People For the American Way

What They Call “Wokeness” We Call Respect

Op-Ed
What They Call “Wokeness” We Call Respect

Ah wokeness, the latest outrage from the Far Right. Joining the ranks of “political correctness,” wokeness has become the go-to hot-button buzzword the Far Right throws around whenever something ruffles its feathers. I won’t get into the long, confusing, and sometimes silly list of things the Far Right has called woke, because who has the time? But they all have one thing in common: they’re centered around the acknowledgement of others’ struggles. To the rest of us, that’s just called respect, and it’s odd that some people have a problem with it.  

Wokeness Isn’t New, and It’s Not Going Away 

If you thought the word “woke” started with Millennial social justice warriors, you’d be wrong. The term has been around for nearly a century, having entered AAVE (African American Vernacular English) in the 1930s. “Woke” first hit print in The New York Times in 1962 in an article about Black slang terms. Though it certainly became much more ubiquitous after the Black Lives Matter movement began in 2014, “woke” has been a part of Black life for quite some time.  

Originally, a singer named Huddie Ledbetter used the term to encourage Black people to pay attention to the world around them and be aware of the systemic issues affecting their communities. That’s largely how the word was used for decades, all the way up until the Far Right got their hands on it and twisted it to mean everything from calling out systemic oppression to, apparently, M&Ms — for some reason.  

Today in progressive communities, “woke” can include both awareness of systemic problems, as well as the community-based solutions we can use to address them. In other words, woke isn’t just about being awake, it’s about being awake enough to take action and shoulder responsibility for the solutions.  

To me, wokeness just means having respect for others. Observing the fact that systemic oppression exists and wanting to help make things better for people is respectfulness. If you see someone being treated unfairly and you want to help, that’s showing them respect. That’s being woke.  

So, Why Does the Far Right Have Such a Problem with Respecting Others?  

Respect runs contrary to authoritarianism. Respect is about considering others instead of just yourself. A respectful society prioritizes broad solutions instead of perpetuating problems which have historically led to inequality and oppression. And when the goal is to seize total control of a democracy, as it is for the Far Right, respectful people tend to stand in the way.  

The Far Right counters this by going out of its way to normalize cruelty. By convincing its followers that certain groups are not deserving of respect, the Far Right is lowering the bar for its most ardent supporters to engage in deplorable behavior and building support for more authoritarian policies. Combine that with the United States’ long history of praising individualism over collectivism and you’ve got a perfect recipe for looking down on respectfulness as some sort of weakness. It’s not. Respect is powerful and inspiring and leads to a better world for everyone, but convincing the Far Right of that fact is an uphill battle when they’re still arguing about candy mascots. 

Respect Each Other, Friends 

When I look around at the problems we face, I can’t help but think how a little more respect could make a world of difference. Whether it’s increasing access to health care, education, and housing or decreasing violence and oppression, respectfulness can be the starting point for so many solutions. It’s sad that the Far Right takes such a hard stance against that, but it just means we need to be even respectful. We need to be even more aware and willing to act. The Far Right can pick whatever word it wants, but for me, I’ll try my best to respect others, even in the face of widespread threats. I hope you do, too.