In an interview with OkayAfrica last year, I was asked about the movement many refer to as wokeness and whether I consider myself woke. I was also asked about being an activist and what identifying as such meant to me. Looking back on 2019, as someone who is both a scholar and a voice in media I relish personal victories such as young people who tell me how my work has conscientised them to fight injustice, but I also reflect on the losses such as the continued criminalisation of homosexuaity in Africa. As someone who engages social justice through words in an online environment, I can attest to the difficulty of delivering an inconvenient message. When speaking on the harm caused by racist, patriarchal, queerphobic sytems, I am often berated and insulted. The push-back gets exhausting.
The regression of social justice impacted me most in 2019: the election of right-wing leaders; the violence against Black people, women, children, and the queer community; and, the general resistance to calls for reforming our humanity seemed unprecedented. I will admit that if the regression increased, it was probably only marginal in comparison to former years, but with all the work going into raising our collective consciousness, even one step back is one too many. To see the events noted above happen in spite of the tireless work of social justice activists is disheartening. To continue in the face of such backlash of often leads me to introspection and to ask questions to which only I have the answers.
One such question is: “What does it mean to be woke?”
The term has been turned into an insult against people who dare to disregard politeness in the quest for justice. They are brash and unapologetic about highlighting the urgency of social justice. They refuse to wait and sit around debating to no end with people who are hellbent on frustrating our cause with whataboutery and bureaucracy. They are righteously indignant about the embargo power has put on justice for far too long.
Wokeness is about empathy for the most marginalised in society, but not for the powerful. I am unapologetic about my allegiance to disenfranchised people and my refusal to accord courtesy to power has had me labelled a bully.
I, too, am implicated in the systems I am trying to destroy which might make my mandate seem like a contradiction. We should welcome contradiction. Human beings are messy and chaotic and that is alright. To accept being messy and chaotic does not mean that we should accept the harmful parts of ourselves, but that we understand ourselves as error prone. There is an anxiety that social consciousness inspires which comes from the expectation that when critiquing power one can never make mistakes or be wrong. Making mistakes is read as an invalidation of the entire movement. Accepting imperfection, or messiness, alleviates that anxiety and inspires the work needed to keep improving. As long as the goal of deepening humanity is at the centre of efforts at justice, it is okay to make mistakes.
It is most important to regard wokeness or empathy as praxis as a journey and not a destination. When we practice empathy, it is not only an action we direct towards others, but a process of finding our own humanity. It is like on-the-job training where you learn to be more empathetic as you accept more opportunities to be empathetic. Empathy is not inherent but learnt. We must learn to enact the justice we seek. Ours is not to claim that we are right, but that we are honest. It is about the ability to live through and alongside the mess we have all created through oppressive systems, rather than understanding our consciousness to be elevated above those systems.
Wokeness is a constant state of becoming in which we strive for the humanity we fantasise about. It is a process of always becoming more of what we hope to see in the world. We make mistakes, which will be put under a magnifying glass by those in power as a retaliation to how we expose the mechanics of the systems they benefit from, but we should not be deterred.
The goal is justice—everything else is a distraction.
Thinking about activism, I want to destroy the pedestal.
I do not identify myself as an activist although people attach that identity to me. Though I do not identify as an activist, I do accept that I am someone who does activism. The difference to me is where the emphasis lies. While the one focuses on the identity, the other focuses on the work. I am here to do the work.
To focus on the work is to remember that the work starts with the self. When I make pronouncements on social media or in a newspaper article, I am always the first one to be implicated in some of the power structures I critique. In fact, it is because I know how I have consciously and unconsciously contributed to the suffering of others that I am calling for it to end. That is not hypocrisy, but honesty. To live as a marginalised body in the face if oppression and survive, is in itself activism. To survive oppression, is activism. It is daily learning and unlearning despite the frightening times we are living through.
This year, as we enter another journey of learning, we should commit to silencing the distractions. The detractors who make it their mission to poke holes in a movement centred on strategic empathy matter much less than the outcomes of the work being done. We should strive for more honest connections between all who are pursuing social justice, providing support and also meaningful critique to each other in pursuit of self-improvement for all. While power organises to keep everything the same in service to the status quo, lovers of justice must keep agitating to change and change again as many times as is necessary to social justice realised for those who need it most. This should be realised for online communities and elsewhere.
This reflection is a toast to the successes and failures of the work activists, artists and scholars who stand for justice have done until now and the work that lies ahead.
To strategic empathy with the disenfranchised in mind.
To the journey and not the destination.
Jamil F. Khan is a critical diversity scholar, columnist, and author. He is currently enrolled for a PhD in Critical Diversity Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand. He has completed an honours degree in Psychology and a Master’s degree in Critical Diversity Studies, looking at the effect of discourse on Coloured identities in South Africa. As a columnist, he is committed to critical analysis of socio-political events shaping the South African landscape. His forthcoming socio-poitical memoir—Khamr – The Makings of a Waterslams—is set for release in April 2020 from Jacana.