An ongoing development in academia is what some refer to as “wokeness.” But what, actually, is “woke” anyhow? Initially, I naively thought it meant sleep hygiene that prepares one for the day ahead. Wrong. Being “woke” refers to “waking to” (and supporting) social justice reflected in movements like Black Lives Matter and concern for LGBTQ+ issues. However, being “woke” is subtle and seems to be a test of sorts for how well one pays attention to nuance. This realization coincided with a strange development in my work emails. Some colleagues mysteriously started spelling “folks” as “folx.” At first I figured this was a typo, but I had a nagging sense it wasn’t as “x” is about as far from “k” as one can get on the keyboard bequeathed to us by Christopher Sholes back in 1873.
No, this “x” was intentional. My second thought was that it was somehow related to Malcolm X. Many recall that he used the “x” to stand in for the African name of his ancestors that was erased when they were enslaved. When his autobiography was crafted into a Hollywood film, merchandise appeared with the “x” on it. But why “folx?” Was this a broadening allusion to the collective suffering of humanity? Again, no. The “x” in “folx” seems to have derived from the suggestion that people with Latino/Latina identities who do not wish to be identified by gender (e.g., “Latina,” “Latino”) be referred to as “LatinX” (though, ironically, native Spanish speakers may struggle with the “X” consonant). This is why “folks” became “folx” but “crocks are not “crox” and “socks” are not “sox” (baseball excepted). No one has yet explained to me how agreeing to misspell simple words will usher in social justice.
As several comedians have noted, this seems to glorify the patriarchal colonialism so often exhibited by “X.” “X” has colonized words like “xylophone” and “xenophobia” and should not be posing as a liberator of language. I can only imagine the frustration of “Z,” hip deep in petitions against “X,” watching all this in dismay. Kidding aside, I am still trying to learn how the “woke” deal with languages that gender most nouns (e.g., French: La fenêtre est féminine ; le stylo est masculin).
In a manner similar to “folx,” we have the newer acronym “BIPOC” which stands for “black, Indigenous and people of color.” The first obvious question raised is, are “black” people no longer “people of color?” Seems a bit contradictory. The BIPOC acronym came to us via digital technology in the form of a tweet in 2013. It was intended to be more inclusive but started a series of academic battles pitting those who see “colonized people” as radically different from “enslaved people.” Once Canadians weighed in with “First Nations” people, things really got interesting. These battles seem doomed to stalemates because in identity politics, each side seems to agree they can only comprehend their view and the dominant culture view they are oppressed by but not any alternative views, making understanding each other impossible. Robert Leroux of the University of Ottawa referred to wokeness as “intellectual terrorism.” He noted that like Marxism, wokeness is intended to deliver us to servitude. In this case, rather than servitude to the collective, it is servitude to the woke.
Walking down the hallway at work, I heard one of my students say to another, “I couldn’t believe it! She actually dead-named them!” Since I knew the students I apologized for listening in and asked what “dead-naming” is. They gave me the same look of sympathy my kids give me when I call the Internet “the Google.” It seems we were discussing a student transitioning to a non-binary identity. The student chose a more gender-neutral name (“Dana”) discarding the previous name that linked them to a feminine gender they did not feel. Dead-naming is mistakenly (or in a micro-aggression, intentionally) using a previously discarded name and/or pronoun to refer to someone who has moved on to greener labels (so to speak). I honestly feel we should address people in the manner they request as a courtesy for the most part. It is no harder to remember preferred pronouns than remembering preferred names, so I am all for it if the practice affirms another’s sense of self. What worries me in this case, is the righteous indignation some woke people love to attack from. Rather than reaching out to engage with others, they seem most intent on policing others. This strikes me as suspect as well as being a bit of a drag.
Most recently, I was in a faculty retreat where a vision statement was being created. I had been on sabbatical for the first part of the retreat so was playing some catch-up. The facilitator had done a ‘word cloud’ presentation of words and phrases that the group emphasized in the first meeting. Nested among the words were three letters, “DEI.” At first my brain thought, “hmm . . . ‘DUI’ does not seem like something we want to rally behind.” When I asked, I was told “DEI” stood for “Diversity, Equity, Inclusion.” Interestingly, this faculty group had a sub-group that broke into applause every time someone at the retreat used one of these words. It seemed to me, that if three words evoke such a reaction, we would do well to pay for all the letters to spell out the complete words. Let’s not be cheap.
Much of this reminds me of the various “clubs” I was part of as a child. We in the club would always have a code that we understood but most others would not. It made us feel elite and also helped us ID other members because they knew the code. This is fine for six and seven-year-olds, but for adults? Not so much. Plus, if waking to the wokeness expressed in these various examples is to be desired, shared, and integrated, why make it harder and seemingly elitist?
It seems that for some people, waking to the “woke” is far more important than being educated. However, being woke is impossible without studying history. How else can one identify injustices one wishes to stop? Injustice and “isms,” are a plague on the human species, not just some humans. Most important, how can one identify potential allies if one is ignorant about the history of other groups of people? Interested readers should browse Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s three-volume “Gulag Archipelago.” Readers will learn how human beings of East Slavic ancestry (who for the most had similarly light skin color) turned sadistically on each other in a thousand politically crazy ways. Readers may also appreciate the works of Tim Pat Coogan (The IRA: A History; The Famine Plot; and The Troubles: Ireland’s Ordeal and the Search for a Place”). Here again, people with all the privilege that goes with “white” skin, turn on each other to the death for political and religious reasons. Steven Katz’s “The Holocaust in Historical Context” gives a comparison of the holocaust with other efforts at genocide. Readers can also read about Asian atrocities and master race theories that have plagued that region from time immemorial. A newer study is Dr. Debito Arudou’s 2015 paper, “Japan’s under-researched visible minorities: Applying critical race theory to racialization dynamics in a non-white society.”
One interesting contradiction in many academics advocating wokeness, is that on one hand, they say race is an intellectually bankrupt concept. On the other hand, their particular harangue privileges and expands the construct of race that they claim is bankrupt. I was in a workshop addressing racism where an African American faculty member spoke of her class struggles and being a black female in a dominant culture institution. A visiting scholar from Ireland listened supportively and then shared her own experiences with class struggles against the English. She was promptly informed they were not the same. The facilitator maintained that the Irish, as a race, have benefitted from privilege. The visiting faculty member from Ireland cocked her head in confusion. She corrected the facilitator that Irish was not a race but an ethnicity and that race anyhow was not a robust construct. That triggered another diversion from the topic and the workshop staggered along until the 3pm end time. These were honestly points it had never occurred to me worth debating. At workshop’s end, all that was accomplished were the gallons of coffee consumed.
It seems many woke people want to be heard but not to listen. They want to instruct but not learn. They fantasize about some form of privilege mostly toward the ends of using it to humiliate rather than liberate. They seem to feel that they can only view those who are not woke from a moral high ground that is so high, it makes it next to impossible for us to even hear each other. They want the privilege they claim others have but do not want to hear the others’ perspectives on this so-called privilege. Getting to know and value each other is best accomplished with a genuine curiosity about human beings and their cultures. I’d happily “wake” to that.
Elliott Ingersoll is a psychologist and licensed clinical counselor in Ohio. He is professor of Counseling in the CASAL Department at Cleveland State University. He has authored or co-authored four books and over thirty articles and book chapters on topics as diverse as integrating Integral theory into training mental health professionals, psychopharmacology, and spiritual approaches to counseling.
Dr. Ingersoll consults with Integral Institute (www.integralinstitute.org) as a trainer in the Integral Psychotherapy program and as co-director of the Integral Psychology Center. He has studied and practiced Eastern and Western spiritual and physical practices. He is a founding member of Integral ReSource Group, a private consulting firm offering psychotherapy, coaching, and corporate consulting.