Updated: Jun 15, 2020
Chronic Wokeness: (n) 1. A permanent condition of epiphany. 2. A worldview which requires constant comparison of oneself to so-called “bad apples:” “At least I am not as bad as that guy.” 3. An unavoidable part of the human condition.
Everyone who grows up in the US today is told a feel-good story from a very young age. We learn this story from our parents, from our friends, from our televisions, from our history books, from our churches, and from our classrooms—it is unavoidable and everywhere, permeating the cultural atmosphere like so much smog.
The tale goes something like this: our country used to be a dreadful place—a place where state-sponsored genocide of indigenous peoples took place, where race-based slavery thrived for centuries, where Jim Crow and police brutality against people of color were normal and expected, where state laws allowed white people to kill black people with impunity, where women were not allowed to vote for hundreds of years, where the LGBTQ+ community was despised and abused, where robbers and barons built fortunes off of monopolizing vital services to the poor and middle class. We are told that this used to be a terrible country, long before we got here, but now things are different--that someone already fixed it.
We learn these histories from our role models, and we learn to repeat them to those around us, and to those younger than us. We are told, then we repeat, and the beat goes on: things used to be awful, but now they are much better. The work of moral progress is mostly done. Our world isn't perfect, but it's getting better every day.
The United States consumes this lie with the gluttony of willful ignorance, for it is a fabulous story to believe. The alternative is unthinkable to those of us who think we are woke.
What if we live in a country where...
...slavery still exists, and where racist discrimination is still openly practiced?
...women are still considered less valuable than men?
...the systemic oppression and genocide of indigenous people and cultures is ongoing?
...the richest continue to exploit the vulnerabilities of the poor and middle-class?
...hate crimes are perpetrated against members of the LGBTQ+ community on a daily basis?
...the mentally ill and desperately poor are criminalized and disenfranchised?
Oh shit--what if we live in a country built upon the backs of slaves whose descendants have still not been compensated hundreds of years later?
What if our government has spent the last century waging a war against drugs and those of us who use them, while repeatedly abandoning any wars on poverty?
The reason we are so resistant to our history is simple: its nasty, and we are too lazy to do the work of change. So we ignore the obvious. We minimize ongoing evidence of oppression and domination, choosing to focus on cherry-picked examples of cultural progress to appease our guilt. This cognitive dissonance, this state of anxious indecision about how to deal with our past—this unavoidable condition is the heart of chronic wokeness.
Each of us has privileged identities, and each of those identities bear the shame of knowing they are unearned and come at the expense of others.
White men cringe at the thought of being forced to discuss how so many of us have come to occupy positions of power throughout US history, and so we ignore, minimize and redirect.
Christians do not want to talk about the roots of heteronormativity, the history of colonization, the fuel for Islamophobia, or the Good Christian Men who spearheaded the KKK from pulpits across the South, and so they ignore, minimize and redirect.
Patriots are not prepared to deal with the legacy of Thomas Jefferson as a law-abiding rapist and a brutal slave master, and so we continue to tell the story in a way that ignores, minimizes and redirects. Chronic wokeness only flares up in defense of one’s privileged identities. It is seldom difficult for the oppressed to recognize the knee upon their necks.
There is a human tendency to minimize one’s culpability in the suffering of another. Throughout our lives we all find ourselves rationalizing our choices, defending our motives, and explaining our behavior when we hurt someone else. Despite the ongoing nature of oppression in the United States, and despite the ever-increasing visibility of that oppression in spaces where it used to be hidden from public oversight (police bodycams, witness cellphone video, surveillance cameras, etc.), much of the country has become more willing than ever to overlook the pain and suffering we encounter when we tune in or log on. The chronically woke want nothing more than to carry on without paying any attention to what is going on around the corner or across the country. The last thing we want to know is that our privilege comes at the expense of another’s oppression.
Sigmund Freud once said, “Life as we find it is too hard for us; it entails too much pain, too many disappointments, impossible tasks. We cannot do without palliative remedies . . . against the dreaded outer world one can defend oneself only by turning away in some other direction.”
Chronic wokeness is not a disease of ignorance; it is a disease of strategic forgetfulness. Audre Lorde describes it as historical amnesia: “We find ourselves having to repeat and relearn the same old lessons over and over that our mothers did because we do not pass on what we have learned, or because we are unable to listen.” The pain of confronting the sins of our past is too much, and so we minimize, we ignore, we redirect. An pandemic of chronic wokeness has been thriving for centuries in this country, where descendants of slave-owners often continue to reap the benefits of intergenerational wealth passed down to them from the plantation, while many black men work in prison labor camps on the same land where their descendants were enslaved.
Examples of ongoing oppression are everywhere and unavoidable. The 13th Amendment is short and sweet in its insistence that slavery should exist as punishment for a crime, and as soon as one enters any prison (or jail) in the US, slavery is immediately visible.
Inmates clean the floors, do the laundry, cook the food, paint the walls and scrub the toilets--always underpaid, sometimes paid nothing at all. It is no secret that the majority of the world’s wealth is in the control of a small group of people who use it to ensure that their positions atop the capitalist hierarchy remain intact in perpetuity. It is no secret that, on average, women make just 4/5 the salary of men in the United States, and even less if they are women of color. It is no secret that government and private business continue to be spaces dominated by white, Christian men, from Presidents to Congress to boardrooms to news anchors.
We have spent centuries cultivating a picture-board of Presidents who are all men, (and all white, save one) and acting as if this were simply the result of some natural process. We all know better.
We know because all of these things are still happening right in front of us today. The reason we don’t get involved has to do with our desire, human and inescapable, to feel like we are good people who are doing the right thing. Living in a white supremacist society such as the United States requires one to deal with the legacy of a country built squarely upon institutions of domination and oppression. We cannot escape these legacies—they confront us at every turn. Statues of (mostly white, Christian, able-bodied) men, often in combat against cultural and racial Others, dominate our public spaces.
Men continue to dominate government positions, while less than 25% of Congress members are currently women. One-in-three black men in the United States will spend time in prison during their lifetimes, compared to just one in 14 white men. Weekly we continue to witness the slow leak of videos showing different police officers in different communities shooting different black men in different situations, all of them avoidable and infuriating. Violence against trans bodies (and other members of the LGBTQ+ community) is on the rise, supported by political demagogues who have managed to perfect the language of queer-phobic dog whistling.
The chants of “Send her back! Send her back!” echo surreal from Trump rallies in 2019, aimed at one of the few women of color (and even fewer practitioners of Islam) currently serving on the Senate, Ilham Omar.
It is all too much to take.
There are only two choices, each with costs and rewards.
Option 1 is exhausting and guaranteed to lead to massive unfriending: you can accept the truth. But if you accept it, than you have to either do something about it, or embrace it and become a white supremacist. Both white supremacists and outspoken critics of them are disciplined into silence in the United States.
The white supremacist is hushed into silence, forced to save their messages of hate for the safe spaces of whiteness lest they be labeled a bigot, a phobic or a social deviant. On the flip side, those of us who speak up know just how taxing it becomes when friends and family members begin burning bridges. When a loved one angrily spits, “ALL lives matter,” and your response, no matter how gentle, is received as an unholy insult, the temptation is to shut up and not push back the next time.
Option 2 is much easier to stomach—follow Freud and turn away.
The story of the United States is disappointing, revolting, cringe-worth; better to focus on the good things we have done. Think of all the aid we give to the rest of the world (but ignore the strings we attach). Focus on the times you have managed to overcome your internalized racism or sexism, and ignore the thousands of situations in which it got the best of you.
Chronic wokeness allows us to look to some small area of progress in social justice, and point to it as having solved the problem of systemic oppression. When white supremacy comes up, mention Barack Obama and then slam the book—see, racism is fixed and we need not talk about this anymore. When police brutality comes up, mention one of the few police officers who have been held accountable and then slam the book—see, police brutality and white supremacy are fixed. We don’t need to talk about this anymore. When grandma drops a racial slur at the holiday dinner table, look to the others who silently roll their eyes, and slam the book—of course there will always be a few racist people, but thankfully she doesn’t speak for all of us anymore.
When you see individual cops blamed for social unrest, remember that chronic wokeness cannot survive without the illusion of bad apples. When I compare myself to slave owners of past, I come out smelling like roses no matter how awfully I behave. The US system of government and commerce is built and maintained in such a way as to ensure the existence of so-called bad apples, for without them the rest of us would have to look in the mirror and begin the long-overdue work of self-reflection. If not for grandma’s bad language and the President's racist rants, we might have to compare ourselves to good apples, and what sort of comparison is that? There would be much work to do. There would be amends to make. There would be life-altering consequences to such an epiphany. No thanks. Instead, we turn away.
In The Emperor’s New Clothes, we find a parable for understanding chronic wokeness. The Emperor receives a tailored suit from a pair of hucksters who have informed him that the cloth is invisible to anyone who is not smart enough to see it, or anyone who is not fit for their official position.
The Emperor finds himself in an awkward spot, as do those around him, for of course they cannot see the cloth that does not exist. Yet each of them, in turn, pretends to see something that is not real, fearing that perhaps they are the only one unable to make sense of the situation. The kerfuffle ends in a public parade headed by a naked Emperor, and groupthink rules the day as the crowd cheers for a suit they do not see--they ignore what is going on right in front of them in favor of what they prefer to see.
The illusion is cemented once the powerful concur; the city follows suite and plays along—If everyone says it is true, it must be true. As parables go, the story resonates with modern white supremacy, for the mass-delusion is only slightly undone when a single child dares call out the truth—"the Emperor is naked!” From the lips of babes.
But even then, those in power refuse to change their performance. They know all along that the show is a farce, but the system incentivizes them to continue playing along, for they benefit from the charade. So long as they all keep acting like things are normal and natural, the parade can continue uninterrupted. We all know that our privilege comes at the expense of others, but that admission feels nasty and uncomfortable; better to focus on how hard you worked for what you have achieved—how dare you say I benefited from my gender, my religion, or my race.
Privilege benefits lots of people in the United States. While rich, able-bodied, educated, cisgender, heterosexual, white, Christian men may find themselves most often the beneficiaries of privilege, all of these identities (and more) will find themselves awarded for their participation in the continued charade.
For many of us who grew up in this system while being trained to ignore its existence, it is terrifying to even consider saying, out loud, that the Emperor is naked--that the problem is not yet fixed--because saying it out loud requires an epiphany we are not prepared to experience.
The moment we admit the Emperor is naked—that our culture has provided us privileges we did not earn—we must break ranks, for we are no longer participating in the illusion. In our willingness to speak the truth—The Emperor is naked!—we surrender our access to power, we lose our network of social support and friendship, and we risk our previous positions in family structures and social groups. The parade continues nonetheless, always inviting us back into the ranks of privilege, always offering us our old positions in the float, so long as we are willing to silently reenter the charade and legitimate the system. Turning away is the ever-present option, tempting even the staunchest social justice warriors to tap out and revel in the cozy embrace of our privileged identities.
Ignorance is bliss, even if it is fabricated. As Tupac Shakur said, “If I didn’t talk about the violence, everybody would act like the violence isn’t there.” Silence is collusion. Ignorance is bliss. One’s privilege comes only and always at the expense of an Other.
When I cut in line, those behind me wait. When I speak before a crowd, others must remain silent. When I get a special parking spot or a honorable award, others are denied. We all know this; it is a large part of what holds the fragile social fabric of society in place. But in the case of chronic wokeness, empathy is suspended, and problems outside of our immediate circle are minimized or ignored.
It is not normal to look the other way as people nearby suffer, especially when we find that we are, in some way, responsible for their pain. It is only through early and constant indoctrination that we continue to reproduce and normalize a culture of willful ignorance regarding our relationships to privilege and oppression. It is only through training ourselves (and our children) to think in a manner that silently recognizes our own privilege while refusing to acknowledge its connection to another’s oppression that we naturalize such behavior. The training begins early.
Consider religious ideologies that encourage practitioners to embrace a personal relationship with an omnipotent God. Many Western denominations of Christianity allow (encourage) saints to believe that their God works miracles for those who serve him—cures from disease, barely-avoided accidents, protection from bad luck, help in times of need—while also avoiding consideration of those who are not selected for magic treatments because they do not belong to the club (or for other unknown and unknowable reasons).
For many of us the lessons were early and often. We learned to say, proudly and uncritically, that God had protected us from the calamity of a car accident, while ignoring the numerous car accidents that happened nearby that day--I guess those folks just weren't on God's good-person list. But if you cut in line, others must wait, and the authority that allowed you to cut is also the authority that made the others wait. If you get special protection from a car accident, and other do not, the authority that allows you to avoid the fate of your neighbors is responsible for both your protection and their lack thereof. It is unnatural to ignore this connection, yet there seems to be a deliberate disregarding of the fact that one’s unearned protection comes at the expense of another, who was not protected. A worldview that promotes such selfishness as holy prepares practitioners early in life to ignore the ways in which their win comes at the cost of someone else’s loss.
From a young age US children learn to follow the religious claims of their parental figures, and to accept that a magician in the sky intercedes in our lives—saving us, helping us, advising us—all while ignoring those around us as they fall into disease or calamity. We are taught to pray for things that are important to us, and to offer up thanks to God when our wishes are granted, all while ignoring (willfully) the unanswered pleas of those nearby, who are just as desperate for their prayers to be answered.
We are taught to thank God for healing our stomach aches and for protecting Aunt Jennie on her trip, and we are taught to leave God out of the conversation about Aunt Jennie’s untimely death from stomach cancer. We are taught to pray for unearned privilege, and to offer up sacrifices of gratitude (and coin) when our begging pays off—we are taught to normalize systems of privilege and oppression.
This is graduate-level cognitive dissonance, and we teach it to our children before they are old enough to read. It is no wonder that by the time US citizens reach adulthood we are trained in the skills of chronic wokeness. For religious folks, it is often the matrix of our earliest memories. We learn how to thank an unseen Emperor for giving us special, unearned privileges, and anyone who challenges this worldview (where unearned privilege is a natural, prideworthy thing) is considered immoral and ungodly for pointing out our selfishness. Since the Emperor is in charge, none of us need ever concern ourselves with the suffering we encounter in the world, for our meager, natural abilities are worthless compared to the Emperor’s supernatural power to grant us unearned privileges at his discretion. Who can fathom the mysteries of God's plan?
It's not just religion. The history books used in public schools failed to informed us about racial imperialism. Instead we were given romantic notions of the “new world,” the “American dream,” the United States as the great melting pot where all races come together as one. We are taught that Columbus discovered the new world; that “Indians” were scalp-hunters, killers of innocent women and children; that black people were enslaved because of the biblical curse of Ham, that God “himself” has decreed that they would be hewers of wood, tillers of the field, and bringers of water.
No one talked of Africa as the cradle of civilization, of the African and Asian people who came to the Americas before Columbus. No one mentioned mass murders of Indigenous people as genocide, or the rape of Native American and African women as terrorism. No one discussed slavery as a foundation for the growth of capitalism. No one described the forced breeding of white wives to increase white population as sexist oppression.
The ice cream truck passes for the third time, and my brain unconsciously begins to sing along with the wordless jingle: “do your ears hang low, do they wobble to and fro…”. If you have spent much time in the US, you probably know the rest.
My conscience screams, for the third time today, “Shut up! Stop singing that damn song!” But it does not matter; I learned it at a young age, way before I knew it was a racist diatribe. I did not know then that the song selected for use on ice cream trucks nationwide in the 1920s, then doubled-down on for the next hundred years, was a jingle for the minstrel character “Zip Coon.” I did not know that another version is so racist that even its name is offensive, or that this version also talks about watermelon as ice cream for black folks (the roots of racism and classism run deep).
The history of this song was likely the reason ice cream producers selected it, and in any case these lyrics were not a deal breaker. Now, a century later, whether I want it or not, this song is a part of my identity. From the roots grow the tree.
In the United States, our hatred for and fear of our neighbors runs so deep that it is built into our cultural traditions, our thought patterns, and even our language. When white supremacy works uninterrupted, the connections between oppression and the practices which sustain it become invisible and appear natural. The ice cream truck (song) sheds its historical legacy of oppression if we all play along with the charade long enough (a century or so ought to do it). We are left with a song that most don’t even know has roots in white supremacy. Silence is complicity; language is power.
Consider the cakewalk, or relatedly, the statement that completing a simple task is a metaphoric “piece of cake.” This figure of speech has persisted for more than a century, and it continues to appear in popular media, yet much like the ice cream truck song, it has lost its origin story. It persists nonetheless because it rolls off the tongue, or because it brings to mind a treat that so many of us enjoy (cake), or perhaps because it is rooted in our favorite pastime, white supremacy.
The cake walk has a long history, most notably its legacy as an early predecessor to racist minstrel shows. But before that, the cakewalk was a dance that evolved in black cultural settings during slavery: it was, simply put, the dance of black folks. When we say, “that was a piece of cake,” what we mean, metaphorically, is, “that was so easy that a black person could do it.” Yet the disconnection of the words from their historical legacy has allowed them to persist and codify as staple of the country's lexicon. the United State's cultural landscape is riddled with the similar minefields of past atrocities, but the warning signs have been removed and the history books updated to hide the path of origin. Piece of cake is just something we say. The ice cream truck jingle is just a wordless earworm. The erasure of genealogies sustains the illusion of progress; it is easier to update the history books and fix a problem in the past than it is to fix it right now.
Time and again, white citizens have faced a choice: root out a manifestation of white supremacy, or double down and conceal. Time and again white citizens have refused to make the difficult choice. Children still learn nursery rhymes that were once used to inculcate white supremacy in babies; “Eeny Meeny Miny Mo” was not always a song about tigers. The National Anthem has a line that rings, “No refuge could save the hireling and slave from the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,” revealing Key’s disgust for slaves who joined England during the Revolutionary War in exchange for their freedom. Instead of consigning these legacies of white supremacy to the trash heap of shameful history, the US has strategically elevated the status of white supremacist hymns, confederate statues and racist anthems. Chronic wokeness flares up in the updated narratives of our past, in the elements we focus on and those we ignore.
The war on drugs is yet another heart-breaking example of chronic wokeness at work. For more than a century we have responded to fears about drug use with 3 strategies: restrict supply, incarcerate dealers and users, and give local police departments incentives to wage the war against local citizens. Time and again these strategies have yielded reliable results: police departments expand and drug users die. Every time overdose or disease rates spike, politicians respond exactly as they have in the past, then act surprised when they get the same results. After a century of waging this war in a reliably asinine fashion, the United States has managed to increase its overdose deaths to nearly 200-per-day, and its arrest rate for drug abuse violations to one every 20-seconds.
Chronic wokeness is a progressive disease, and it often drives us to unthinkable places where we continue to try the same solutions as they continue to make the problem worse. It thrives on our unwillingness to do the work that has been piling up for centuries—work our parents and grandparents decided to put off indefinitely. The perfect conditions for the Emperor’s parade exist in a country that trains its children early and often to acknowledge their privilege while ignoring the fact that it always comes at the expense of another’s oppression. We assist one another in constructing and reinforcing a delusional world in which no scales are ever tipped in anyone’s favor, while those in power continue to be disproportionately white, straight, cisgender, Christian, able-bodied, neural-typical and/or wealthy men with our fingers on the scale.
The path forward begins with admitting the problem exists, and here we have sat for centuries, pondering whether and when to finally admit we have a problem with race/gender/sex/sexuality/class/religion. The world does not end when the crowd joins hands and chants, “The Emperor is naked!” My jobs and titles did not evaporate when, as a white man, I began to recognize the systemic nature of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, and to speak that truth to power [bell hooks]. It turns out the biggest lie I had been told was that this work would be excruciating and overwhelming—that the world would fall in upon me if I dared to ask why so much power remains so firmly clenched in white men’s fists. On the contrary, when the parade’s headliner is wearing pants, the histories no longer need to be doctored before distribution, and we can discard the cultural habit of appeasing our guilt by ignoring obvious examples of oppression.
Citations Below  Malcolm X, “Oxford Union Debate,” December 3, 1964, Oxford University, UK.  Richard Clemmer-Smith, George Tinker, Alan Gilbert, Nancy Wadsworth, et. al., “University of Denver John Evans Study Report,” (November, 2014).
 Ronald Takaki, A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1993), 67-70.  Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents (Blacksburg, VA: Wilder Publications, 2010), 14-16.  Audre Lorde, “Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference,” in Race, Class and Gender in the United States: Ninth Edition, ed. Paula S. Rothensberg and Kelly S. Mayhew, (New York: Worth Publishers, 2014): 652.  Jeffrey Goldberg, Sam Price-Waldman, and Kasia Ceiplak-Mayr von Baldegg, Angola for Life: Rehabilitation & Reform Inside the Louisiana State Penitentiary, produced by The Atlantic, (September 9, 2015). See also, Whitney Benn, “American Slavery, Reinvented,” The Atlantic, September 21, 2015.  Wendy Sawyer, “How Much Do Incarcerated People Earn in Each State?” published by The Prison Policy Initiative, (April 10, 2017), https://www.prisonpolicy.org/blog/2017/04/10/wages/  Ariane Hegewisch and Heidi Hartmann, “The Gender Wage Gap: 2018 Earnings Differences by Race and Ethnicity,” Institute for Women’s Policy Research, (March 7, 2019). https://iwpr.org/publications/gender-wage-gap-2018/  Stacy Jones, “White Men Account for 72% of Corporate Leadership at 16 of the Fortune 500 Companies,” Fortune, June 9, 2017.  Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2012).  “White supremacist capitalist patriarchy” from bell hooks, Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2000.  One more time—America was built (a long time ago) upon the backs of slave laborers who were dehumanized based on their skin color. The police did not exist until slave owners realized they needed armed Rovers protected by the law to patrol their plantations and shoot any black people who were out of place or acting inappropriately. The state’s power has always and only been used to sick police officers on black people, never the other way around. “Black Lives Matter” because in America, culturally, they often have not. “Blue Lives Matter” is nonsense. We hired armed and trained heroes to patrol our neighborhoods in cars purchased by us, and to arrest and imprison criminals in jails paid for by us. Of course Blue Lives Matter—how could they not? We can prove that we mean it by holding them accountable, by insisting they conform to the highest standards of conduct, and by firing and prosecuting them when they break the law.  bell hooks, Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2000.  Tupac Shakur, Surviving from Thug Brothers 3 (music album), with Krayzie Bone and Young Noble. Los Angeles, CA: Real Talk Entertainment, 2017.
 bell hooks, ain’t I a woman? (New York: Routledge, 1981/2015), 163-164.
 Theodore R. Johnson, III, “Recall that Ice cream Truck Song? We have Unpleasant News for You,” NPR, May 11, 2014.  James Paul Gee, An introduction to discourse analysis: Theory and method (New York: Routledge Press, 2014 ), 2.  Megan Pugh, America Dancing: From the Cakewalk to the Moon-Walk (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015). See also, Regan Shrumm, “Who Takes the Cake? The History of the Cakewalk,” National Museum of American History, May 18, 2016.  Rachel Martin, “Eeny Meeny Miny Mo, A Chant that Spans the Globe,” (podcast) April 26, 2015.  Jason Johnson, “Star-Spangled Bigotry: The Hidden Racist History of the National Anthem,” The Root, July 4, 2016.
 For strategies in the War on Drugs, see Carl Hart, High Price: A Neuroscientists Journey of Self-Discovery that Challenges Everything you Know About Drugs and Society (New York: Harper/Perennial Press, 2013). See also Benjamin Boyce, Discourses of Deception: (Re)Examining America’s War on Drugs, dissertation, (Denver, Colorado: University of Denver, 2018).  National Center for Health Statistics, “CDC’s Response to the Opioid Epidemic: A Public Health Crisis,” (January 11, 2019). https://www.cdc.gov/opioids/strategy.html see also Federal Bureau of Prisons, “Monthly Offenses,” updated July 29, 2017. https://www.bop.gov/about/statistics/statistics_inmate_offenses.jsp
George Wallace Dog Whistles linked here
John Ehrlichman's interview about Nixon's racist dog whistle updates