Baton Rouge Protests the Death of George Floyd

A protester sits with a gallon of milk on Sunday, May 31, 2020 during the protest of the death of George Floyd at the State Capitol in Downtown Baton Rouge.

Are you woke enough?

Since the police shooting of Michael Brown in 2014, the term "woke" has been used to describe the act of being aware of racial and social justice issues in America today. We're told to always "stay woke." But is that really necessary? Should Black people constantly consume traumatizing media for the sake of being socially aware? I don't think so.

Deriving from the Black Lives Matter movement, being a part of "woke culture" means staying tuned into what's going on in the country and around the world. It has inspired many who otherwise might not have educated themselves on the issues that Black Americans face to do so and for that I am grateful.

But a fear of mine is that for many people — especially progressive white people — being "woke" is more like being a part of a social group rather than a part of a social movement.

People share Instagram posts about important issues and retweet videos of police brutality and suddenly they're self-proclaimed activists. Allyship should go beyond hashtags, but "woke culture" has enabled many to believe they are totally versed on the issues after a short scroll through social media.

I am not the first person to challenge "woke culture," and I will not be the last. It has been challenged by many people — including former President Barack Obama — for many different reasons.

My biggest problem with "woke culture" is the toll I see it taking on the Black community. As a Black woman, my very existence lives at the intersection of racism and sexism. I experience micro-aggressions every single day. I understand the importance of being informed on the issues, but for Black Americans, our entire lives are the issues. We are living in the issues.

For many people around the country, even Black people, police killings are things you hear about that happen in cities far away from your own. Alton Sterling was shot dead by a police officer right here in my hometown of Baton Rouge four years ago. I was only 16 at the time, but I helped three of my high school classmates plan a huge peaceful protest in downtown Baton Rouge.

Sterling's name reappeared in the media last month after the city of Baton Rouge decided against awarding his family a settlement. It was then that I saw a video of Alton Sterling being shot that I had not seen before. In this video, the officer who killed him told him repeatedly that he would shoot him in the head. Minutes later, the officer fulfilled that promise.

There I was, watching a Black man my father once bought a bootleg movie from being murdered in cold blood in front of a store I once frequented. It was after watching that video that I swore I would never watch another Black person being killed on social media. It made me sick to my stomach. I wonder how many other Black people have had the same feeling.

After George Floyd's death in May, we saw somewhat of a resurgence in the Black Lives Matter movement. People were, and still are, protesting all across the country, just as they did in 2014 after the death of Mike Brown.

But what was really interesting to me was the social media aspect.

Social media has been especially instrumental when it comes to modern day activism. It served as the catalyst for the Black Lives Matter movement. But when is social media harmful to the movement? 

In the wake of Floyd's death, #BlackLivesMatter was trending again and a virtual protest, "Blackout Tuesday," was created. Millions of everyday people, activists and even celebrities took to social media to post black squares with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. While the protest was created to spread awareness, it actually ended up drowning out a thread of important information and resources for protestors under the hashtag.

But why did people think that posting little black squares was activism in the first place? On my own timeline, I saw many of my peers scolding others for not posting enough about the issues. As a Black person in America, why should we have to witness and experience trauma every single day and then make sure we post about it all the time too?

I am all about Black Lives Matter. I use my social media as a platform for Black issues more than anything else. But as I get older, I realize why some of my Black peers might not feel comfortable doing so.

Black Lives Matter has been called the largest movement in U.S. history, and it is a movement I am proud to be a part of. It has influenced policy and continues to be instrumental in the fight for our rights. None of it would have been possible without social media — but I think we could be more genuine and careful about the conversations we have and things we post. 

We should continue to stay informed while being more genuine about the information we receive. Social media is a good tool, but research should go beyond the timeline.

White allies should continue to speak out on social media about social and racial injustice and shouldn't be alarmed if they don't see their black peers doing so. Black people should engage in conversations about racism, but also check in with their mental health, and take breaks from the topic as needed.

And, finally, it's really time for us to retire the word "woke" from our vocabularies. 

Olivia James is a 20-year-old mass communication junior from Baton Rouge.

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