School of Social Welfare Dean’s Corner: Staying Woke

Dear Colleagues,

Despite its advantages, I commonly dislike jargon.  True, it promotes understanding among those who share a common language.  Far too often, however, jargon is shorthand replacing the complexity and detail required for shared conversation and deeper understanding.  Worse, it is often an instrument to separate insiders from outsiders, to give the impression of moral or intellectual superiority, or to confuse and obfuscate communication.  Think of your interactions with uncommunicative medical or legal personnel and you’ll have some idea about the frustrations and limitations of jargon.

Yet there is one word in current usage of which I am quite fond.  That word is “WOKE”.   According to Splinter News), the term “woke” was originally used by Erykah Badu in the song Master Teacher in 2008.  It then began to appear in Twitter in 2011 related to the Black Lives Matter Movement as a way of urging people to stay focused on the loss of Black lives and to remain alert about social issues generally.  One definition in the online version of the Urban Dictionary states,

“Getting woke is like being in the Matrix and taking the red pill. You get a sudden understanding of what’s really going on and  find out you were wrong about much of what you understood to be truth.” – Urban Dictionary

Despite its etymology (that is, the historical origins of a word), after 2011, “woke” has often and unforgivably been misused and trivialized on social media and in conversation.

While I am respectful and cautious about cultural misappropriation, I must say I like this word.  I like its’ staccato abruptness, as if we have been in a deep sleep and are jolted into consciousness.  I like that it communicates not a momentary awakening, but a future commitment to constant vigilance.  You are not awakened in the past tense, but you are woke in the present and remain so in the future.

My generation was obviously lulled into a false consciousness that our society was making progress on social inequality.  The civil rights protests and resulting legislation took place during my adolescence and young adulthood.  I remember seeing racial segregation during family trips to Florida, and watched overt and systematic racism in my hometown in the north. And while certainly there was backlash and ever more intricate and evolving institutional discrimination, the intent of the Civil Rights acts of the 1960s was, we believed, equality.  Moreover, back then we had hope that the future was on the side of change.

The same was true in the area of women and gender rights.  Forty years ago I worked with a group that organized around sexual harassment and office safety.  Back then there were few women in positions of power, in law and medical schools, and it was before women were admitted to seminaries. The women’s movement and the passage of sexual harassment laws gave us hope that things would be different for our younger sisters and daughters.

These past few years have sorely challenged my sense of progress.  The seemingly routine police violence against Black men, the absence of serious attention to attend to the grievances of communities of color, the incarceration rates of men of color, and the absence of swift and flat condemnations in response to events such as Charlottesville, offer contradictory evidence.

As more and more women have come forward in the last few weeks with their stories of blatant sexual assault and harassment, my hope for gender equality has also been shaken.  It is exactly the same as it was 40 years ago; women are prey in many environments, and even strong and powerful women have not been able to find their voice.

I understand why it is so difficult to come forward with a complaint. I understand why it is hard to advocate for a viewpoint.  I understand the role of power, even perceived power, in choices we make about what to say, and when to say it, and who to say it to.  What puzzles me is why the bystanders say and do nothing.  Why are so many contemptible and disgraceful individual actions an open secret among so many for so long?  I remind myself that silence is a powerful force against change.  Were there ever times that, against all my values, I stayed silent?  Was there ever a time I did not report something I knew?  Was I a bystander?

I also know that this has all happened before, and without strong voices in opposition, will surely happen again.  With that in mind, I re-commit that I will not be a bystander.   I will not be silent.  I will state openly what is in conflict with the values of our profession.   When I hear about something unacceptable, I will use the appropriate channels to report it.   When I hear something, I’ll say something.  I will Stay Woke.

As we approach the holiday season, I am thankful for all of you in the Stony Brook School of Social Welfare community that make our School such a wonderful place. If there is anything that keeps hope alive, it is you.

Best Wishes for a Happy and Healthy Holiday Season,

Jacqueline B. Mondros
Dean and Assistant Vice President

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