“We have a right, also, in various ways, to act upon our unfavorable opinion of anyone, not to the oppression of his individuality, but in the exercise of ours.”
John Stuart Mill
It is perhaps one of the greatest strengths of the United States of America that its citizens have the ability to correct the course of their own history in order to adapt to changing times. Without this cultural ability, our democracy surely would have suffered the fate of the fallen societies that preceded it. Tremendous change does not take place on a frequent basis however, it is only required when a challenge with sufficient importance requires it. Following the events of the past year, America has been forced to open the wounds it has tried time and time again to conceal: its dark history of slavery and the legacy of racism. For a multitude of reasons, these truths were brought to the forefront of national consciousness as the world struggled in the grip of a global pandemic. Many credit this to the fact that the pandemic exposed the stark differences of class across society. Those struggling in poverty were disproportionately affected by Covid-19 with higher exposure and mortality rates. This is not only consistent with the U.S. but countries the world over. Pandemics have always exposed this disparity.
Due to the groundswell of sentiment concerning race-history, American culture is experiencing yet another revolution in its approach to its cultural norms and what is considered acceptable regarding speech, behavior and overall conduct. This is not surprising as a culture with as many moving parts as ours is in constant change, shifting and rewriting its background to respond to prescient issues of the present. The exercise itself is never ending but vital to the principles of democracy and cultural assimilation that define the United States. Assimilation seems like a strange way to describe a culture that features inhabitants from every other nationality and background on the planet. Unlike the past references of assimilation as a form of forced loss of culture and self to conform to a whole, I am using the term to describe the process by which a myriad of unique cultures identify as a whole while retaining distinct identities. Ideally, this is what America’s identity always has striven to be: the melting pot model.
How America has responded to it in the 21st century can be summed up in one word:
This from the Urban dictionary: “Wokeness” occurs when a white, upper-class person pretends to hold opinions they imagine a black lower-class person might hold. The word itself is an incorrect tense of “awake” – referring to the perception that the black working class have a poor grasp of grammar.
The opinions that are simulated typically stem from a misunderstanding of the tendency for black working-class people to be slightly more economically left-wing and socially conservative than average – instead they are imagined to be socially left-wing, and often logically inconsistent.
The term ‘woke’ and its use in popular parlance went from initial definition by blacks as “awareness to the illusion of equality perpetuated by whites” to being co-opted by white society to the above reference. If you need more elucidation, you may refer to this tongue-in-cheek examination of wokeness appearing on the Root’s website. I personally dislike the use and definition of ‘woke’ as it seems an attempt to channel all the necessary requirements of spiritual and ethical enlightenment into a convenient paradigm to address the abusive past of intellectual white discrimination while at the same time acknowledging the way forward to accomplish ultimate equality. It’s not that simple, it never has been nor will it ever be. In order to address the complex history of white supremacy that has dictated the history of blacks in America, we not only need to understand the past but employ philosophies and behavior that will adapt to the changing future. American society is still divided, hence the observance that ‘woke’ means different things to whites than it does to blacks. If we are truly determined to transcend this period of history and begin to correct the wrongs of history, it won’t be because of a single word or movement added to our lexicon and thrown about with reckless abandon for a decade. Racism will only be overcome by education, interpretation and understanding.
Is the modern movement of “cancel culture” actually helping or hindering the process of healing American society? This is a big question that as of yet does not have a definitive answer. One of the results of 2020’s Black Lives Matters movement was the removal of Confederate monuments from public spaces. This went even farther to analyze the actions of the Founding Fathers and other constituents such as Abraham Lincoln in light of whether their monuments represented false narratives of equality. While it is important to engage in these conversations and analyses as a part of understanding their meaning and effect on society as a whole, erasure of that which does not make us comfortable does not remove its history. In regards to the monuments and plaques in question, context can make all the difference. Tearing down a statue of Jefferson Davis to erect one of George Floyd amounts to revisionist history, something that the white status quo has been executing to a greater extent for the past 200 years. Visitors to the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald aren’t going there to laud the efforts of the Third Reich. Rather, these sites have been preserved as a teaching moment of history and attest to the atrocities that humanity has witnessed when it let its guard down. In this respect, cancel culture removes an essential element that links the past to the future; we lose that “teaching moment” in our efforts to cosmetically repair the harm done. Removing the Confederate markers may conceal from sight the wrongful celebration of the South’s secession but cannot ever conceal the suffering caused by the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow which comprise the majority of the black experience throughout this country’s existence.
It Used to Simply Be Called U.S. History…
This brings me to another aspect of change that has been hijacked from the contemporary movement to exert political dominance: Critical Race Theory (CRT). All it needed was a label, a convenient monicker in order to demonize it. That was easy, and there you go: dozens of states now have introduced legislation to prohibit the teaching of CRT in public schools and even universities in some instances. In the wake of a year that saw social outrage finally come to a boil after numerous deaths at the hands of peace officers, a demand for better relations between law enforcement and communities, a clarion call for honesty and objectivity across all aspects regarding race relations in society…but the status quo responds by claiming that educating youth and possibly adults on the brutal and disgraceful, treatment of blacks for centuries is willful indoctrination and sabotage of future generations.
Wait, what?! Yes indeed, along with absolutely unfounded claims of elections fraud and pandemic virus hoax, Critical Race Theory is among the insidious evils which the liberal cabal of subhumans are using to manipulate and end democracy in America as we know it. Politics, science, history. What should replace these blatant lies and derivations of what was once an efficiently functioning republic? Those answers are even more confounding than the accusations made in the first place. Back to the matter at hand, my initial point that Wokeness had been hijacked by some of the very same individuals which it was purposed against, the same goes for CRT. What was initiated as an exercise in social reform and redemption from racial segregation has now been weaponized by extremist conservative interests to portray it as a form of “racial brainwashing”. Once again, it seems that the truth of our country’s disproportionate treatment of blacks and other minorities must remain concealed in order to uphold the status quo. More or less the argument against CRT pursues the course that the young who are without fault cannot be made to bear the burden of guilt that their ancestors deserve. Therefore the notion of teaching the hard facts that have been excluded largely from history books and narratives shall remain in place as not to hurt anyone’s feelings.
However, this educational philosophy decays under scrutiny. If the argument is made from the position of more or less “think about the children!” then it does not consider that in an average classroom at least half if not more of the students in said classroom are minorities and therefore ancillary victims of the unequal treatment that their parents and ancestors have suffered in past generations. Do they not, then, deserve to learn the origins of why they and their forebears were raised in poverty, in redlined neighborhoods, with underfunded facilities and treated as less than equals under a system that inherited racism so endemically as to entwine almost every aspect of inequality into their lives and upbringings? Even in the 21st century this discussion has a full context, the devastating effects of the past still cause ripples that are felt hundreds of years later. For this reason, the genuine approach to resolving the problem of racism does not lie in concealment but in a full and candid approach to educating and demonstrating its effects in the past, present and how it must be approached in the future. For a more objective definition of Critical Race Theory the American Bar Association offers a wealth of information on its origins and purpose.
How many times in the past few years have you caught yourself saying, “You can’t make stuff like that nowadays.”? If it seems like this phrase has been on your lips more often lately it’s because it probably has. The reason: cancel culture. One of the effects that recent efforts to repair history and the damages caused by decades of racial abuse and the ingrained social behavior that followed this treatment is the next level of politically correct thinking. Immediately this focus is turned on the expressions and influences that abound in mass culture. For many years it was already taboo to use the “N word” unless quoting literature, remaining true to certain dialogue, or to make the point of its negative impact. Now with expanded awareness and sensitivity to a multitude of ethnic and culturally established groups and lifestyles the vocabulary of the forbidden has expanded exponentially. This is resulting in an unmaking of past cultural norms and causing a predictable upheaval in the way that people interact with others and the mediums that they enjoy.
This newfound awareness of the offensive has also had a chilling effect on many aspects of our life that we may not have considered until lately. Most notably, it has affected humor/comedy directly and highly visible personas such as Dave Chappelle have found that they are not immune to criticism for their reluctance to adapt. To those who only have a few decades of life under their belts this seems like less of a deal. This is because the range of sensitivity has increased while the encyclopaedia of historical media and influences are less vast than someone who has lived three, four or more decades of life. If you were born in the 70’s, such as my generation, you were introduced at the end of what was called “the golden age of comedy”. Saturday Night Live had made its debut, National Lampoon was churning out the newest and brightest comedians, Mel Brooks’ History of the World and Blazing Saddles was being quoted everywhere, and television featured shows such as Good Times, the Benny Hill Show and All in the Family which were controversial back then which meant they were getting huge ratings. These days, you won’t find those shows on many of the local satellite or cable networks and the gags and context of the majority of the humor would never make it to script in a contemporary sitcom or screenplay.
What American culture has defined as ‘entertainment’ has evolved significantly. A century ago, before the advent of radio and television, families would attend executions and lynchings for amusement. When audio and visual entertainment became part of the landscape it was controlled by the status quo of the earliest days, whites. Early visual depictions of minorities on television went beyond offensive and depicted women and minorities as stereotypical caricatures. Gradually as the medium expanded to appeal to and include a broader audience the depictions began to lose hold. A wider representation was opened to those who had held little influence in the industry. The standard of representation and what defined humor and taste was shifting from a largely white, insensitive demographic to a much more diverse one. This trend has continued to this very day. Empowered by the media available at the tips of our fingers, anyone who has a cellphone and a social media account can reach hundreds through not only written but spoken or performed words and actions.
Humans are humans and because of the way that we are wired and our associations with the world we grow up in, it can be difficult to take cultural changes in stride. One thing the last several years has made me recognize is that my behaviors and interpretations of what was funny and acceptable are quickly becoming outdated and archaic. This is not unlike that relative that you had who until their dying day called blacks and some minorities the wrong term. The difference is that today I am that relative, laughing at the insensitive gaffe or joke and having to check myself when I casually threw around a term that 20 years ago everyone would have. It is not easy because we are reprogramming our brains and for the first time looking at history, our own history, in a different light. Probably the greatest mistake that humanity has made is that it lives in its own past. A godfather of communications theory, Marshall McLuhan, said “We drive into the future using only our rearview mirror.” An astute observance of the fact that despite its advances, we tend to utilize communications technology to reflect upon who we were and not who we will, or can, become.
Call It What You Will
The phrase “the Great Awakening” has been applied to many events in history over the years for a variety of reasons. There are a few that are officially deemed truly “great” but the moniker seems to reference a static event that started and ended without continuation. Contemporary interpretations may assign the latest ‘Woke’ movement to the same importance but will it also be perceived to come to a conclusion? The urgency of the moment seems to demand that it not have an end, especially when so many different forces compete for their claim to Wokism and Wokefulness. Call it what you will, but it is another example of history repeating itself. Another change in social awareness that sweeps us into uncharted and optimistic territory. Optimism is placed in the fact that once again a new generation is given the authority to define its own place and correct the errors of the past by learning from them. Cynicism shows that this ambition is short lived and like so many upheavals will eventually run out of steam and atrophy back to the same tired patterns and flawed habits. Of one thing we can be sure, a single moment in time has seldom if ever been able to change the course of history. It has taken a prolonged effort to change this nation’s course from when it commenced. That having been said, the latter part of the 20th century should be recognized as the exception to how blacks, women and minorities have been historically treated in society. There is no direction to go but up even in respect to the progress that has been made. We still live in a day and age where a member of Congress can post a depiction of a white male slaughtering a minority female supposedly elected to the same level of authority and respect, without censure. If this does not change then you might as well consider the current movement a Wake.