How to have conversations with your family when you are “So Woke”.

Chances are if you’re reading this, you’re probably what the mainstream media would label as ‘Woke’. 

But what does that word even mean, and where did it come from?

In the 60’s it was mentioned by The New York Times in an article titled “phrases and words you might hear today in Harlem”, but the term’s break into mainstream language came from the Black Lives Matter movement, which started to use the hashtag #staywoke in 2012 in the wake of racial injustices spreading across the US.

In the UK, ‘Woke’ was officially added into the Oxford English Dictionary as an adjective in 2017. The dictionary defines it as “originally: well-informed, up-to-date. Now chiefly: alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice”.

Whilst it may seem unreasonable that anyone would be frustrated with people for being alert to social injustice, the word has increasingly gathered negative connotations, becoming an insult that is used in the press, political debates and of course across social media. It’s now rare to read comments beneath an online article without seeing the words ‘woke’ or ‘snowflakes’ or the phrase ‘Political correctness gone mad’.

What’s in a word?

We’ve seen many times how a word or phrase can become so divisive that it begins to harm the support for the issues that it is meant to be highlighting.

As an example, many women choose not to identify as a Feminist for fear of appearing ‘angry’. In a 2019 survey only one in 5 in the UK & US identified as a feminist*, yet when questioned further the majority of these women also believed in equal rights and the fundamental values of feminism. The negative associations around the word undoubtedly hinder progress.

The same can be said for the term ‘White Privilege’. The goal of learning about White Privilege is for people to re-evaluate how they might inadvertently and unconsciously benefit from structural racism. However it has been contorted to become a tool in the so called ‘culture war’, with many claiming that it denies the hardships faced by White people in their lives. This shows a failure in the proper communication of the meaning of the term. As many have pointed out, it does not mean White people are not disadvantaged, their lives are not hard, or they have not suffered, it just means their skin colour is had never been a factor towards hardships in their lives.

Similar issues surround the phrases ‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘Defund the Police’. The list of terms open to misunderstanding is extensive, and in many cases individuals and the media alike aim to shift the focus onto the connotations of the words rather than the subject matter. 

The Anti Woke Movement

‘Anti woke’ arguments spread misinformation and distract from the end goal of education and reform that would benefit us all as a society.

Famously anti woke former actor Laurence Fox featured on Question Time last year and stated that:

“The wokist are fundamentally racist. Identity politics is extremely racist.”  

Piers Morgan tweeted to his 7.6 million followers:

“The biggest threat to our freedom in the 21st century isn’t coronavirus but hysterically woke liberals trying to kill democracy by suppressing free speech.”

Love Island star and influencer Lucie Donlan posing with Piers Morgans’ book. Source: Twitter

Their support is not insignificant in numbers. Piers Morgans’ book ‘Wake Up’ was a Sunday Times number one bestseller and then topped the Amazon books list in April this year after he stormed off Good Morning Britain amid rows about his comments on the Meghan Markle interview with Oprah. 

Laurence Fox now heads a political party called ‘Reclaim’, which has been described as ‘UKIP for culture wars’ and has garnered funding and support from influential conservative figures.

There is even an ‘Anti Woke Helpline’, which was started by the organisation Counterweight, who according to their website exist to help people:

“Effectively resist authoritarian impositions of Critical Social Justice beliefs*”.

*By Critical Social Justice they are referring to policies and training within workplaces which broach topics such as equity, anti -racism and diversity. The organisation helps people to appeal any disciplinary actions against them as a result of behaviours or comments that go against these policies and find ways for them to ‘lean out’ of mandatory training.

The danger of these celebrities and organisations expressing extreme views in mainstream media with no consequence is that their reasoning becomes widely accepted as a counter argument for any discussion around injustice. The lines between free speech and hate speech are becoming increasingly blurred and openly dismissing the experiences of discrimination faced by Black & Brown communities, creates greater barriers to change and progression.

Conversations and Discussions 

Anti woke views can very quickly shut down the types of discussion that are so important when learning about anti- racism. So how can we continue to have effective conversations when we are met with the sweeping viewpoint that it’s all a bit ‘too much’?

Here we’ve pulled together some of the ways in which you can talk to your family and friends about racism without getting into an argument. (Disclaimer: we can’t help you dodge the argument about which is the best Quality Street, that one’s inevitable).

  • Manage your expectations. You’re unlikely to change someone’s mind from one conversation. Shift your goal from ‘changing minds’ to ‘planting a seed’. 
  • Start small. To open the lines of conversation it’s not always effective to go in strong. It can be enough to break the norm by challenging something that you would usually let slide, or simply for someone to hear you say “I haven’t heard that term used in a while, I don’t use that term anymore.”
  • Be informed and prepared. If there’s a particular subject you know you would like to broach, do some extra research so that you can feel confident in your responses. 
  • Active listening is important. Be prepared to listen and give space for others to express themselves so that you can respond accordingly. It may be useful to summarise & repeat back what their key point is so that you can clarify the main differences in your views.
  • Try to find common ground. For example, are your family football fans? Were they outraged or surprised by the treatment of the Black footballers after the England penalties? There are many different ways of approaching the subject, and using human stories can help to bridge that gap.
  • Ask probing questions. Often first responses with difficult subjects are knee jerk reactions. They can come from a place of misinformation or even a fear of change. Asking questions about views that trouble you can help to open up the conversation more. Why do you think that? Where did you hear that? Assuming that is true, why might that be? 
  • Avoid shaming. It is usually easier to have one on one conversations than a debate in front of the whole family or group, defences run higher when ego or pride is at stake.
  • Talk about your own journey. When did you start to question the status quo? Was there a pivotal moment or resource? There’s a benefit to being open and vulnerable with these conversations so that it can be a relatable experience.
  • Be aware of any stereotypes or ‘othering’ in your language. E.g ‘them’ and ‘us’. Start as you mean to go on. As we’ve mentioned, language is very important
  • Know when to stop. It can be a good idea to set a time limit for yourself for initial talks so that you know when to walk away and don’t become frustrated with each other.
  • You can return. It might be that you hear something you disagree with or want to discuss, but the moment passes. Fear not. Sometimes it can be more powerful to return to a conversation in the near future. I’ve been thinking about what you said earlier/yesterday/whenever and I’d like to talk about it some more because it made me feel ‘x’. 

It can also be helpful to feel prepared with these examples of (calm!) responses to some of these common pushbacks:

“Not this again, you can’t say anything any more! It’s Political Correctness gone mad”

Think about how much has changed for the better over the past 50 years that would’ve once been totally acceptable. There can’t be progress and improvement for future generations without change and it’s not always going to be easy.

“All lives Matter”

Of course all lives should matter. But it’s been disproportionate for so long that it’s going to take work to change it. If a white person feels negative about being ‘left out’ or not fairly included, imagine how marginalised groups feel when their needs aren’t considered in the major decisions, conversations, and actions taken in this country (and around the world). 

“I don’t want to talk about politics”

Whilst (like it or not) pretty much everything in our lives can be linked back to the decisions of government, the thought of discussing politics can be off putting for many people. How many times have you heard comments like ‘politics should be kept out of football’ for instance? There is understandably a lot of fatigue around the subject at the moment, as well as a lot of misinformation. It can be helpful to talk about human stories and experiences behind the politics instead, or pick up on the many things that we can do to make a difference outside of politics. Some ideas could be supporting Black owned businesses or changing up the books and newspapers we read to see different perspectives.

“That’s racist towards White people!”

It’s important to be clear that reverse racism is not possible. This is because White people still overwhelmingly hold the majority of the power: there can be stereotypes and assumptions based around White people, which we agree are not helpful, but institutionally those are not going to hold a person back in the same way that systemic racism does for Black and Brown people. 

“Racism has nothing to do with feelings. It is a measurable reality that White people are not subject to, regardless of their income or status” (Michael Harriot, ‘Reverse Racism Explained’)

“I don’t see Colour”

This statement is actually very dismissive of the lived experience of all people who have been subjected to racism. When you do not see a person’s colour, you are denying part of their identity. Colour is something that a person cannot, and should not, ignore or deny themselves of and contributes to experiences throughout their life. 

“Getting rid of statues is trying to erase our history”

The focus of the Black Lives Matter movement is not statues. This was picked up by the press after several statues of high profile traders of enslaved people were independently reviewed or removed by UK councils and institutions (as well as in the U.S). However, much more important than statues and monuments is education and the curriculum. The goal is to expand and enrich the UK’s history to include more of the narratives and perspectives, not narrow it.

“We’re making it worse by talking about it all the time. It’s divisive”

It makes people uncomfortable but it is not going to make it worse. We cannot fix what we ignore. What can be divisive is when people seem to be more offended by the conversation of race than the life-affecting racism so many are still dealing with daily. 

“Nothing is ever made worse by being brought into the light” (Sophie Williams @officialmillenialblack)


Sources & further reading