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The term “woke” gained traction after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 where activists used the phrase “stay woke” to remind each other to keep watch for police brutality and unjust police tactics.  In the six years that followed, the term “woke” evolved to being aware systems of inequity that exist in America.  When you look up “wokeness” (now officially a word in the Cambridge Dictionary), the definition is “a state of being aware, especially of social problems such as racism and inequality”.

Being “woke” should be a good thing, but in the last few years, it’s been co-opted and re-positioned as something bad. This word seems to have triggered the wrath of politicians as many now use it to lambast efforts towards civil rights or social justice. More recently, Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis has waged a war on “wokeness.” He continues to “fight the woke in the legislature. We fight the woke in schools.  We fight the woke in the corporations.  We will never, ever surrender to the woke Mob. Florida is where woke goes to die…” DeSantis then put his words into action, authoring the Stop Woke Act to keep businesses and schools from discussing topics that would make anyone feel guilty. Schools and businesses are still trying to understand the Act and its implications.

Rhetoric like this shows why it’s so crucial that companies ensure their leaders are invested in and championing DEI work in their organizations alongside their DEI practitioners.  The DEI practitioner should not solely be tasked with running DEI programs while defending the companies’ DEI goals and priorities from those who seek to undermine them.

How to Respond

With this term gaining even more momentum among those who desire to derail DEI work, now is an excellent time to consider how to respond if you or your company are called “woke.” Here are three things to consider:

  1. Turn away the business.  If someone doesn’t like the idea of you or the company discussing or making progress in diversity, equity, and inclusion, rethink whether they align with your goals and values. Will that difference affect your business relationship with them? How will future business communication go if you can’t talk about your DEI goals and programs without getting a rise out of them? Being true to what you care about may mean shutting the doors on some opportunities, including customers, partners, investors, or jobs. Still, it opens the door to the most authentic and transparent version of yourself or your company.
  2. Use logic. If the comment is directed at you, use reason to explain that personal views don’t impact the work quality.  If the comment is directed at your company, explain why your DEI priorities are good for business, therefore, positive for the business relationship. If you think you can change the other party’s mind, provide the numbers to show the business case for your DEI work. Explain the positive impact it has had on your business and your workforce.  Talk about the good it has done in the community and its benefits to your corporate brand. But be careful – not everyone cares to have an open discussion about this matter.
  3. Remain unbothered.  Insist that it’s not an insult because you are proud of the people and causes you support. I especially like this response because it requires you to double down on your commitment without allowing those occupied with co-opting this term to derail your work. You may even reclaim the word “woke” since it started with good intentions and in marginalized communities.

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The Editor

Ngozi Okeh is an experienced leader with a history of driving efforts to conceptualize, define, assess and promote diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) as strategic business processes. Ngozi is currently the Director of DEI at a leading marketing technology company where she develops and executes enterprise-wide DEI initiatives through rigorous strategic planning efforts, community partnerships, leadership collaboration, strategy evaluation, and careful management of communication and buy-in as well as policies and procedures.  Previously, she worked at an independent mortgage bank, where… View Profile