exactly as you please. The woke contest is just a “poorly devised self-help regime, better designed to confirm the wokeness of its participants than to inspire any awakening”.

The outcome of participating in the Woke Olympics relentlessly is clear: Woke eats woke until no one left is woke enough to have a point of view, legitimate or otherwise. Because let’s face it: Not a single Amazonian rainforest tree was saved by Ponytail Heatstroke’s impassioned, woker-than-thou defence – not least because quinoa is grown in Bolivia and Peru, whose farmers couldn’t give a fig, literally or figuratively, about a bowl of the stuff at a Bandra café.