Why I Want to Stop Using Words Like ‘Woke’ and ‘Problematic’ in 2019
The issues we value should be disconnected from cheap terminology.
Image assets courtesy of Wikipedia Commons
This article originally appeared on VICE CA.
Whenever I hear a term like “SJW” spoken in my presence, it’s as if a mayonnaise devotee admitted to downing a red pill with a sip of Mountain Dew, just before reading Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules of Life for the sixth consecutive time.
I can’t help but “assume” things when it’s used; once an impartial and positive identifier of social justice—now reduced to a conservative weapon of speech that shoots rusted pellets with bad aim. The word requires zero effort to express loaded “anti-progression” sentiments, and in regular alt-right form, it’s boring.
Words are tricky like that though—shifting from the deeply vile (N*gguh), completely idealistic (diversity), to the remixed and wholly suspect (again, diversity). I’ve spent the better part of 2018 coming in contact with the catch-all words that make my progressive stances easier to express (ex, woke, diversity, problematic), and as a result, I’ve felt them become cheap, and outstretched, like a Post Malone beat. They’ve hit their overused status to the point of feeling less like advocacy, and more like a viral entry point. And by design, they’re imprecise, and overused to the point of being self-serving. There are far better ways to describe the issues we give a shit about, and I for one hope to stop seeing, and using the following for good.
The word “Woke” is just tired—mostly aimed at the carefully built tweeters echoing the spirit of Maya Angelou from a Google Doc revision. When the modern use of the term first dropped, it was Erykah Badu (yes, there were others before her) who spoke the most contemporary form of the phrase in her fourth studio album, New Amerykah Part One. In it, Badu sang the line, “I stay woke”, implying a nature to always be awake with alertness. As a person of colour, this was a siren call with a black vernacular spin: don’t be complacent to white supremacy when things are going good.
Like most uses, a remix happened, and folks like myself were caught using it as the IQ bracket for the black and racially aware. (Ta-Nehisi Coates, Vann R. Newkirk II, and Doreen St. Félix, to name a few). With help from social media, this diluted “wokeness” into a coveted status symbol; where the push for uprooting social norms (racism/poverty) got conflated with the more minimal effort dumbassary (#hashtag hugging). What I’ve now seen are commentators of all backgrounds making it their job to police language by exacting holier than thou decrees with a keyboard. They want that badge of honor at any cost, but they’re blind to their own unwoke reflection.
It’s either a problem or it isn’t folks. That should be the stance. We don’t walk around viewing racism, sexism, homophobia, and the shooting of unarmed black folks as “problematic” issues. They’re problems, end point. Over the past few years, we’ve seen “problematic” being overused as an umbrella term to describe some “possible” issue—they don’t contribute to a solution, but aren’t so harmful to be the “problem.” In my case, it’s believing that the 90s had some great action movies, while stamping a “problematic” sign on the issues I don't care to elaborate on (sexism).
To understand the soft origins of this word, we'd have to head back to the academic journaling of 2011—when the term was used in cultural analysis to suggest a problem without pointing a finger. When the Urban Dictionary gave it an official entry, it was the Tumblr’s and Buzzfeed’s who help bring the scholarly vernacular to mainstream audiences. The constant issue, however, is in the fact that academic writing is rarely subjective by design (personal feelings, blatant statements etc), and is mostly an objective field of work. With that, comes language designed to be vague, as if coated with soft, easily worn kevlar, when it ought to feel like aunt Judy’s itchy sweater (uncomfortable). It’s bullshit. When a word can be used to cover complicated ground without offending particular parties, there’s no additional need to elaborate on that which requires elaboration. Without taking a solid stance, everything can be problematic. But not everything is a problem to you now is it. Say what you mean.
The push for diversity consciousness over the years has filtered into most fields of work. We’re talking about a direct impact on affirmative action and the recognition of minorities in media and workplaces. It’s an amazing social achievement—some of which has absolutely contributed to saving black lives specifically. But over time, like several have expressed again and again, the word in popularized form has come to encourage a lazy assumption: that populating white seas with coloured skin tones amounts to a job well done. “Diversity” can’t specify the rules of an industry. It can’t declare that minority faces be elevated to the point of having equal stakes. It covers ground only in the most superficial way. It’s why we’ll often witness corporations crash head first into ironic scenarios of tone-deafness, (hey H&M).
Personalities such as film director Ava DuVernay advocates for dropping the word in favour of “inclusion”, which suggests including POC in the right seats of influence (casting directors, managers, directors etc), and I agree. I’ve even personally tried my best to not use “diversity” in my writing, but I’ve uttered the word in interviews, and I’ve since cringed over it. It’s no longer a term—due to its misuse—that can accurately describe the kind of change we’re looking to attain. It's lazy, and if that's the attitude we're bringing, we deserve lazy results.
I state all this as a breakdown to say that terms birthed in this “new” state of language—especially the Urban Dictionary kind—are completely changeable; depending on the audience, era, and use/overuse. Their meanings aren't popularized from a static place (social media), and can never be assumed to represent static position (zero tolerance). In keeping with that energy, the labels that we apply to complicated concerns and problems shouldn't fall under a “build the wall” template.. And in my case, I've decided to bow out. It was fun for a bit, but my terms shouldn’t feel cheaper than the value associated with my hopes.
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