Oxford’s obsession with public ‘wokeness’

Mera Razdan reveals the dangers of performative activism


Chances are, if you’re at Oxford, you have at some stage dealt in that most valuable of currencies: ‘wokeness’. When your university is constantly scrutinised for issues of access to BME or working class students, it often becomes a natural response from us, the young and revolutionary, to try transform the privilege of our education into a weapon with which to stick it to the man. These intentions are all very noble, but our obsession with constantly being socially aware, and more to the point, letting everyone know you’re socially aware, has turned activism into a performance more than anything else – ‘wokeness’ has become a commodity.

That’s not to say a sense of social justice is unnecessary – quite the contrary. In an environment as entrenched in colonial history as Oxford, where there is still a lingering association of privilege and exclusivity, individual social awareness is arguably an obligation. But it may be prudent to reevaluate what the motivation behind that social awareness, those activist impulses, actually is.

It doesn’t take a long or deep investigation to stumble upon examples of racism, homophobia, or classism at either institutional or localised levels in the University. Typically, these discoveries are met either with indifference or outrage, and those finding themselves indifferent are ultimately irrelevant to the question of any kind of activism, performative or otherwise.

It is that outrage that ought to be carefully unpicked – for some, this outrage emerges because they themselves have struggled against or find themselves affected by these instances of inequality or disparity. This is a straightforward, entirely justifiable outrage, the one that should be the major motivating factor behind anyone’s outcry.

The response to be wary of is the outrage – usually of those not directly affected by the issues at hand – fuelled by guilt, ego, or some cocktail of the two, an outrage that causes the bearer to look at injustice and disparity and see an opportunity: not to right wrongs or help others, but to play the hero, to demonstrate to the world how just and good you are.

I’m aware that sounds a somewhat harsh judgement. “After all,” you might ask, “isn’t it enough that these people are outraged at all? Shouldn’t you be glad they care enough to do something?” And to this I’d say: let go of the notion that doing ‘anything’ is helpful, that any and every little contribution (regardless of thought behind it) helps. It’s a social movement, and we need to hold ourselves to higher standard if we’re going to try to affect real change. When you’re dealing with an enemy as nebulous and pervasive as the issue of class, race, or otherwise identity-based inequality, you have to employ tactics, and think sensitively and critically about the effect you’re actually having.

The fact is, there are strategies people employ in their quest for ‘wokeness’ that are at best ineffectual, and at worst damaging to the causes they profess to help. Take call-out culture, for one. This is always a delicate one, because like many elements of performative activism, it probably started with good intentions. One of the primary rules of activism is never to remain passive or silent in the face of injustice – if you hear someone using an offensive slur, call them on it.

The problem with call-out culture arises when it descends from being educational into being pedantic, when its purpose shifts from correcting someone to humiliating them. It’s one thing to hear someone say something problematic and pull them aside during a quiet moment to explain to them the implication of their statement and why it ought not to be repeated. It’s quite another thing, however, to stop a group conversation and announce to someone how ignorant they are in front of the whole room.

Unfortunately, the latter seems to be infinitely more common. And the problem with this is that it is, above everything else, usually just unhelpful. It’s very easy, if you’re not directly affected by any of theisms, to forget that for better or for worse, the struggle to change societal norms is as much a political and tactical one as anything else. It may be arduous and unglamorous, but the reality is that for BME people or other minority groups, activism must often take the shape of working carefully to tackle far-spanning issues one facet at a time, incrementally and slowly.

As tempting as it may be, ‘dragging’ someone publicly isn’t going to make them magically more aware and sensitive, it’s not going to spark a sudden breakthrough wherein they suddenly begin to consider the overarching implications of the words they use as they connect to identity politics. More often than not, that kind of public calling out is just going to make them clam up and, to be honest, they’ll just think you’re a bit rude.

If we examine call-out culture further, I think it’s often true that people who jump to public call-outs are more often than not driven by their own desire to show the world how ‘woke’ and switched on they are. In being an activist, your main focus has to be the movement as a whole – you have to see the forest even if it means missing the trees.

Activism is a job, and sometimes it has to be a behind-the-scenes affair. You can’t (and often won’t) receive credit for the true and effective activism you take part in, but credit shouldn’t be your motivation in any case. If you can commit yourself to dedicated and thoughtful work helping to dismantle societally-ingrained structures of discrimination, then you’re exactly the kind of person the world needs.

If, however, your interest in activism revolves around the glory that comes from everyone around you knowing just how woke you are, then frankly you’re better off purchasing a ‘this is what a feminist looks like’ t-shirt and posting the selfies to your Tumblr followers while the hard work happens elsewhere.


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