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Original image by Paige Furness. Collage by Ta'Ron Joyner.

Why I'm Okay With Losing at the Woke Olympics.

Why I'm Okay With Losing at the Woke Olympics

'We need to think about the ways in which the 'practice' of a Woke Olympics affords us public praise, but does little to engineer a meaningful everyday politics, IRL as well as URL.'

This essay is part of OkayAfrica's SA Reframed series, featuring personal writing from some of South Africa's best young writers edited by Verashni Pillay.

I never thought I'd write this piece, but let's face it, the woke thing has gone too far. And before I'm dismissed as another inequality apologist, and shoved in a corner with Kanye West, hear me out. Increasingly, particularly in virtual communities, we are moving towards a space in which 'wokeness' is less a process of being awakened, and more an attempt to weaponize whatever philosopher you read that week (that's if you didn't just catch the Fanon sparknotes on someone else's tweet). As a person deeply engaged in political and pop culture work, I have a front row seat to the ways in which we have replaced critical thinking with old school binary oppositions; used complicated vocabulary to spin our opponents into webs of words (with little substance) and have begun to operate with a kind of smugness previously reserved for university lecturers and people who like to say "I told you so".

What does woke mean anyway?


The concept of being 'woke' has had a long evolution. The phrase 'stay woke' was originally used by playwright and novelist Barry Beckham, writing in The New York Times in 1971, talking about the influence of Marcus Garvey on his consciousness and a commitment to serving his fellow black people. In the 2010s, the term got a reboot from Childish Gambino's uber-popular track 'Redbone'. In between this, black people have and continued to think through awakening, consciousness and what it means to see the light - as reflected in the works of everyone from Frantz Fanon (I had to! The wokes love the man) to Lauryn Hill's game changer Miseducation album, to the re-reawakening soundscape of Solange's A Seat At The Table. And yet, a small group of people have increasingly reduced this evolving, complex and incomplete history to a set of aggressive attempts at performing their open minds and giant brains.

My masters research in digital media was focused on the politics which govern virtual communities like Twitter and Facebook, and it became clear that despite our early 1990s optimism about the positive impact the internet would have on our politics and quality of debate, the hope of a truly open, emancipatory internet was short lived. Instead, divisive politics and a culture of 'one upmanship' often undermine our ability to receive new ideas and think outside of what scholar Axel Bruns calls 'filter bubbles', but what is often called an echo chamber. And while us lefties are quick to dismiss right-leaning folks as insular and cut off, my research suggests that the tendency to cluster and exclude was as prevalent if not more prevalent in 'woke interests groups'.

Now that we know better, can we do better?

Ultimately, wokeness in itself is not a politics. While being woke does very rightly connote a broadly speaking leftist, pro POC, global South-inclusive way of thinking, it cannot stand on its own––because it has (in recent years at least) been built as opposition to. So, say us wokes get everything we want? What is the project thereafter? What is the politics of wokeness that we can sustain in building our new world? There is a big difference between an (important) everyday discursive politics which helps us to think, but do we know what it takes to do?

We need to consider the way in which this politics includes and excludes certain people; and the ways in which our ideas will confront our current systems which are racist, classist and generally anti-woke in nature. It is not enough to have the satisfaction that comes with being right if we have no willingness or ability to take this forward––which requires far much more work and compromise than simply muting Candace Owens or Steve Hofmeyr. I am absolutely NOT saying that it is the job of young people, Black people, the LGBTIQA+ community to think through all solutions and God forbid, to educate. But I am saying that if the only time you speak up on issues is in performance in virtual communities, and in response to, then maybe you're not as committed as you thought. I suppose a crude, but functional analogy would be the way in which women will vulnerably share their incidents of gender based violence, only for some unmoisturized man to reply "mEn GeT bEaTeN uP tOo". The point is not that violence against men is good, but rather that many of the men responding would never otherwise engage issues of violence, or advocate for men in abusive relationships. It's a performance of wokeness with a deeply abusive agenda.

Similarly, I would ask, in the absence of things to be (justifiably) frustrated by, what does the wokeness project spur us to do? Or is it increasingly becoming a kind of impotent catch-all for those of us who are maddened by our world but totally unable (and sometimes) unwilling to do the work to fix this. As such, the concept of the Woke Olympics (originally coined in a remarkable article by Maya Binyam) speaks to the fact that this brand of pseudo-politics is more label than practice, more virtual lashing than political engagement. You know the type––has a sharp and clever quip on every issue, doesn't shave their armpits, uses the term womxn instead of women because: erasure, but hasn't paid their domestic worker since the start of social distancing? We need to think about the ways in which the 'practice' of a Woke Olympics affords us public praise, but does little to engineer a meaningful everyday politics, IRL as well as URL.

You know consciousness isn't a competition right?

My second issue with the so-called Woke Olympics is the (as the phrase suggests) competitive nature of this politics. If you are an Erykah Badu-listening, Fanon-reading, Studio Ghibli-watching type, with a few more miles in the consciousness tank, you think you're a kind of alpha-woke, capable only of issuing correction, castigation and critique. You know your thinking journey is never over right? You know that even the smartest person can get it wrong?

This competitiveness is a wasted opportunity. These individuals could make meaningful contributions through their knowledge; they could act as important defenders of vulnerable groups in online communities and help to change the perception that those who know less will be shunned.

One of the main tenets of my research on South African black Twitter focused on the ways in which we signal agreement and disagreement. The sentiment analyses were clear, and ultimately disappointing. While we seem able (in individual, one-on-one) interactions to be able to be kind to those we are in disagreement with, hot group topics are treated entirely differently. The emergence of the #(Insert celebrity name)isoverparty, "disappointed but not surprised" and the daily practice of 'cancelling' all signal social and linguistic ways that we cut off people and discussions. Then there's the case of a hashtag like #CBDTwitter: a term used to reference ignorant/uneducated users, with the "CBD" bit callously making an inference those who live in the degraded inner city and former central business district. It relegates and dismisses those who think/speak differently to a category far away from us.

And sometimes, our knee jerk wokeisms backfire. In one interaction on Twitter, one user jumped to ask "Y are these women all lightskin?" [sic] on some photos that had been posted. This is a fair question if we're talking about Kenya Barris' entire body of work, most commercially successful Instagram models, or Khanyi Mbau's Instagram pics. But in this case, the colourism conversation did not apply as the original poster replied "Cause all these "women" are me ??????". This means that the user did not even so much as open the images before reaching for the woke lever (imagine the red chair on the Graham Norton Show). More and more we are seeing the aesthetic performance of woke politics in ways which are entirely empty, or purely ego-driven. Responding to this particular incident, Twitter user @JayCartere masterfully diagnosed the issue, which is this ballooning tendency towards being only "recreationally offended".

But let's be clear here, before the "All Lives Matter" or "They're such snowflakes" brigade thinks they have gained another member. I am deeply committed to spaces like Twitter and pop culture artefacts like The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and A Seat At The Table albums for helping people of colour to think broadly, engage intensely amongst themselves, and aggressively shut bigots down if need be. I am here for any meaningful politics which encourages more freedom of thought, and more inclusive spaces. What I am not into is this sense that your politics can be dialled in and out of––as we respond to things we see. A tweet is not always the appropriate place to launch into a tirade, and not every pop culture misstep requires commentary.

Pop culture is not the passport to your politics.

Let's get back to basics, to key values that we can commit to, everyday, where no one sees it, and where it's not just another veiled shot at going viral. Where the only pay off is the expanding of your own consciousness and the chance to think and live better than the day before.

Binwe Adebayo is an internationally-published culture writer and Media Studies Scholar. She is interested in politics, power and pop culture and writes about art, film, books, music and design.

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