As the years have gone by and media and technology have evolved, we have become more aware of the injustices happening around the world. In other words, we have become “woke”. Our awareness has made us realise the oppressive structures in our societies, and how we intentionally or unintentionally contribute to them. People have become more educated, and are trying to make media, workplaces and educational institutions more diverse. Now there is nothing wrong with “being woke”. The problem arises when we put on a superficial show of solidarity with the oppressed without actually taking any big steps for change or fighting against injustice.
Jenna M. Gray of The Harvard Crimson defined performative wokeness as “drowning your lecture comments with a host of social justice buzzwords — try favourites like intersectionality, marginalised, discourse, subjectivity, or any -ism — without regard to whether other people understand you.” It rose in popularity with the recent Black Lives Matter movement. Thousands of celebrities, influencers and brands used it as a publicity stunt and tried to gain a larger following by trying to appear more aware and pretending to care about the movement without taking any significant steps to fight against the injustice. Their activism started and ended with one black square posted on their Instagram accounts with the #blackouttuesday. The sad part is that this is not a new phenomenon, it has been happening for years.
Under modern-day capitalism, where everything is associated with profit earning, corporations have somehow managed to monetise activism and social issues. Take the example of fast fashion brands like ASOS and TopShop. All these brands have clothing lines which they claim are aimed to empower women. They sell merchandise having quotes like, “We should all be feminists” or “This is what a feminist looks like”. But it is surprising to know that these feminist shirts are created by women in third world countries, who are assaulted, made to work in terrible workplaces, and not even paid the minimum wage. So they don’t aim to empower all women, it is all just a ruse to appear woke to sell their clothing.
Even celebrities are guilty of doing so. I’m sure all of us have heard of the Harry Potter series written by J.K. Rowling. These books were a huge success and pretty much universally beloved. Even the movies were commercial successes. The last movie came out in 2011, after which everyone expected that the story was over, and all that had to be told was told. Yet, J.K. Rowling managed to destroy her legacy by making changes to the characters to try to appear more inclusive than she was. If all of the changes were present in the initial versions of the books, then it would have been clear that she intended for her narrative to be more diverse. Yet, her adding on details years after the publication of her books shows that her activism is purely performative. (not to mention that she’s extremely transphobic)
It is saddening that we have managed to turn such important social issues into marketing strategies. Performative wokeness harms everyone, and it is definitely something which shouldn’t be normalised.