i can’t stand the term ‘woke’. But i get the meaning behind it and sometimes we need to use words we don’t like, simply because that’s is how the majority of people will understand what we’re talking about.

But anytime i ever use the word ‘woke’ [which is really hardly ever if i can help it] i give it a huge disclaimer [something along the lines of “i hate this word”] and always use the ” “.

Joey Friends "woke"

Which always makes me think of Joey from Friends and how he uses them but has no idea how they work and always gets it wrong.

i was looking for a definition of the term ‘woke’ [i’m sorry, really!] and came upon this gem:

A state of perceived intellectual superiority one gains by reading The Huffington Post. [Urban Dictionary]

Whereas earlier this morning, and what prompted me to finally write this piece it’d been meaning to, was this status from my Facebook friend, Nkanyiso:

Could we be living in the post “woke” world?And are we experiencing the factional rise of people who gained relevance through woke credentials who have now set themselves as woke critics of the woke? [Nkanyiso Mtolo]

Later on in the comments, Nkanyiso gave this brilliant commentary:

Woke critics of the woke are my faves.They are like 35 yearl old 3rd team rugby old boys,who never miss their high school derby,to bemoan decay in quality of the 1st team.  [Nkanyiso Mtolo]

To which i responded with:

That is pretty much it. Although i think if you don’t hate the word woke then you’re clearly not woke enough.


However, jokes and hating that word so much aside, it is a helpful concept to understand because for a lot of people there was a time when they were totally not engaged with any kinds of race conversations or action and now they are. Something happened that moved, or is moving them, from one state to the other, and that is what typically we [and by we i mean people who are not me cos i hate that word, can you tell?] refer to as being ‘woke’.

At one of the dinners we had in durban the other night, someone used the word ‘conscious’ which i immediately was drawn to.

Which obviously links to the word ‘conscientised’ which is what Biko and so many other writers speaking of race held strongly to.

Collins Dictionary simply describes ‘conscientise’ as ‘to educate (a person) about an issue or idea’

Macmillan gives it a little more meat: to make someone aware of social and political conditions, especially as a precursor to challenging inequalities of treatment or opportunity

The idea of being made conscious of an idea you formerly were not aware of. To the extent that you realise that you have to do something about it.

It’s not just about learning a new idea, concept or definition. It is rather a deep understanding that something has to change.

i always go back to this scene in the Matrix, because it describes my experience so well.

Matrix woke

There was once a time when i didn’t see how crucial it was for me to be engaged in conversations and change with regards to race and injustice in South Africa. Similar to the Matrix it was because i was living in this bubble world that had been pulled over my eyes [which could be described as whiteness – the deep ideology prevalent throughout the world that a person who is white is better/more important/more valuable/more beautiful than anyone else].

The only problem though [and it’s really not a problem, except perhaps to comfort and apathy] is that once you’ve taken the red pill, you can never go back.

Well, that’s not completely true. There is a character called Cypher in the movie who chooses to have his mind erased and be plugged back into the Matrix [spoiler: it doesn’t end well] because he finds the darkness of the reality too overwhelming and tiring to live with.

Cypher Matrix woke

A lot of Cyphers in South Africa chose to skip the country and go and live in non-racist places like Americaland, Australia, New Zealand and England [among others]. Good luck to the non-racist hopes of being in any of those countries though although maybe you get to feel less drawn in if you didn’t grow up there.

But this really is it – once you know, you can’t unknow. You can increase your level and depth of knowing and learn to understand a whole lot more about what that means. But you cannot cannot cannot just return to life as it was before. Which can be kinda frustrating and difficult to navigate when you are around people who perhaps have not had the same kind of consciousness brought upon them.

= = = = = = 

While all this was being written, Nkanyiso and i got into a bit of a conversation:

Nkanyiso: It’s the ‘boxes’ and their implications.Woke people do not like being put in boxes.

Brett: While spending their [our?] time putting other people in those same boxes…

Nkanyiso: I find nothing wrong with compartmentalising particular forms of conciousness,very often it is useful.What is problematic,however, is the disingenous act of elevating ourselves to a level that gives us the impression that we are exempt from the same shortcomings of the people we have placed in boxes.

Brett:Absolutely. What makes it so difficult i think is that everyone enters into ‘wokeness’ at different times and to differing extents or maybe speeds and so everyone is at different places and it is hard for those further along the line sometimes to show grace to those just starting out, especially when you realise the urgency of this process that is maybe trundling along 20 years overdue or so… so how do we help people increase their pace without making them feel completely useless while at the same time knowing full well we need to be upping out own pace.

= = = = = = 

i do think though that the concept of being ‘woke’ or ‘made conscious’ or ‘conscientised’ is something that describes you. It is not a label to be worn: “Hey, look at me, I’m woke!”

The same with being an ally to friends of colour. i can’t declare that i am an ally. i can do everything i can to demonstrate that i am one. But if the label ever drops, it has to come from a friend who recognises the allyship in you.

And finally, the same applies with having friends of colour. If you have deep and genuine friendships with different people of colour, where listening happens and wrestling takes place and where there is a mutuality of respect and trust is growing, then you are less likely to be racist, or overtly so. But if you ever utter a line that sounds anything like, “I can’t be racist, because I have a black friend” then… well, let’s just say there is a lot of work still to be done. And you probably are.

At the end of the day, it probably doesn’t matter too much what you call it. In fact, if you’re trying to call it anything, that might be an indication that you’re just trying to fit in or be “good enough” or “doing enough” or something like that. Rather, be listening and learning and reading and educating yourself and having conversations and hearing stories and showing up at protests and building your black African language skills and leave labels of any kind to someone else…

In the words of Will Smith, “If it ain’t woke then don’t try to fix it.” No wait, i don’t think that’s right…