Skip to content

The demeaning of ‘woke’ — or when attention to injustice becomes too much

As politeness turns deal breaker, more than good manners are lost

Native American groups have objected to Atlanta Braves fans performing a “tomahawk chop” at games, but that didn’t stop Donald and Melania Trump from joining the crowd last month, Curtis writes.
Native American groups have objected to Atlanta Braves fans performing a “tomahawk chop” at games, but that didn’t stop Donald and Melania Trump from joining the crowd last month, Curtis writes. (Elsa/Getty Images file photo)

Endesha Ida Mae Holland smiled as she recounted the events of the Mississippi voter registration movement for the 1994 documentary “Freedom on My Mind.” That movement, from 1961 to 1964, was marked by the bravery of activists and the violence meted out by those who felt threatened by the very idea of Black citizens exercising their fundamental rights.

Holland’s upbringing as a young African American in Mississippi, her work in the struggle and the retaliation that followed had left her unprepared for her first encounter at a Southern lunch counter following the passage of civil rights laws she fought so hard for. She said that when the clerk politely greeted her, it was so overwhelming and appreciated, she ordered everything on the menu, just to experience the balm of kind words covering her again and again.

At the close of Freedom Summer — only a few years after a Black farmer who tried to register to vote was shot and killed by a Mississippi state representative, who got away with it — respect seemed a triumph to someone whose humanity had been denied for so long.

Remember the phrase “political correctness”? It’s not so in vogue these days, mostly because it has outlived its usefulness.

I remember when it was all the rage, an effort to reframe any rude and insensitive lout as a bold rule-breaker. My feelings about all the fuss? Despite protests to the contrary, there was never a prohibition against making rude remarks, no law that punished anyone who chucked racist or misogynistic or homophobic comments toward acquaintances or perfect strangers or who viewed the world through a lens of hardened stereotypes.

Not the first time

During the heyday of outrage over “political correctness,” everyone could — and did — say anything, make any joke, pass ridicule off at wit. And they could feel quite pleased with themselves.

What they couldn’t do was escape pushback. The targets spoke up, demanded accountability, sometimes at great danger to themselves.

That was the problem for those who had lived a life without consequences, and wanted that status quo to continue.

I always wondered why anyone would have a desire to offend, would insist on it as a right. To me, it wasn’t about being politically correct but about being a decent human being, following the Golden Rule, treating others how you would like to be treated, with consideration.

I was happy when the phrase began to vanish, though unfortunately it took a while, until politicians and hucksters (sometimes one and the same) had managed to drain every drop of advantage from it.

But alas, it has been replaced with a word that has come to mean, well, whatever its users want it to mean. Unless you’ve been asleep, you know what word I’m talking about.

When you break down “woke,” it literally means “the past tense of wake.” But it also means being aware. When blues singer Lead Belly used the phrase “stay woke” in a 1938 protest song about nine African Americans, the falsely accused “Scottsboro Boys,” it was advice to Black Americans who wanted to avoid a similar fate.

It has, however, been, as they say, weaponized. To mean, well, excessive sensitivity, I suppose.

How much attention to injustice is too much?

Again, I wonder about motivation, the need to, for example, join a stadium full of Atlanta Braves baseball fans performing a “tomahawk chop” when many Native American organizations have objected to appropriating rituals and using people as mascots.

In Gaston County, N.C., protesters at a high school have told school officials they could keep the “Red Raider” nickname if they just get rid of the red-painted “Indian head” symbol. So far, not a step in that modest direction.

White House proclamation marking November as national Native American History Month read, in part: “Even as they shouldered a disproportionate burden throughout the pandemic, Tribal Nations have been paragons of resilience, determination, and patriotism.” It went on to praise Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to serve in a presidential Cabinet.

Where were former President Donald Trump and Melania Trump? Standing up to join Atlanta fans in “the chop.”

‘Own’ your enemies

The leader of the Republican Party still sets the tone, and the tone is anything goes if it allows you to “own” your perceived enemies, and those enemies are everywhere. They could even be your colleagues.

Take Arizona GOP Rep. Paul Gosar, who faced the consequences this week for tweeting an altered anime video that showed him killing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and swinging two swords at the president of the United States.

The Democratic-led censure resolution that passed Wednesday read, in part, “Violence against women in politics is a global phenomenon meant to silence women and discourage them from seeking positions of authority and participating in public life, with women of color disproportionately impacted.”

That may be the point for those who view Gosar as a right-wing hero and his tweet as clever and edgy. Of course, he’s doubled down and most of his fellow Republicans haven’t had much to say. Why would they, at a time when transgressions are praised and the Golden Rule is deemed a sucker’s game.

Endesha Ida Mae Holland is the true hero. She died in 2006 as a celebrated scholar and author; she eventually had a documentary made about her. But as I sat riveted by “Freedom on My Mind” in a recent late-night showing on TV, it was that look on her face and her giddy smile — of someone who had been given a gift from a simple act of kindness — that stayed with me.

Sadly, it also struck me that recognizing the power of kindness — for the giver and receiver — is fading as surely as “woke” will, when another word rises to divide us.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

Recent Stories

Kim launches primary challenge after Menendez refuses to quit

Four spending bills readied for House floor amid stopgap uncertainty

Menendez rejects New Jersey Democrats’ calls to resign after indictment

Photos of the week ending September 22, 2023

Dressing down — Congressional Hits and Misses

Menendez indictment comes with Democrats playing 2024 defense