Understanding the ‘Woke’ Movement Is Understanding Exclusion

There’s a perception among many Venezuelans that those of us living in the United States are facing a remake of the crisis that forced us out of the country. This adds to the conflicting views, at home and abroad, of a country that has become a key player in the Venezuelan crisis

Photo: Sofía Jaimes Barreto

The social unrest in 2020 turned the racial divide confronting American society into an opportunity to demonize minority groups. The increase in gun sales during the pandemic was fueled by a campaign based on stoking the fear of violent Black Lives Matter protests. Not without dismay, we found Venezuelan ex-pats piling on BLM, accusing them of being part of the Latin American socialist agenda

A straightforward argument would be to concede that we, Venezuelans, can be racist. Another more nuanced approach would consider a combination of prejudice and unawareness of the country’s historical context. I’ve found this to be the case with the debate on cancel culture, wokeness, and critical race theory, which has renewed the talk among Venezuelans about the United States being on the brink of becoming a new Venezuela.

Seeing in Colors

As I’ve argued before, Latinos, in general, and Venezuelans, in particular, have remained absent from the debate of race as a cultural marker. In a context of predominantly mixed societies with a significant European presence, it’s frequently ignored, or in most cases, treated as class conflict. 

I’ve been listening to Venezuelans complain about the obsession this country has with race, followed by the usual disclaimer: “But, I’m not racist.” There’s no discussion that this country has a complicated relationship with race. Now, if you are going to join the fray, better be equipped. The cultural challenges of learning a new language and adapting to an institutional framework where race is relevant to become burdensome for those unclear about their own racial identity.

This past year has been excruciating for all of us. It’s brought more challenges to an already unstable field for those of us in academia. Our students have had to adapt to a very different learning environment with limited support. In addition to the isolation, the social unrest across the country was especially felt among the minorities in our student body. On more than one occasion, I had to reach out to students feeling the anguish through the protest wave.

When Venezuelans argue that the United States is under threat by the “woke left,” there seems to be a lack of background.

The notion of “cancel culture,” appropriated by right-wing media in the United States, has become an expression used to denigrate those fighting for social justice. It’s also been adopted by people who have little understanding of the cultural circumstances of its original use. People talking about the American cancel culture debate and its racial reckoning without acknowledging their own racial little secret is certainly something to behold.

The fact that these expressions were initially a product of Black culture, and are being weaponized by the American right, should be enough to understand that this discussion needs context to be fully addressed. Initiating a contentious public debate, the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, published in 2019, challenged the historical vision of a nation founded on the principles that all men were created equal. The immediate backlash presented it as a misconstruction of the founding of the United States, with former President Trump accusing the New York Times of partaking in cancel culture while promoting his own version, as he downplayed the core argument of the role of race.

This is the most ignored piece of the context, as a critical part of the current public debate in the United States. The political system of this country was built on exclusion. Regardless of the conception of American democracy as a beacon, it shouldn’t be a contradiction to recognize that its origins are those of a system of beliefs that, in effect, didn’t consider all people equal. This is an indisputable fact, and the discussion started by the 1619 Project was precisely in that direction. 

Weaponizing ‘Woke’

There shouldn’t be a disagreement in recognizing the nature of the American experiment. However, in these first months of the new administration, we’ve seen that this is just the beginning. The use of cancel culture has evolved from a resource to hold the powerful accountable to a weapon used against those that don’t fit our worldview. The term woke had been initially applied to describe a conscious understanding of the challenges Black Americans face. These terms have been misused and weaponized against the very people that coined them to claim their space.

The most recent addition to the ongoing cultural debate is the opportunistic use by the American right of Critical Race Theory, a legal studies approach that analyzes the influence of systemic and institutional racism as a bogeyman. The accusation that CRT is an indoctrination tool for racism has allowed almost half of the states to pass bills banning teaching content addressing racism, erroneously calling it CRT. This is an attempt to limit or deter the advance of equity-minded, inclusive, and diversity-based practices in education that would be less controversial.

Florida is one of the states that has followed this policy. The governor signed a bill that orders an annual evaluation of intellectual freedom and beliefs diversity, suggesting it could be tied to funding. This is what prompted people to say it was precisely what happened in Venezuela. I tried unsuccessfully to explain that this isn’t the same case.

This whole CRT outrage is just another opening the American right has found to not only cater to its base but to hit the brakes on social justice advances. This is a democracy that has slowly moved to become equal due to the struggle of the civil rights movement. Unfortunately, with every passage, a backlash has followed. These past five years have been dominated by the fear of a white majority’s social and cultural anxiety, specifically the nationalist and religious, facing the looming demographic shift.

The debate on CRT and cancel culture is a diversion from the fundamental problems of American democracy.

Instead of addressing the flaws of a system that continues to allow a zip code to determine the quality and define a child’s future, that establishes the criteria for access to housing based on inequalities; that preserves a system of justice, policing, and incarceration that predominantly affects racial minorities, there are continued efforts to hinder the possibilities of becoming a more equal society.

No, this isn’t a remake of what we lived in Venezuela. It’s a crisis rooted in the foundation of this specific country, the United States. Hopefully, just like it has overcome other challenges, it will grow strong to become a more inclusive democracy.