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Woke? We're barely awake

Updated: May 14

As an ED&I consultant and writer, I understand that language is both powerful and meaningless. Powerful in that it shapes our reality, from our perception of the world around us to the core of who we are. Meaningless in that if you say the same word enough times in a row, all you’re left with is a mouthful of sound.

It’s not surprising, then, that even though the word ‘woke’ was used 28,600 times in a round-up of 2022 UK news stories, nobody knows what it means anymore. So when I read the chapter on Diversity & Illusion in The Unmistakables’ Diversity and Confusion report, I felt relieved - vindicated, even.

I’ve read the same headlines for years now - culture wars, cancel culture, liberal elite. But the Diversity & Confusion report cuts through the noise because it tells the truth: that through either ignorance, laziness, or willful misuse, the word ‘woke’ has become an emotive trigger for the average reader. That politicians, newsnight presenters, and media outlets are too smart to be so persistent in the incorrect use of the word, so they know what they’re doing when they misuse it. That if people paid attention, they’d see the word has been appropriated from its roots in African American vernacular and means something more like ‘being aware of racial injustice.’

Small side track: I used to work in the Civil Service as an anti-racism programme lead. Like my peers, I was exposed to the mind-bending frustration of being tasked with impartiality (as per the Civil Service code, meaning to 'carry out your responsibilities in a way that is fair, just and equitable and reflects, the Civil Service commitment to equality and diversity'), then being faced with influential backbenchers calling for - and achieving - cuts to diversity roles, branding them as a 'job creation scheme by the woke, for the woke'.

The most aggravating thing about this was that pointing to the dictionary definitions of ‘woke’ and ‘impartial’ didn’t change anything. Neither did pointing at the heaps of data that showed the depth and breadth of inequality in the departments I worked in. I left because of the hypocrisy that, in an organisation that is meant to be all about evidence-based decision-making, we were doing the exact opposite of what the data and equalities legislation like the Public Sector Equality Duty said we needed to do.

Sometimes, when words lose their meaning, it’s helpful to go back to the basics to understand why people aren’t listening. One of these basics, cemented through my time working in ED&I, is that people are generally afraid of things they don’t understand, whether that’s different cultures, concepts, or language. And they shut down.

At The Unmistakables, we see this all the time. We see it with senior leadership teams who sometimes at first write off issues that don’t make sense to them immediately, rather than take the time to engage with reality. We see it with HR teams that often find it less painful to problematise or ignore ERGs rather than allowing themselves to sit in discomfort. And when it comes to the complex and nuanced aspects of ED&I, which take a lifetime to learn and put into practice, we hear from colleagues in listening sessions that diversity and inclusion is black and white. Is them and us. Is ‘woke nonsense’.

In all of these instances, rather than pointing insistently at the facts from our high horses, we pause. We listen, and we listen closely. We’ve found on virtually every occasion that what people really need is a partner they can speak honestly to about what can be an overwhelming and sometimes even scary topic. We don’t judge. We empathise, because we, too, are still learning. When mutual trust and understanding has been established, we bring in the data to help tell a bigger story about what their organisation and wider society look like. And then we do the work, together.

Something else I’ve learned through doing this kind of work is that if you can’t explain a concept simply enough that a five-year-old could understand it, you probably don’t understand it yourself. So let me be crystal clear: this chatter about ‘woke’ is a distraction from the realities of life. We’re now living in a country where the word ‘woke’ elicits more outrage than rising food prices, pay gaps, rollbacks on our legal rights, exorbitant electricity bills, police brutality, sexual violence, and increasing levels of poverty.

Frankly speaking, we’re smarter than this. We’re complacent because change is hard. It’s easier to complain about ‘wokery’ than it is to figure out what pronouns are, change a company culture, or parse through complicated data to understand why your organisation never seems to hire Black people.

So instead of falling for the easy bait of misused jargon, we need to start being curious about the things and experiences we don’t understand. We need to ask questions in order to develop our own understanding of the people who live around us, and the country we live in, and the world that exists beyond it. And we need to stop hiding behind words. Especially ‘woke.’

This article was written by Amani Saeed, Inclusion Consultant at The Unmistakables, and inspired by our new Diversity & Confusion report.


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