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How to be woke?

  • 04 July 2023
The term ‘woke’ has become something of an anathema these days. It’s often evoked to disparage someone for following a progressive stream of groupthink to the point of insanity. We’re at a point that few people would self-identify with the term anymore, not unless they want to provoke a torrent of outrage.

However, I have to confess that I’ve always liked the term ‘woke’. For me, it’s linked to the idea of awareness; being awake to the world around me, its history, its people, its stories. There’s a sense of curiosity in the term. There’s also a sense of awareness of both the good and bad in all of us, and how those possibilities are influenced by our history and our present society.

While the way the word’s come to be understood might say otherwise, I’ve also always had the sense that being ‘woke’ isn’t about offering complete condemnation for the past, but rather about being aware of our power to either work to overcome past injustices in the present, or allow them to fester and continue into the future.

One of the most powerful, but perhaps least appreciated, ways our past continues to influence us is through language. Terrible events and attitudes of the past gave rise to certain words and phrases, which are then stripped of that context and fall into regular use. When I grew up I’d often hear the term ‘paddy wagon’ to describe a police car. It wasn’t until I was older I realised that the term was a slur against the Irish, and being of Irish extraction myself, decided to stop using it.

This week I discovered another term with an origin I wasn’t previously aware about – cakewalk. The term as we understand it refers to something easily achieved. However it’s origin in fact goes back to the pre-Civil War slave plantations in the United States. Then, slaves would compete with each other by doing elaborate dances. The plantation owner would judge the dancers, and the prize winner would ‘take the cake’. Over time, competitions opened up, and the style of dancing known as the ‘cakewalk’ (renowned for its fluidness that made it look easy) become more widespread. Performers, even African American ones, would often take to the stage in blackface.

After learning this new historical factoid, I started to think about how and where the term’s used today. Perhaps the most famous use in Australia is in the