Stay Woke, Kids!
‘Woke’ has become a word fought over: emerging out of Black radical demands that white people be more enlightened about the persistent realities of inequality, then turned into a pejorative by conservatives, for whom it quickly came to replace their older dislike for ‘political correctness’, by now it’s a synonym for the present, increasingly entrenched culture wars. How you use it depends on what ‘side’ you’re on.
British illustrator and designer Kazvare Knox has a go at celebrating woke, in a book of limericks accompanied by flat, high-colour cartoon illustrations, to denounce, in verse form, the familiar bugbears of wokeness – from the impossibility of ‘colour-blindness’, to white privilege, gentrification, diversity quotas, cultural appropriation and fake allyship – all titled after
Beyoncé songs, such as Hold Up (2016): ‘“I don’t see colour!” she’ll yell. / Yet her clothes match impeccably well, / She stops at red lights, / Culls her pinks from her whites, / But with humans? She just cannot tell.’
It’s hard to know who will find this funny. If you’re Black or female (or both), the injuries of whiteness and patriarchy rehearsed here will make you bitter and angry; if you’re white or male (or both), you’ll probably be too busy being embarrassed or defensive to chuckle – it’s accusatory enough not to quite make it subject matter. It’s lucky it isn’t a children’s book, since all Stay Woke, Kids! is likely to conjure in children of all ethnicities is bitterness, confusion, resentment, guilt and misery about either their doomed lot in life or their complicity in oppressing others.
But if it’s hard to accept that this is what being ‘woke’ leads to, Stay Woke, Kids! only doubles down on social questions so serious that solving them will require more than dividing people according to the intersections of their victimhood or privilege. What’s depressing is that, through Knox’s scathing caricatures of bad white ‘allies’, white people who claim they’re not racist, men who benefit from sexism and so on, all that emerges is a sense that the perpetrators and mechanisms of inequality are self-evident and beyond debate, and that everyone just needs to stick to the script; it’s a politics of mutual suspicion so personalised that the idea of coming together to work things out is nowhere to be seen. Stay woke? Time to get unstuck from it.
J. J. Charlesworth