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To Be or Not to Be "Woke"

How a social justice warrior can become part of our intergroup problems.

In today’s America, young people want to be “woke.” So it's time to ask: What does it mean to be “woke?" Looking to the online urban dictionary for “woke,” we find: “Although an incorrect tense of awake, a reference to how people should be aware in current affairs.” No doubt, awareness is one thing, but knowing how to act on that awareness is another.

I have been thinking about this because I am worried. I see too many people who proclaim themselves “woke” as a fad. What, then, does it take to live woke? What should be in the social psychology of a person who is woke?

For 45 years, I have been doing the fieldwork of social-justice. At the age of 22, I started doing that work in the U.S. Navy, an environment filled with danger and dangerous intergroup social interactions that included race riots aboard aircraft carriers. Under Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, to deal with these intergroup problems the Navy created and implemented an interracial dialogue intervention: “Understanding Personal Worth and Racial Dignity.” All sailors, officers and enlisted, were required to participate in a two-and-a-half-day session of racial sensitivity group conversations that were facilitated by trained group facilitators who were enlisted sailors (1).

After my service on board the USS Intrepid in 1974 I was one of those trained by the Department of Defense to facilitate interracial dialogues among sailors that were anything but polite. Trained as a Racial Awareness Facilitator, and then facilitating over 20 sessions, each with 30 or so men, working special human relations duties was a catalyst for the rest of my life. In 21st century vernacular, I went from being awake to being “woke.” My interest in group dynamics, race relations, and social justice was peaked. I sought higher education. I became a social psychologist. Since 1981, as a social psychologist I have been teaching, publishing research articles and writing books on intergroup relations (2).

To be “woke” is to be a connector of communities. That was the point of the work of facilitating interracial dialogues in the Navy: to create an environment of positive, respectful, working relationships between sailors from different racial and ethnic demographic groups. As I have lived it, to be “woke” is not a fad but means to live by, and help others understand why it is important to live by this interaction principle: Never try to interact with a person as a representative of a group (3).

Intersectional is today’s buzzword that has caught on with the newly “woke.” Intersectional is a sociological concept that is supposed to describe the fact that discrimination has multi-group links. To talk about racial discrimination alone is to miss the complexity that people who experience discrimination are not of just one group membership. For example, racial discrimination influences black women at the same time that gender discrimination does.

For the “woke,” that idea should mean we will not allow us-versus-them to guide our work. It's no surprise that not everybody who talks about America’s intersectional struggles actually gets that point. On Facebook, I saw a post about feminism. It said, “…My feminism has to be intersectional.” Then the attached article was “Why I hate white women,” as if white women were the problem to solve. Another was “Why white feminists are wrong.”

Here, “intersectional” becomes an unnatural social-psychological wall. A concept that is supposed to describe interconnected struggles for fair treatment is used to push, to activate, the us-versus-them, minimal group effect; automatic categorization of people into groups that activates competition between those groups (4).

In my “Interdependence and Race” course, I make a point of teaching my students about the work it takes to get past this old us-versus-them tendency. I let students know that in the blistering days of the “old” Civil Rights Movement, there were former Klansmen who climbed over the hot unnatural walls of segregation to work in the movement for civil rights for African Americans. I shook hands with one or two of those former Klansmen. On the American journey toward a more perfect union, we must be foolish enough to take every opportunity to create coalitions and collaborations.

Spring-2017 semester, in a paper for my “Interdependence and Race” course, one of my students wrote a lament about the “woke.” Reacting to my teaching about the coalition-building that she had now learned went on during the “old” Civil Rights Movement, an African-American student wrote:

"Being a ‘social justice warrior’ is very ‘in’ right now. Because of this, I often find that people are quick to show how ‘woke’ they are by attacking someone else. Unfortunately, doing that, they miss the opportunity to teach and learn from someone else.”

For 45 years, with much success, I have done the work of moving all kinds of people into productive dialogue. For me, in my work, to be woke has always been about helping to connect communities at the junction of mutual respect. To those who now claim to be “woke,” I ask: Have you educated yourself enough to be able to address intergroup problems of today with strategies that do not rely on name-calling? Name-calling people because of the group they happen to be born into is not social justice work. That is just feeding the social injustice of bigotry that the “woke” should be fighting to dismantle. To do work for social justice, we must build coalitions of respect so that we can collaborate.

If that is not your way of being a social justice worker, you are not what you are claiming. If you only care about people using stereotypes of the groups you like; if you do not check yourself from using stereotypes of people who are members of groups you think have it easy, you are contributing to the problems of social justice. To all who want to claim it, you must ask yourself whether 'tis nobler to appear to be a social justice warrior or actually to be “woke.”


1. Sherwood, J. D. (2007). Black Sailor, White Navy: Racial unrest in the fleet during the Vietnam War era. New York: New York University Press.

2. Moe, J.L., Nacoste, R.W., & Insko, C.A. (1981). Belief versus race as determinants of discrimination: A study of adolescents in 1966 and 1979. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 41, 1031-1050.

3. Nacoste, R. W (2915). Taking on diversity: How we can move from anxiety to respect. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

4. Gilovich, T., Keltner, D. Chen, S. & Nisbett, R. E. (2016, 4th Ed., p. 411). Social Psychology. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.