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3 January 2022
Pulse

Click here for the Chinese translation of this article.

On August 9, 2014, an 18-year-old black man, Michael Brown, was shot by a white police officer Darren Wilson in the city of Ferguson, a suburb of St Louis, Missouri. This case sparked an unrest in Ferguson as peaceful and violent protests erupted and continued unabated for more than a week.

The response of the area police also came under heavy criticism from both politicians and the media. There were grave concerns and anger about the insensitivity of the police in dealing with protesters and the tactics used. Many questioned the need for a militarised response.

The Ferguson incident revived an expression that many people had hitherto not heard of but that had a long history in the black community in America. In the wake of the police killing of Michael Brown, ‘stay woke’ became the slogan and cautionary watchword that Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists used to bring awareness of police brutality and unjust police tactics.

Within black communities in most of the 20th century America, ‘woke’ is a term that is used to refer to a number of things. Firstly, it is used simply as a slang for literally being awake. Secondly, ‘woke’ is used as a slang to refer to the suspicion that a romantic partner is cheating. And thirdly, it is used in a political sense to denote awareness of systemic injustice.

The Ferguson incident not only brought the third sense of ‘woke’ to greater public consciousness. It also mainstreamed the expression. As Aja Romano explains:

Ferguson was a true social awakening for many activists and progressives – and as part of this moment, the idea of staying aware of or ‘woke’ to the inequities of the American justice system was a heady one. While the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag served as a locus of information and organisation during the Ferguson protests, the #StayWoke hashtag arguably served an equally important emotional and spiritual purpose: It allowed Black citizens to unite around a shared perception and experience of reality – and to galvanize themselves and each other for a very long fight for change.

‘After Ferguson’, Romano, adds ‘“stay woke” increasingly took on the meaning of heightened awareness and alertness and began to carry an overtly political context.’

WHAT IS WOKENESS?

However, as ‘woke’ is used more frequently in common parlance and in different contexts, the meaning of this expression has become fuzzy and confused. As some writers put it: just as Jesus said, ‘Not everyone who says to me “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven’, so not everyone who says ‘Woke, Woke’, is committed to racial justice.

It is therefore quite important to clarify what ‘woke’ originally stood for.

I think the best way to understand wokeness is to see it as a mindset as well as a particular political posture. ‘Woke’ describes someone who is socially and politically ‘awake’, that is, someone who is fully cognisant of the ‘true nature’ of our society and our world.

More specifically, wokeness refers to our keen awareness of the comprehensive but sometimes subtle inequities of our society and our social order. It is an awareness of the unseen forces at work in both the power structures of our society and our local communities that feed and energise segregation, discrimination and inequity. Most significantly, wokeness sees these inequities as fundamentally related to race – they stem from racial privilege.

I will say more about the relationship between wokeness and Critical Race Theory shortly. In America, standard woke ideology states categorically and without exception that ‘white’ people are racists. Historically, ‘white’ people are the oppressors of others, and thus they are, as a collective unit, guilty.

Furthermore, woke ideology insists that there is no way in which ‘white’ people can shirk this responsibility or be absolved from this collective guilt. The only way forward for ‘white’ people is to acknowledge their complicity, be aware of their ongoing racism, and undertake certain activities that oppose what being ‘white’ stands for.

A good way to grasp what wokeness signifies is to examine its key commitments. In his book Christianity and Wokeness, Owen Strachan has provided a very helpful list, which I reproduce here in full:

  1. The world is fundamentally divided into oppressors and oppressed people.
  2. A major form of oppression today comes from ‘whiteness’.
  3. ‘Whiteness’ is not a neutral system, but creates a culture of ‘white supremacy’ that most benefits ‘white’ people (and also others who fail to challenge it).
  4. The evils of this culture show up in the disparities between groups, which reveal inequities, which reveal injustices (disparities lead to inequities, which lead to injustices).
  5. ‘White supremacy’ must be vigorously opposed through ‘social justice’, ‘antiracism’, and targeting of ‘white privilege’.
  6. More broadly, any form of ‘privilege’ and ‘oppression’ stemming from heteronormative ‘white’ capitalist patriarchalist structures must be opposed.
  7. We can create a just, fair, diverse, and inclusive society grounded in equality of outcome by targeting inequities through political, legal, cultural, and fiscal means so that inequitable authority is deprivileged and minority groups are empowered.

Wokeness declares that the white American majority culture itself is the very instantiation of evil. This means that the whole system – the American white supremacist order – is corrupt. And this in turn suggests that the entire country and all its public institutions are similarly corrupt.

But, there’s more. Every ‘white’ person who participates in American majority culture – even the ‘white’ housewife who lives a quiet life – is stained with the evil of racism. This is the ‘original sin’ in woke ideology! ‘There is no common grace in wokeness’, writes Strachan, ‘there’s just the righteous (the woke) and the guilty (ordinary white people)’.

We must therefore not be hoodwinked by the high-sounding ideals of ‘social justice’, ‘inclusiveness’ and ‘equity’ that often pepper woke rhetoric. Behind the thin veneer of its rhetoric, wokeness shows itself as a movement that is not at all concerned about tolerance, justice and unity. It is in reality a movement that breeds hate, suspicion, intolerance and division.

Wokeness is a toxic ideology that destroys the very fabric of society.

WOKENESS AND CRITICAL RACE THEORY

We turn our attention briefly to the relationship between wokeness and Critical Race Theory (CRT), whose history in academia could be traced at least to the 1970s. CRT has its roots in Critical Legal Studies (CLS) which is associated with the work of legal academics who wish to deconstruct traditional liberal approaches to legal ideology in order to address structural inequalities.

Following in the tracks of CLS, CRT is a body of scholarship that seeks to explore, expose and challenge endemic racial inequality in modern society. Although scholars maintain that CRT defies definition, I think this description by advocates at the UCLA School of Public Affairs sketches the basic contours of this movement well:

CRT recognises that racism is engrained in the fabric and system of the American society. The individual racist need not exist to note that institutional racism is pervasive in the dominant culture. This is the analytical lens that CRT uses in examining existing power structures. CRT identifies that these power structures are based on white privilege and white supremacy, which perpetuates the marginalisation of people of colour. CRT also rejects the traditions of liberalism and meritocracy. Legal discourse says that the law is neutral and colorblind, however, CRT challenges this legal ‘truth’ by examining liberalism and meritocracy as a vehicle of self-interest, power and privilege. CRT also recognises that liberalism and meritocracy are often stories heard from those with wealth, power, and privilege. These stories paint a false picture of meritocracy; everyone who works hard can attain wealth, power, and privilege while ignoring the systemic inequalities that institutional racism provides.

It is not difficult to identify the common concerns and language that wokeness shares with CRT. As some writers have rightly pointed out, wokeness occurs when one embraces the perspectives and sentiments of CRT.

Just as we must not be deceived by wokeness’ passion for social justice and equity, so we must not be led astray by CRT’s eloquent condemnation of racism. While on the surface, colour-blindness and neutrality may be presented as the goal of CRT by its advocates, in reality its goal is very different.

The goal of CRT (in concert with that of wokeness) is to defeat and eradicate ‘whiteness’, whatever that descriptor signifies. That is why CRT theorists and activists are often very critical of civil rights ideals embodied, for instance, in the work of Martin Luther King, Jr.

CRT holds a radically different worldview from that espoused by the Civil Rights Movement. In a speech at the University of Newcastle, King famously said that

there can be no separable black path to power and fulfilment that does not intersect white routes and there can be no separate white path to power and fulfilment short of social disaster that does not recognise the necessity of sharing that power with coloured aspirations for freedom and human dignity.

The idea that white and black Americans should join in a unified struggle against racism is heresy in the ears of the CRT ideologues. For them, American society can only be understood in terms of the binary power dynamics of the oppressor and the oppressed. ‘White’ people come under the first category – by virtue of being ‘white’.

The same is true for woke activists. For example, Ibram X. Kendi, the leading woke theorist, could declare that ‘The most threatening racist movement is not the alt right’s unlikely drive for a White ethnostate but the regular American’s drive for a “race-neutral” one’.

Wokeness, like CRT, extends its critique of society beyond the issue of race and racism to include other manifestations of injustice. Thus, to be woke is not just to be antiracist but also to be the liberator of other groups that suffer similar oppression.

This approach is supported by the concept of ‘intersectionality’ that is employed by CRT activists and woke theorists alike. Injustices have an ‘intersectional’ nature in the sense that it is endemic in many underprivileged and minority groups – not just in racial ones.

To be sure, ‘white privilege’ is the most basic and fundamental concern. But oppression and injustice are found in other social settings as well. These include the marginalisation of the LGBT community, women who are oppressed by male leadership and chauvinism (hence the idea of ‘toxic masculinity’), disabled people stigmatised by physically able people, and much more.

WOKENESS AND CHRISTIANITY

Wokeness is not just a trend that we see in secular culture and among people who have been drawn into the leftist ‘social justice’ agenda. It is also infiltrating the evangelical churches in America. This is seen in the increasing number of Christians in the States being pulled to affirm wokeness through hashtag and social media statements.

Many of these Christians are no doubt noble and sincere. They support wokeness out of good intentions and with a real concern for justice in society. Many of them also see strong familial resemblances between the burdens of wokeness and those of Christianity, and recognise the common vocabulary they share.

But the commonalities between woke and Christianity are in fact quite superficial. Closer scrutiny will reveal that the inspiration behind wokeness is not the Judeo-Christian tradition but Marxism. Wokeness exploits the categories supplied by cultural Marxism, which divides people into two groups – the oppressor or the oppressed – and interprets all of society by them.

It is essentially a utopian social justice movement that combines Enlightenment revolutionary ideals and Marxist-liberationist strategies. And wokeness supports the agenda of the sexual revolution which seeks to emancipate society from ostensibly oppressive binary conceptions of sex and gender.

As some authors have perceptively pointed out, wokeness presents itself as an alternative religion, freely commandeering religious and theological ideas while at the same time radically revising them. For example, in proclaiming that ‘Racism is death. Antiracism is life’, Ibram Kendi uses religious ideas and vocabulary to stress that only wokeness can bring about salvation for both the individual and society.

The language of salvation and redemption notwithstanding, wokeness activists in reality embrace a fatalistic outlook. In a famous training session conducted in 2016, Ashleigh Shackelford – who describes herself as queer, nonbinary Black fat femme writer, cultural producer and artist – told her audience that ‘all white people are racists’. ‘No, you’re always going to be racist, actually’, she adds. ‘Even when you’re on a path to be a better human being’.

‘All this helps us to see that “Christian wokeness” is preaching “another Jesus”, a Jesus who does not end up much of a saviour at all (2 Corinthians 11:4)’, writes Owen Strachan. He continues:

We may follow Him in faith as believers, but according to woke ideology, doing so does not overcome our inherent ‘white supremacy’. This bears repeating: To overcome that condition, we need wokeness; we need human ideology driven by the Marxist tool of the oppressor and oppressed framework. As naïve evangelicals, we might have thought we were only sinners; it turns out per woke thinking that ‘white’ evangelicals are sinners and oppressors. Even after coming to faith in Christ they have supported and participated in a system of ‘white supremacy’.

There is no salvation in wokeness. There is no grace, no love, no kindness. There is only resentment, anger and condemnation. Therefore, I would conclude with this caution to Christians: Wokeness is not only inimical to the Christian faith; it is antithetical to it.


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.