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I’m probably making a huge mistake weighing on a fraught term people use and understand differently. Well, let’s make a huge mistake then!

“Woke” was originally a term some Black people used to describe the need to be vigilant about the dangers of racism they face in our deeply racist society. It still means this, but it also means so many other things that whoever once used its original definition must know it’s been obscured. Often deliberately so.

Today, depending on the person, “woke” means quite different things. Some well-meaning centrists say it to disparage those on their left they feel lay on the anti-racism a little too thick. In their minds, Western society isn’t particularly racist, it’s just as racist as any other place because (as they’ll say begrudgingly, but with a shrug) nowhere is perfect, so anybody speaking to the need to transform society instead of reform or tinker with it is by definition going too far. The self-satisfaction this person advocating for transformative change seems to feel, the pat you can feel them giving themselves on the back, is summed up in the word “woke.” This is a confused position but a relatively innocent one that makes space for one more vile and willfully-deranged.

Basically, today’s most slobbering racists use “woke” as a euphemism for the n-word. When Marjorie Taylor Greene and that ilk say “woke,” the sentence would read the same if you replaced that word with the slur. When MTG praises Chris Stapleton’s rendition of the national anthem before the Super Bowl but says, “we could have done without the rest of the wokeness,” you can feel the word she really wants to say. She all but said it.

While some confusion around the word “woke” arises naturally, organically, and innocently, the word itself is also under attack by racists using it to obscure things and advance racism. Once they start using it in many different ways, by the time you add the new context to the old one, the old one feels outdated. It’s impossible to say “woke” now without associating the term with the far-right who co-opted it.

That’s what’s tough when talking about this word: the casual political people will roll their eyes at being lumped in with the slobbering racists, while the slobbering racists are violently irrational and act in terrible faith no matter what you say or how you act. The rabid right appeals to centrists and anybody who isn’t steadfastly opposed to them by insinuating “we might be crazy fucks, I mean look at us, but the alt-left and Antifa are crazy too, and you and I have fundamental things in common.”

The liberal who means well but doesn’t grasp how intertwined racism and our social institutions are may find common cause with the rabid racist, even if it’s to their private dismay and embarrassment. The centrist will often be rightly disgusted by MAGA’s violent demented freaks, but they can’t totally disagree with them altogether, either. The far-right doesn’t threaten the centrist’s national mythology, whereas the so-called alt-left does. Centrists enjoy being reassured this country isn’t on stolen land and doesn’t owe its foundational wealth to crimes, and the far-right are more than happy to give them this reassurance, one the left is adamantly opposed to giving them.

One pernicious trick the right does is spread these comforting illusions in the name of being critical, hard-eyed realists! They get to believe the most self-serving explanations for their comforts possible for supposedly impartial intellectual reasons. It’s kind of like children claiming they read Will to Power and Nietzsche clearly states they can have all the cookies and juice they want before bed time.

Did you really do the reading? Is this just what you want to believe, or what the text actually says?

The far-right’s “Free Market” beliefs also have more in common with liberalism/centrism than with any leftist view.

So on one hand, liberals and centrists are hugely embarrassed by the far-right, but not by their underlying beliefs. It’s mostly the illiterate clown show antics of the Ford brothers and Donald Trump. John Tory was a fiscal conservative austerity mayor whose economic and cultural views line up with the Ford and Trumps of this world, but he was polished enough to conceal this similarity, or even housebroken enough. On a basic level, Tory, unlike Trump and sometimes the Fords, could talk to the media without causing apolitical people around the world to simultaneously laugh and shudder.

The far-right can’t be denounced enough.

MAGA freaks in Florida are banning Toni Morrison novels, which is akin to a modern book burning. What could be a more hostile act of war against Western Culture than banning the best Western literature? I won’t defend Toni Morrison, the author of Sula, Beloved, Song of Solomon, Tar Baby, and other masterpieces, because that would suggest her status as a writer could be in doubt.

But that’s what so confusing about the “Culture War”…it’s a war against culture led by people using culture as a mask for racism. The word “woke” is wrapped up in this.

Years after police murdered George Floyd, “defund the police” might be a mainstream position with lots of support across society, but the mayor of New York is currently a cop. John Tory defunded everything in Toronto except police, and now that he has resigned, the new race for mayor has not one but two cops.

Don’t make the mistake of assuming that because the backlash to racism is louder than usual that it means racism is over. If this wasn’t such a deeply racist society, I’d be making fun of the do-gooders too! I think that’s why people are so eager to use the term “woke” as a casual, jocular insult: it comforts them, because they don’t want to confront the fact that racism is real and rampant. They get to be in denial while enjoying the satisfaction of feeling like they are boldly, critically looking truth eyeball to eyeball.

There’s a circular, self-perpetuating kind of logic: they don’t identify as racists (they genuinely do oppose flagrant racism!), so how can society be racist if they are joking about the racism? If racism was a real problem, they wouldn’t be joking about it, so their jokes are in a way held as proof that everything is fine.

In my experience, this conversation is way more likely to examine the intentions of the person saying “woke” than any academic or critical work about racism or society. The white person saying “woke” is more likely to focus on their innocence rather than society’s guilt. Because again, in a way, if they are innocent, so is society.

“Woke” is a very reasonable thing to be in a racist society, so it’s only used pejoratively under the assumption racism doesn’t exist or barely exists, and do-gooders say it to appear superhumanly good, by overcompensating and demanding excessive justice.

This is not what’s happening! I promise you, the harder and more carefully you look at society, the more racism you’ll find. That racism exists in Canada but not that much is the dreamy and naïve position, not the cynical and critical one!

At this point it’s much easier to just avoid saying the word altogether because either you’re preaching to the choir or people’s understandings of it are likely caught somewhere in the middle of all this. The point isn’t to go out and use “woke” correctly. I just think it’s worth reflecting on what other people really mean by it.

I don’t want to tell anyone how to live, but if you only used the word “woke” innocently enough to give liberal do-gooders a hard time, you should probably stop using it too. I’m sure the alt-right will repeat the cycle by co-opting more Black lingo. If you aren’t using the term to race-bait (and why would you be?), there are lots of other words you can use. Write around it.

One ironic, sorry thing about modern life is that it’s sometimes necessary to give this much time and thought to a single word in the context of the alt-right, people who don’t exactly have a literary love of language.