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Why 'Woke' is NOT a Bad Word

Liz Milne explores the role of ‘wokeness’ and how it is still relevant to the lives of the oppressed in society.

14-year-old student, Ruby Williams was recently trolled on social media following backlash over her choice to wear her natural afro to school. Although it is the equivalent of a Caucasian girl of the same age wearing her hair down for the day, it caused her to be called a ‘stroppy teen of colour’ alongside accusations of defying ‘school uniform policy’. But what this incident does more than anything, is raise questions about ‘wokeness’.

What is ‘woke’?

The word ‘woke’ gets bad press from ‘the right’ who assume it is merely mindless affirmative action in its newest incarnation. But it also gets a bad rep from those who are more centrist in their beliefs, and even some of those on the left, who feel that accommodations made towards inclusivity go too far. Ultimately, they believe that it will lead to a preponderance of ‘mediocre people of colour’ replacing the current ‘mediocre white man’ who is often (justly) maligned by those actively seeking genuine diversity in all walks of life. Far from it.

Where did ‘woke’ originate?

‘Woke’ and ‘awaken’ come from the same root, and at its simplest, ‘woke’ simply means to be awake – awake to potential problems that others might face, even if those problems do not affect all. For example, women need sit down toilets in all instances. Wheelchair users need access – ramps and lifts. Gender dysphoric people feel much more comfortable being asked their pronouns or, alternatively, respond better to an automatic ‘their’ (and grammar pedants can sit down, ‘their’ has been used to denote single people of unknown gender for literal centuries, because as a species we disdain from calling ourselves and others the technically correct, but rather insulting, ‘it’).

“Ugh, But We’re All Equal Now!”

You may be asking, is ‘wokeness’ still needed? Women have equality or are on the way to getting it now that various disparities have been acknowledged; disabled people have stronger voices and an excellent community on Twitter that doesn’t hesitate to call out unconscious or ignorant bias, and everyone knows that racism is bad. Don’t they? Arguable, actually.

Women are bearing the brunt of pulling double duty on working for money and for the family during the Covid-19 pandemic, with no physical separation between the two. The more rights that are given to minorities, the harder the hate-filled or bewilderingly ignorant seem to fight back. And so on.

Hair is Uniform? Really?

One man on Twitter recently called 14-year-old student, Ruby Williams, a ‘stroppy teen of colour’ because, according to him, she was playing hob with her school’s uniform policy. His tweet denigrated her (and her mother, who was fully supportive of her daughter), implying she was nothing more than an attention-seeking whiner who just didn’t want to comply and fit in with the other kids.

In fact, the ‘problem’ was with Ruby’s hair. Which, to be perfectly blunt, was deemed not to fit in with the school’s policies because it was not ethnically white hair, falling neatly in a bob to her shoulders, but was instead a glorious and natural Afro, which grows out, rather than down.

Ruby’s hairstyle on the day she was censored and sent home was the Afro equivalent of a Caucasian child wearing her longish hair down for the day. Something which doesn’t turn a hair (ha!) for any school administration.

In order for Ruby’s hair to comply with ‘school uniform rules’ – as though one can purchase the right type of hair, the way one can make sure that new school shoes are not merely black trainers – she would have to slather it daily with smoothing creams and gels or have it ‘relaxed’ or treated with harsh chemicals that damage the hair follicles, possibly permanently, especially when being used by someone so young.

Once you are awakened to this, Ruby’s umbrage at being told her natural hair – as it grows from her scalp! – neat but worn loose, was deemed unacceptable seems not at all stroppy but instead a reasonable reaction to being pushed too far by an unyielding and unwelcoming school system. That is what ‘woke’ means – saying, ‘[d]o our school rules leave out any demographics? Are there issues we’ve not covered? Anything we need to consult minorities – of every type – about?’ and then taking the actions needed to ensure that everyone can have an equal and hopefully happy school experience.

Exclusivity of ‘white’ values in schools

The fact that such ‘wokeness’ is still needed can be found in another story. That of Siham Hamud, who being a devout Muslim – her own personal religious choice and one that her parents support her in – dressed modestly according to both her own preferences and the expectations of that religion. This included her wearing a longer than usual school skirt, one that fell to her ankles. There was no problem with this style of dress for either of Siham’s two older sisters, who both attended the same school, wearing long skirts without censure or issue. But in Siham’s first year of high school, the school changed the rules, decreeing that skirts now had to be from a certain supplier and of a shorter length. Let me reiterate that: a school instructed female students that they must wear shorter skirts than they were accustomed to. One has to wonder why such a rule change was deemed necessary: was it to deliberately discomfort Muslim students? Another reason that springs to a deeply suspicious mind is almost worse in a world still recovering from #MeToo

If ever there was proof that the word woke is not only not a dirty one, but a highly necessary one, I think we have found it.

So now, which is worse? Being asked to, and being, ‘woke’ or blindly expecting that people who might be defined as ‘other’ will undergo harmful treatments, turn their back on their own religious beliefs or make themselves highly uncomfortable, merely to appear to ‘fit in’? If ever there was proof that the word woke is not only not a dirty one, but a highly necessary one, I think we have found it.

Written by Liz Milne


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