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Rude Awakening: What if Martin Luther King Jr. Woke Up in 2023?

A bust of Martin Luther King Jr.
A bust of Martin Luther King Jr.

On August 28th, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr delivered his now-famous ‘I have a Dream’ speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. A quarter million people had gathered in the American capital to hear him, and as always, the Reverend spoke with eloquence: he stirred emotions, ignited the flames of belief and encouraged a people to keep the hope for change alive. The speech was a watershed moment; it would be spoken of, quoted, and taught for decades to come not only in the United States but all over the world. Sixty years later, though, as diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) are front and centre in the cultural conversation, it may be tempting to assume that King would feel joy and delight at how far we’ve come. But not so fast—that assumption would prove naive at best. If we unpack the nuances of DEI and what it has become, we’re forced to come to the unfortunate conclusion that King, if he were to wake up in 2023, would be in for a rude awakening—that is, in the name of racial justice, we’ve returned to a segregation of sorts.

Inclusivity, indeed, is the trend of the times—the zeitgeist, so to say, the adult equivalent of the cool kids’ table at the cafeteria. We give it a great deal, if not too much, prominence in our cultural discourse. But we know, as our high school days teach us, that the cool kids aren’t popular because of objective merits; popularity works in very strange ways, especially in the minds of the young. Worse still, when the cool kids gang together and succumb to groupthink, which they almost always do, the bullying is relentless, and someone must stand on the receiving end of the vicious attacks. John McWhorter, a vocal critic of simplistic DEI policies, describes in his book ‘Woke Racism three waves of anti-racist activism. Granted, he speaks primarily to the black experience in America, but his point is transferable. The first wave of anti-racist activists, he argues, battled slavery and legalized segregation. The second wave, through the 70s and 80s, battled racist attitudes and demonstrated the moral flaw in racism. The third wave, he posits, became mainstream in the 2010s and teaches that because racism is baked into the structure of society, everyone who fails to denounce it is complicit by living within it. A central feature of this anti-racist activism wave, according to McWhorter, is that for marginalized groups, racism forms the totality of their lived experience. Focused on hyper-inclusivity of all marginalized people, the third wave of anti-racist activism considers everyone who disagrees to be either acting from privilege or ignorance. McWhorter refers to this new wave of activism as almost religious in their zeal and fervour.

For some, diversity is all about identifying the structural forces that have marginalized people. For others, it serves as a means of seeking retributive justice—to assign blame, create shame, and elevate the voices of those previously marginalized regardless of their perspective or position. The latter is commonly debated in popular media and everyday interactions. At times, we call it “virtue signalling”; at others, we refer to it as being “woke.” The reality is, regardless of what we choose to call it, this is a deeply divisive phenomenon, and as we look back at the dark history that made DEI necessary in the first place, it’s impossible to stay blind to the fact that retributive justice has a fundamentally othering influence. What’s more, it redraws the old, dividing lines between racial groups that we seek to do without. Inequities cause harm and hurt, and the wounds run deep to this day, but we must ask ourselves, do two wrongs really make a right? This, I think, is the question we must face, because what we’ve come to call inclusivity does not look inclusive at all and raises many questions.

Why does there appear, for instance, and despite all attempts at inclusivity-based reforms, to be a widening chasm between white people and BIPOC (black, indigenous and people of colour) folk? The common and simplistic explanation we hear is that white people are merely resisting the demand to surrender power and privilege, and the discomfort they experience is an inevitable by-product of being called out. But not all white people are considered equal. Membership to the group deemed white has varied with time. Italian, Irish, Scottish and Eastern European people did not neatly fit into the dominant group of ‘white’ at various stages of history.

Moreover, why does inclusivity, for its all good intentions, create such deep fracture lines within the group it seeks to elevate? Many, after all, are the BIPOC critics who refute simplistic DEI practices, retributive justice, and the politics of division. But in this case, the answer is made obvious by asking another question: Why are some families—people who, remember, are genetically related—torn by political and religious disagreements? Perhaps, just perhaps, race and ethnicity alone don’t define a person—just as race and ethnicity does not create monolithic groups that think, feel and opine the same way. And perhaps, just perhaps, we need to accept the broad nature of diversity: that it encompasses not only race, gender and sexuality, but also politics, thoughts, and opinions. We don’t need to travel very far to see that liberals and conservatives populate every demographic, that oppression can strike any group.. Limiting diversity to race, gender and sexuality only means the end of individual identity—the removal of our very humanity—and makes our understanding of inclusion myopic. Why, after all, would a black, indigenous, or any other person of colour be condemned for not believing in the commonly accepted notion of inclusivity? Why would that make them less brown, less black, or less indigenous?

Some of the core questions raised by DEI and “woke” ideology are: are we assigning priority based on degrees of suffering? If we are, who gets to decide how much suffering and how much privilege a person and their history has endured or enjoyed? Seen from this vantage point, the common vernacular of inclusivity is being utilized to divide rather than include. The focus on a common humanity is missing in the discourse of inclusivity.

Andrew Sullivan, in his 2018 New York Magazine article, argues that our problems are compounded when we insists that only a minority can speak about racism or homophobia.

“The only reason this should be the case is if we think someone’s identity is more important than the argument they might want to make… in this Orwellian world, some groups are more equal than others… So if you wonder why our discourse is now so frightened with fear, why so many choose silence as the path of least resistance… The goal of our culture now is not the emancipation of the individual from the group, but the permanent definition of the individual by the group. We used to call this bigotry. Now we call it being woke”.

To trade individual rights for group rights, it goes without saying, is social and political regression. At least it should be obvious in our part of the world. Today’s western countries have moved from monarchical regimes to liberal and democratic systems in which the individual is supreme. This very individualism gave birth to our modern notion of human rights and guarantees the level of legal equality we’ve earned over the past 60 years. To assume that any variance in outcomes must solely be an outgrowth of historical subjugation flies in the face of individual agency, capacity and choice, and borders on a dangerous notion of determinism. And if the consequence for dissenting against a tyrannical majority is career suicide, social ostracism or general de-platforming, self-censorship becomes the prevailing modus operandi—and censorship of any form is illiberal.

We seem to have lost sight of the undeniable notion that active dissent is necessary for progress. Fredrick Douglass said it best. “Liberty,” he argued, “is meaningless where the right to utter one’s thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist.” Yet for so many people, the simple thought of talking about racism is uncomfortable to the point of making self-censorship preferable. Why is it so uncomfortable? Perhaps because the conversation around racism isn’t inclusive. Because not everyone can see themselves in the conversation. There used to be a time when we fought for the removal of labels, of reductive identities, of being labelled by the colour of our skin and divided by superficial racial characteristics. Today, these labels seem at the forefront of all we discuss, and terrifyingly, it is moving into the realm of social reality again.

According to FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), several U.S. universities and colleges have hosted events, sponsored or promoted by minority advocates that make identity politics a central feature of their mission and purpose. Harvard University’s reserved “exclusive space for Black-identifying audience members” at a performance of a reimagining of Macbeth and Georgetown University’s Campus Ministry held a meditation event whose description suggested it was exclusively for black students. It also hosted an event titled “The Cookout,” promoted with an advertisement describing the event as “created by Black students for Black students.” These are only some examples of the changing zeitgeist.

At New York University (NYU), students began a petition calling on the administration to designate racially-segregated housing for black and “black-identifying” students. At Western Washington University, black-only student housing was set up under a program called ‘Black Affinity Housing’. The University of Nevada, Las Vegas offers special race-based housing as well. The University of California, Berkeley, meanwhile, offers four orientations based on race in addition to the main orientation. Portland State University holds meetings "solely for people of color.” In fact, more than seventy-five colleges across America now offer separate graduation ceremonies based on race, ethnicity, or sexual identity.

In Canada, Toronto’s Metropolitan University (TMU), formerly Ryerson University, responded to community feedback with the creation of The Black Student Lounge (BSL). The lounge, the university’s website describes, was created to “provide an intentional and affirming space on campus where Black students, across intersections, can feel a sense of belonging at the university… a safe space on campus for Black students, by Black students… Black-identifying students can access the lounge to study, relax, make new friends, gain tools and resources, build community and heal from the exhaustion of navigating systemic racism in their day to day lives. In this room, Black students are reminded that they exist beyond their trauma and oppression. Although this is primarily a student-centred space, Black faculty and staff at TMU are also welcome.”

Harmela Kassa, an organizing member of the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) Black Student Union, says that being black on campus can often lead to feelings of alienation, especially if you’re also an international student. In an interview, Kassa says the organization is pushing for UBC to help develop a black space on campus for black students. According to Kassa, “There is a demand. There is an audience. There are black students on this campus who need a space, who want a space to connect with other black students on campus, and we need to facilitate that”. UBC’s vice president reported working with students to identify such a space.

In response to editorials and news stories discussing what appears to many as re-segregation, the NYU independent student newspaper provided a response in an article they titled, “Providing Safe Spaces for Black Students Does Not Mean Segregation

“Claiming that white people are being segregated when Black students request a space where they can feel safe and supported not only misrepresents the reality of what NYU is doing, but overlooks the institutional racism that leads Black students to need a supportive space in the first place. There is a difference between a privileged group oppressing another group of people by excluding them from spaces due to race and a marginalized community asking for a space where they can find support. The argument that this is segregation only further shows that the nuances and history of systemic racism are still being completely, if not willfully ignored by many.”

On the other end of the debate, a USA Today op-ed writer posited, “It was the argument of the old-time segregationists that the various races were too different to get along side by side. The best that could be hoped for was that each could stay in its lane and flourish on its own with minimal contact with the others. That’s sounding more and more like the sort of thing we’re hearing on college campuses, where each group is told that others can’t understand its thinking because of its unique experiences, requiring its own safe space.” Depending on your point of view, you may agree with one of the two positions above. You may also choose some middle ground in between, though that space is quickly disappearing before our eyes.

Anyone who has ever heard me speak knows where I stand on the phrase ‘people of colour’. I still fail to see the distinction between that and the former normative expression, coloured person. I have been called a Paki, a sand-nigger, a rag-head and a camel jockey, yet I choose to not let those pejorative descriptions define me. I am glad we are making progress everyday. I am glad that my bi-racial child will most likely never have someone throw a coffee at him, call him a ‘Paki’ or tell him to go back to where he came from. Is life perfect now? Far from it. But the history of the world has never been fair. And I, for one, think it is time to stop letting perfection be the enemy of the good. I don’t suggest that every person must accept my position I personally find comfort, however, in that quote often attributed to Martin Luther King Jr: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Or perhaps I am just the wrong kind of coloured person. The pesky agitator always questioning, always challenging, always trying to get to the root. Perhaps I simply bemoan simple narratives and reductive binaries; I believe they fail to capture the inherent complexity of life, relying too heavily on the old and tired good-or-evil trope. For example, the vacuous nature of woke philosophy was on full display after the unfortunate killing of Tyre Nichols. As is now standard practice, a debrief session was held in the aftermath of the news story reaching Canadian media. To assist people deal with what they read, a couple of special guest speakers were brought in to discuss the incident and examine why it keeps happening to black people. For added support, they also brought in someone to speak about black mental health. I asked an attendee what their takeaway was, and the answer I received was that systemic racism is so prevalent in policing that the white supremacists in this case were the five black officers who killed Tyre Nichols.

The woke almost seem like the good coloureds of yesteryear because what they offer is palatable—groupthink that satisfies our impulse for martyrdom and promises rebirth in the great “awakening.” In this narrative, white people receive a mea-culpa moment if they can attest to being racists, either consciously or subconsciously. Us coloureds should find vindication in the fear we can create by the mere suggestion that the the bonds of slavery and subjugation are still ever present despite laws dictating the contrary. People are more comfortable today with accepting a generalized-type casting of coloured mental health, spaces reserved for coloured people and programming for coloured people that shields us from the ubiquitous white knowledge on offer in academic institutions. How ironic given the struggle endured to tear down the systems of segregation. How ironic given the challenges to the doctrine of separate but equal. How ironic given the beating endured in Selma. And how ironic given that even George Wallace recanted and showed remorse for his infamous line, “Segregation Now, Segregation Tomorrow, Segregation Forever!” Maybe we all need to reflect on the words of Mr. Rodney King, who asked if we could all just get along…

Travelling the world has been a rich experience for me personally and made me appreciate the diversity of culture and tradition that characterizes so many different peoples. My life will always be richer for those experiences, and yet it constantly highlighted the tumultuous nature of social hierarchies. To have seen the beauty in diversity around the globe makes the effort to find common purpose and common humanity all the more worthwhile. I will conclude by yielding the floor to a far superior orator, one whose credibility is generally unquestioned, who towers above all others in the minds of people of colour everywhere. The contents of whose character should spare him from being cancelled posthumously (hopefully):

“I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred… We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence… The marvellous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people… Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends. So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream… I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal… I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood… I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today… one day… little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers… And when this happens.. all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last. Free at last. Thank God almighty, we are free at last.”

When reading King’s speech today, one really has to wonder what he would make of our world. In the same spirit, United Nations representative and human rights activist Mohamad Safa famously said, “Our world is not divided by race, colour, gender or religion. Our world is divided into wise people and fools. And fools divide themselves by race, colour, gender or religion”. There is no doubt that Martin Luther King Jr would see great progress in our 21st century awakening. But he would see in the woke movement the very opposite of his ideal… and probably find that awakening pretty rude.

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05 may 2023

You heard a black leader speak in a way that excluded others & that is truly unfortunate. But not all black DEI leaders are a monolithic trying to erase or cancel white and/or brown people of color! All Black ppl Do Not believe in the same process of DEI of which you've described. We don't all believe in shaming white ppl. Your article doesn't recognize that. Plus you definitely do not recognize my reality of having to send my Black progeny into harms way in school and university. You may never experience that type of terrifying experience. They definitely deserved but never got a safe space; but you are so strongly insinuating these safe spaces are some type of sinf…

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