Sandwiches Are not Woke
The Complexities of Complaint as a Profession
by Paulette Williams
‘The meeting was bad. We got a meatless lunch with these awful woke sandwiches.’
An innocuous conversation about corporate catering left me contemplating how to raise awareness amongst my colleagues of the alt-right’s influence on mainstream culture, whilst avoiding any direct accusations of racism. You are probably wondering how I got here.
There is always the fear of my complaints feeling excessive
When your job requires you to ‘make everything about race’ and the success of your career relies on an ability to apply a critical lens to the accepted norm, you begin to see racism in the most seemingly uneventful interactions. And whilst I may feel obligated to draw attention to my observations, there is always the fear of my complaints feeling excessive and therefore going unheard due to the nature of my work.
This was not the first time I had heard the term ‘woke’ being used as a slightly more annoyed synonym for ‘politically correct’. A very senior colleague had used it in a meeting I attended and I immediately felt unsettled. As I looked around the video squares on my laptop screen I saw the expressions of a Teams room of people who had no idea why anyone would be the least bit offended. Incidentally, I was in the meeting complaining in my professional capacity about a different issue and so I had to weigh up the consequence of shifting focus by balancing two complaints in one space. Alone. Taking up time in the meeting to explain in adequate detail this new issue I was raising. All this probably followed by dismissal or debate of my points but unlikely leading to an apology. I said nothing.
The African American term ‘woke’ is used more broadly by the Black community to urge an awakening to the insidious nature of racism. ‘Wokeness’ was the bedrock of 1950s and 1960s activism in the US and beyond, leading to the Civil Rights Movement and changes in legislation to counter racial discrimination – the legacy of which is still present today. It is then unsurprising that the backlash against the word gained momentum following the global #BlackLivesMatter protests of 2020. A lone complainer can be easily intimidated and suppressed, but a global movement is a more serious threat to power.
‘Woke’ is no longer limited to issues of race but is the accepted term
to ridicule and mute any discussion or effort towards a more
equitable and sustainable society
Complaining in the wake of the black squares on Instagram and company statements on anti-racism is a prickly subject. The post-BLM fatigue that many anticipated has apparently set in and the conversation has moved on. The freedom with which people of colour – particularly Black people – could initiate discussions on race in the spirit of educating and ‘bringing people along’ in 2020, has been replaced with a subtle sense of irritation, and relegated to the confines of non-mandatory training sessions.
The mocking of wokeness is not unfamiliar to the Black community. The term ‘stay woke’ has been the punchline of many comedy sketches and humorous conversations. However, woke and its use within the Black community, much like debates about who can say the ‘N’ word, is a conversation that can be easily trivialised by those outside in a bid to distract from the disrespect to Black culture and history. Furthermore, ‘woke’ is no longer limited to issues of race but is the accepted term to ridicule and mute any discussion or effort towards a more equitable and sustainable society. Whether to oppose the use of critical race theory in high school education in the US or torment Harry and Meghan in the press, ‘woke’ has been co-opted by those who understand the power and significance of language in the oppression and silencing of marginalised people.
When I heard the term being used to express disdain for hummus and falafel fillings, I did not remain silent. I chose to forego the mini lecture I had rehearsed in my head since attending the meeting months before, and instead offered a more concise response. One without accusation or anger. One in response to those globally who would prefer us to feel embarrassed about our literal fight for life. One that respectfully acknowledged the often underestimated bravery of complaint.
‘Sandwiches cannot be woke.’
Aja Romano: A History of “wokeness”, 2020.
PAULETTE WILLIAMS is a mum, social entrepreneur, and podcaster. She has worked in EDI related roles in higher education for 15 years and runs an initiative called Leading Routes, which aims to support Black students in higher education. She is passionate about creating spaces for Black people to find community and feel empowered to further their education.
Illustration: Rachel Foster