The War on Woke

By Vicky Gill

"The so-called "war on woke" is simply a tactic to hide the inequalities the pandemic has exposed."

At the time of writing, a lot has happened although (predictably) confined to the world of Twitter. We’ve had the PM asked multiple times whether or not he is “woke”, an “anti-woke CA service” and a policy that “roads [are] to be named after Victoria Cross and George Cross heroes in latest Conservative plan for the 'war on woke”. I have some thoughts on this, relating to what I was initially going to focus writing on: racial equality and education of a nation’s history. Yet, it seems now that the term “woke” gets in the way of truly uniting everyone to a cause that at its heart is about equality and social justice.

The origins of the word "woke" are interesting, originally coined by African Americans in the 1940s to signal sensitization to issues of justice, it has only entered the British vernacular in the last few years, as The Independent suggests. The word has now been appropriated in a British context, it seems, to describe socially progressive politics.

I think the sudden use of “woke” has been brought about due to the past summer’s BLM movements. However, there has been almost complete silence in discussing racial injustice by the press, except, of course, for the toppling of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol. The response to that event has seemingly overshadowed calls for racial equality in Britain. The focus has less been upon calls to ‘de-colonise the curriculum’ - to teach a balanced history and historical figures of the United Kingdom – and to pursue reports into racial equality in areas such as law and employment.

Black lives matter London
Has use of the word 'woke' increased due to BLM protests over the summer?

History and context matter, that is what so many people are advocating for, and ironically even Robert Jenrick said so in his plans: “Our view will be set out in law, that such monuments are almost always best explained and contextualised”. Yet there had been years of fruitless petitions and conversation around removing the statue or amending the plaque to recognise Colston's involvement in the slave trade.

Similarly, the call for the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes outside a college at Oxford University will now also go through an inquiry before the action taken is decided. Given the multiple failed attempts to simply amend the plaque on Colston’s statue to include where the money from his philanthropy came from, my question is this: is British society ready to have these conversations in an honest and earnest manner?

Why the explosive headline? Why the igniting of a facile ‘culture war’ when this is a sensible solution that many have been calling for? It actually goes against what one conservative MP wrote on Twitter attacking the National Trust who instigated a review into whether it was important to highlight the history of buildings that were funded by money that was ‘earned’ through the slave trade or by items that originate from other countries. Ironically he went on to tweet on numerous occasions that it is important to “learn from it … preserve those lessons and that history for the future”, as if the two – putting up signage and learning the origins behind historical landmarks– are incompatible. Highlighting such facts is not playing into the hands of the “woke”, it is not “cancel culture.” We cannot change the past, but we should learn the uncomfortable truths alongside the successes of this country.

"Is British society ready to have these conversations in an honest and earnest manner?"

I don’t mourn for the Conservative governments of Cameron or May. They launched an investigation into the bias against BAME defendants due to the acknowledgement by then Home Sec Theresa May that “if you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white" which ignited the call for a review undertaken by David Lammy MP. Yet, this should not detract from the Hostile Environment policy nor the Windrush Scandal. Seemingly nothing has been done since the announcement in June 2020 that there was to be another cross-party report into all forms of inequalities. Unsurprisingly, similar investigations and reports like this have been published, and ignored, by a succession of governments. All anyone needs to do is read this thread of articles on New Labour and they will be exposed to the numerous articles that highlight bigoted and racist policies, inflammatory language and the beginnings of the hostile environment.

The re-awakening of wider issues regarding equality and justice has hit hard in the UK during the span of the pandemic. Issues that I think a lot of people have either never committed to talk about in the mainstream such as the digital divide; the implications of long-term absences from formal education that previously only impacted a minority of children; the closure of libraries (almost 800 since 2010) and its implications for those who need a quiet place to work; the further implications that has on conscious housing designs to fit families; the cruelty of statutory sick pay and UC … the list simply goes on.

It was only thirteen months ago that this government was elected on a manifesto they claimed was aimed at “levelling up” – a kind of social justice, right?

Yet instead of addressing these issues, instead of pioneering to unite the country behind an effort to fix the long-term issues that this country has endured, there is now a war over a word that for many outside of the Twitter bubble is completely meaningless.

Vicky Gill's interest in politics grew after participating in the UK branch of the European Youth Parliament in 2018.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in this piece belong solely to the author and do not reflect the views of Demographica as a company.

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