Ingeborg van Teeseling

About Ingeborg van Teeseling

After migrating from Holland fifteen years ago and being warned by the Immigration Department against doing her job as a journalist, Ingeborg van Teeseling became a historian instead. She endeavours to explain Australia to migrants new and old at her website, and runs, telling people's life stories.

We need to take ‘woke’ back from the judgemental

While the term ‘woke’ is heavily ingrained in the zeitgeist, I believe we’re getting the definition wrong.



In the late 1970s, when I was in my late teens, early twenties, I lived in a squat full of women. We were left-wing and very liberated, but the rules were strict. Sleeping with a man (or even liking one of them) was considered consorting with the enemy.

There were no doors on bedrooms, because privacy and borders and individual property was the height of capitalism. Instead, doors were used as tables, straight off their hinges, and after dinner, it was the done thing to clean your knife on the edges. Some of us, who were even more developed, then smeared the mashed potato or Nutella in the cracks of the timber. Dirty was cool and feminist, so nobody ever cleaned anything.

For years, we also slept with our clothes on, because at any time an alarm could sound that meant that another squat was under threat from police or vigilantes hired by a landlord. Then you had to be out of the door and ready to help within five minutes. If anybody didn’t conform to the unwritten decrees and imperatives, they became the subject of something called “consciousness-raising.”

It was a practice also used by Mao Zedong, who actively encouraged children to call out the ‘faults’ of their parents in public, after which they were executed.

I was thinking about that time in my life when I heard Barack Obama talk about the ‘woke’ phenomenon a few weeks ago. For those of us who need a very quick history lesson, ‘woke’ is, in essence, an African-American term, meaning ‘awareness of issues of social and racial justice’.

It was used for the first time in the last century, in blues songs and union campaigns, where it was also a call-out: wake up, stay vigilant, don’t fall asleep, see what is happening around you and do something.

In 2008, it was the fabulous Erykah Badu who revived the term, in her song Master Teacher. In 2012, Badu also started the hashtag #staywoke, to call for support for Russian action divas Pussy Riot. She wrote ‘Truth requires no belief. Stay woke. Watch closely’.

Not long afterwards, the appeal became the slogan of the Black Lives Matter campaign, who also used it as the name of their website. 

Since then the term has become a problem, even a battlefield on which clashes between white and black and between men and women take place. The main issue is appropriation. As Amanda Hess, ‘critic-at-large’ at the New York Times wrote a while ago: being white and woke is simply not possible.

It is lovely, she said, that white people take a stand, but often they use that to trumpet their ‘newfound self-awareness’. She thinks it is a look-at-me, that is almost always accompanied by the person ‘asking for some public recognition, a social affirmation of the work they have done on themselves’. Being woke and white is the 2020s ‘equivalent of going to cocktail parties with the Black Panthers’, a performance of being ‘down with it’, while at the same time taking over a movement, a cause, that really isn’t yours.

A few weeks ago, The Guardian columnist Jonno Revanche, as young and white as Ms. Hess, wrote a belated reply, focussing on the example of Jane Fonda. Fonda, of course, has been an activist since the early 1970s, when she became known as Hanoi Jane after being photographed sitting on a North Korean anti-aircraft gun, talking to her country’s enemies.

After the 1970s, Fonda has been supporting all manner of causes, by talking about them, funding them and spending time working for them. At the moment she is getting arrested at climate rallies almost every week (in Chanel-coats) but still, being cuffed and put in jail.

For that, she has been heavily criticised, because she is privileged, white and wealthy, and thus should shut up and not take the limelight. She has overstepped the woke-borders and has to be punished by the Twitter-paladins for that.


This is what I am woke to: we have problems and we need all the help and all the allies we can get. With and without appendages, in every shade available.


In his article, Revanche is advocating giving her a break: she is 81, courageous and at least she is doing something. But one of the comments under his piece called his whole argument a ‘mindless form of social debate. It turns the celebrity into the issue, thus sidelining the real issue’.

So, this is where we get back to Barack Obama.

And my misspent youth. Listen to what Obama said: ‘This idea of purity and you are never compromised and always politically woke and all that stuff: you should get over that quickly. The world is messy, there are ambiguities.

People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids and share certain things with you.

One danger I see among young people is that the idea is that…the way of me making change is to be as judgemental as possible about other people, and that is enough. If I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right, then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself. Because did you see how woke I was? But that is not activism.

That is not bringing about change. If all you’re doing is casting stones…that’s easy to do. Yes, I admit: I miss Obama. I miss what he represents too: a world in which there are more colours than black and white. Where thinking is more important than yelling. Where it is OK to admit that some men are nice and not every white person an asshole?

This is what I am woke to: we have problems and we need all the help and all the allies we can get. With and without appendages, in every shade available.

The price of rigidity and righteousness is too high. Ask the Chinese who suffered under Mao. Ask even poor sods like me, who were thrown out of their home because they didn’t adhere to the rules. Moderation is where it’s at.

What do we want? Gradual change. When do we want it? In due course.  






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