The Black Core of the Culture War

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The Black Core of the Culture War

US politics has been deluged by heated debates surrounding cancel culture, “wokeness,” and critical race theory. What do these three topics have in common? Some would say that they are all ostensibly progressive ideas that seek understanding and accountability regarding histories of oppression. Others might argue they are all facets of an illiberal and regressive left trying to shame everyone into submission. Yet if you ask most people (regardless of their political background) to define these terms, you would likely get Justice Potter Stewart “I know it when I see it”–type answers.

It’s telling that all three stem from Black communal, online, or academic discourses that got co-opted—and then caricatured—as they traveled across the political spectrum. CRT is a legal theory looking at how historic and contemporary racial injustices are embedded in laws and policies that are on their face color-blind. Though it isn’t taught widely outside of grad school, it has been accused of murdering the souls of white children. Professor Meredith Clark and writer Clyde McGrady have written about how the word “cancel“ traveled from Black digital discourse to become a mainstream buzzword about censorship and mob justice. But, in my opinion, the mutation of “woke” has been the most egregious.

“Woke” was used in the Black community to convey the need to be socially aware of anti-Black oppressive systems, ideas, etc. in order to at least safely navigate through them—and at most dismantle them. A simple analogy would be the code in The Matrix—just knowing it’s there can help a character survive. Woke could range from James Baldwin in “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?” or Laurence Fishburne’s character yelling “Wake up!” in Spike Lee’s School Daze, or Georgia Anne Muldrow saying “Woke is definitely a black experience.”

Black people have also used woke in (often, but not exclusively) Afro-centric spiritual, cosmological, or metaphysical discourse. The topics could be anything from “opening your third eye,” staying attuned to the energy of the people around you, or more charged discussions like not praying to White Jesus or what is the “correct” religion for Pan-African people to have.

Though the term was often used unironically, Black people have also poked fun at woke as well—satirizing people in our community who take it too far and become too conspiratorial, connecting vastly disconnected things to the “White Man.” Dave Chappelle’s character “Conspiracy Brother” argued that saying “Good morning” was racist. In A Black Lady Sketch Show, Dr. Hadassah Olayinka Ali-Youngman makes a completely inappropriate toast at her sister’s wedding. If you follow Black Twitter, you know there is no shortage of memes poking at the overly performative aspects of being woke.

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