By Nathan Reddy, Community Works Institute
I entered the teacher preparation program thinking that I was one of the few people on this earth who possessed a critical consciousness á la Paulo Freire, a leading advocate of critical teaching. This was a result of my work with Karen teenagers in Ithaca, NY, the Karen being an ethnic group persecuted in Burma, of which many resettled in the United States.
Over the course of two years, I worked with them in brainstorming, designing and finally painting a mural that represented their community. The lessons I learned from this grassroots work were invaluable. I will use an oft-quoted phrase to sum up what I took away from the experience: “nothing about us without us.” The teenagers were front and center in the project, and as an employee of the 4H Urban Outreach Program, my job was to be a facilitator.
As a result of the experience, I felt my purpose was to be an educator, and my conception of a good educator was one who conceived of themselves as a facilitator and builder of critical consciousness in oneself and one’s students. A mutual process.
What I gleaned from my work as a Public Service Center Scholar at Cornell is above, but unfortunately, these gleanings did not represent the overriding influence that affected my identity as a person engaged with social justice at the time: that spot was reserved for the ideology of wokeness.
I define wokeness as an ideology, complete with its own dialect spoken by the middle-to-upper class (you become the more fluent the higher you are/go) that allows one to position oneself as “oppressed.” Eternally oppressed. Whether that be by race, gender, or sexual orientation, or a combination of these, which we called “intersectional oppression,” in which one’s oppression is compounded by how many oppressed identities one has. I learned that as a gay man and as a South Asian American, I was exceptionally oppressed.
There is one aspect of oppression that is begrudgingly acknowledged, as opposed to emphatically asserted like the rest, and that is class. Why? Because as much as colleges have “diversified” over the past few decades, the most disregarded form of diversity is socioeconomic diversity. This is why few of the White students at prestigious colleges hail from Appalachia, and why prestigious colleges’ Asian American students are largely middle-to-upper class East and South Asians, leaving little room for low-income Southeast Asian Americans to access a higher education at prestigious colleges. Although, as I argue, prestige does not necessarily mean a better intrinsic education.
In terms of class, I am certainly privileged, like many young Asian Americans who are woke in the way I used to be. I grew up in a White neighborhood, and in our Indian community, the parents’ biggest fret wasn’t not knowing where the next meal was coming from, but whether their children will eventually be accepted to prestigious colleges. I was rejected from the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (which was, in hindsight, a blessing, since I would not have survived), but as a result of my middle-to-upper class status, I was able to become salutatorian at an ailing public high school.
Thus, I was accepted to Cornell and rejected from Brown, Duke, and Harvard. I managed to barely eke out a seat in the Ivy League, and that seat has led to the establishment of a racial consciousness that privileged, young Asian Americans become initiated into and ultimately revel in. I actually think the received wisdom to mutilate the model minority facilitates our descent into wokeness, in that we are so desperate to find meaning that we cling to the most popular option available while attempting to cleanse ourselves of all the whiteness we are perceived to have.
As I mentioned previously, wokeness has its own dialect spoken by the multiracial elite class, and it is used to lock out low-income people from all races from joining their ranks. It cements working-class people’s position in the working-class, performing the menial jobs that the children of elite will never do. It also denies working-class people from engaging the social injustice issues that most directly affect them, as that job is reserved for the army of “activists” graduating from prestigious colleges who are fluent in the dialect of wokeness.
There is a parallel that can be drawn between the way speaking African American Vernacular English (AAVE) locks African Americans out of a dominant culture grounded in Standard English, but the wokeness dialect has now become a sub-dialect of Standard English that is reserved for the most privileged. And young people who come from that class are one step away from literally taking classes to speak it.
Actually, we’re already there. Cornell, a university with a sizeable and privileged Asian American population has a class called Intergroup Dialogue Project. The class description says that “The Intergroup Dialogue Project (IDP) is… an opportunity for students to develop the skills of/for dialogue in complex and dynamic social and institutional contexts… IDP fosters a critical awareness of the ways in which sexism, heterosexism, religious intolerance and racism disable social justice and undermine deliberative democracy.”
Classism is noticeably missing. I’m sure it’s touched on in the course, but ultimately, deep class consciousness on the part of young privileged Asian Americans will disrupt the “project” of making them fluent in wokeness, ultimately discouraging them from obtaining those uber-prestigious, competitive jobs in the lucrative field of social justice. A field where their future clients, or subjects (objects) of their expertise, who live in the Third World or occupy the Third World parts of this country, are not even basically proficient in wokeness.
This “disables” their ability to advocate and fight for themselves and others like them, and reduces them to seeking the help of elites. The status quo is maintained, and “Nothing about us without us” be damned. A real critical consciousness of an elite entails sacrificing one’s class position, which people who speak wokeness would never do despite their commitment to “structural change.”
It has now come out that children who attend elite college prep programs are already being taught the dialect, all to prepare them for more advanced formal and informal classes once they attend the prestigious colleges they are bound to be accepted into. Think of prestigious colleges as a destination for complete immersion in the dialect, in the same way one can completely immerse themselves in Spanish by living in Mexico for an extended period of time. At this point in time, the sole purpose of prestigious colleges is to clandestinely maintain class structures. Not really learn anything. The Public Service Center Scholars Program is a diamond in the rough, but is it any wonder that the university consistently threatened to cut it every year due to “budget cuts?” The truth is, it was too politically volatile.
This is basically why the teenagers whose trust I eventually won were so suspicious of me, and the whole group of people that came to 4H through Cornell. They knew I was being groomed for one of those jobs, jobs that they couldn’t access in their wildest dreams. A Cornell acceptance was also out of the question, although it was down the street.
Working with them on the mural project was practice for that life, on my part and theirs. Luckily, I was able to form strong, horizontal relationships with them by appealing to our common humanity, but ultimately, the ideology of wokeness overpowered this crucial philosophy of engagement, and I carried it over to the teacher preparation program instead of service-learning principles.
Long story short, I became obsessed with the White students of the program being “racist” to me, even making the bold claim, in front of all them during class, that they all harbored implicit racial bias against me. The accusation was prompted by our assignment to take the implicit bias test.
My convoluted consciousness cared only for myself because I was so “oppressed” by everyone and everything. This was to the detriment of my work with the low-income Black students I saw everyday. I did not critically reflect on my work with them, because I was too busy worrying about the White students being racist to me, a claim that took a lot of mental gymnastics on my part, but one I genuinely believed.
I even accused the low-income Black students I was working with of being homophobic, and it became a whole thing. In sum, I was a mess and messed up everything in my path; I failed to internalize the lessons I learned in my work with the Karen teenagers. The woke consciousness overpowered it, but I am happy to say that I am now more conscious of what happened.
After I left that teacher preparation program two years ago, only three months into it, (you could say I spent the last two years recovering from wokeness and regaining the conviction that all genuine social change comes from the bottom up), I am now enrolling in another one that will grant me a license to teach in just a year. Suffice to say, I will be learning to teach. Not be woke. In fact, I hope I am never woke again.
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