Donate to RNS

Bethany Mandel’s ‘woke’ stumble exposes the right’s gaslighting

Why the conservative commentator stumbled in trying to define the term.

Briahna Joy Gray, left, interviews Bethany Mandel on The Hill’s online program “Rising.” Video screen grab

(RNS) — As soon as the words tumbled out of her mouth, conservative author Bethany Mandel was visibly overcome with the terrifying realization that she was about to become a viral sensation and a target of scathing anti-racist critique.

When asked by political commentator Briahna Joy Gray, on The Hill’s online program “Rising,” how she defines “woke” in a new book, Mandel answered as smoothly as skipping vinyl:

So, I mean, woke is–w–sort of–the idea that–um. I mean, woke is something that’s very hard to define, and we’ve spent an entire chapter defining it. It is sort of the understanding that we need to totally reimagine and reduce society in order to create hierarchies of oppression. Um, sorry, I — it’s hard to explain in a 15-second sound bite.

Mandel is either incorrect or insincere, because “woke” isn’t hard to define. It’s just advantageous for conservatives to continue to occupy the term like stolen land if they keep the definition as broad as possible.

I say woke isn’t hard to define because the term has been clear to Black Americans since its first utterance in Lead Belly’s 1938 blues protest song “Scottsboro Boys.”

The song tells the story of nine teenagers who were accused in Alabama of sexually assaulting two white women. The racist stereotype that Black men were inherently rapacious, and therefore a threat to white women, was often used in post-slavery America to justify various forms of anti-Black violence. Lead Belly wrote “Scottsboro Boys” to remind Black Americans about the dangers of navigating a world structured by the violence such stereotypes justify.

“I made this little song about down there,” Lead Belly is recorded saying about the song. “So I advise everybody, be a little careful when they go along through there — best stay woke, keep their eyes open.” 

Up until the heyday of the Black Lives Matter movement, when national outrage about the killing of Michael Brown leaked our code word into popular discourse, the meaning of “woke” had remained safe within the confines of Black barbershops, pulpits, patio tables where wrinkled brown fingers slam down dominos, and other safe places where Black people congregate and talk about life in this anti-Black world. It was virtually uncontested as shorthand for political and social awareness, and landed on our ears, I imagine, something like the Mosaic refrain “Remember and do not forget” must’ve fallen on the ears of those listening to Torah being sung in ancient Israelite temples.

Remember and do not forget: We live in a world built on anti-Black hostility. Remember and do not forget: The cops are not here to protect you. Remember and do not forget: They put Jesus’ name — that same one you be prayin’ to — on the side of one of the first slave ships. Be alert. Be wise. Stay woke.

“Woke” is not “hard” to define if we take America’s history of imperial violence and its attempts to sanitize that history seriously. It’s also not hard to define if we just accept it on its own terms, by which I mean its historic usage in the Black community. 

If the meaning of “woke” isn’t difficult to understand, accepting it is another matter. The term doesn’t serve white interests, which are aimed not at truth but power. If white conservatives were interested in understanding Black America’s perspective and in genuinely transformative communication, it would be necessary to clarify or agree on our terms. But conversation in good faith is not what white conservatives are after. As Yale philosopher Jason Stanley points out in his 2018 book “How Fascism Works,” fascists aren’t served by the truth, as they draw power from maintaining a state of unreality. Fascists construct powerful myths to move the populace toward their ends.

Part of the white supremacist myth is revealed in what Mandel did manage to say in her bumbling definition: that marginalized people allegedly aim to “create hierarchies of oppression” through “woke ideology” (as conservatives love to call it).

That myth is meant to maintain white anxiety about racial takeover, so they’ll keep supporting anti-democratic policies and voting for anti-democratic politicians such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former President Donald Trump. At the 1922 Fascist Congress, Benito Mussolini said: “We have created our myth. The myth is a faith, a passion. It is not necessary for it to be a reality.” That rings true today for white America and its distortions of history and how we talk about it.

To preserve their power, the champions of white racism don’t need to define woke, only to create an experience around it. It should feel like a shark in the water only news pundits and politicians can see, leaving Americans vulnerable to manipulation.

Mandel says she stumbled over her words because she was thrown off balance just before the cameras started rolling. Fox News reports: Briahna Joy Gray “made a disparaging remark about parents on a hot mic before the interview began, effectively throwing [Mandel] off her game.”

That’s plausible. Presenting one’s ideas in front of a global audience can be nerve-wracking. However, a look at the entire interview with Mandel makes me doubt her defense. She’d been verbally cruising before being asked to define “woke,” explaining that “only 7% of Americans consider themselves to be very liberal and probably fewer of them consider themselves to be woke.” She also mentioned that she and her co-author, Karol Markowicz, wrote an entire chapter on the term.

From a viewer’s perspective, it seems more likely that Mandel was simply unprepared for that question. She was put on the spot to soundbite a definition. She didn’t know how to condense it into a clean, 15-second definition, but she knew she had to be careful not to say the wrong thing. 

And though I believe, were she given the opportunity, Mandel could probably give us an elevator speech version of a definition for woke today (she’s probably been practicing it in her head for her next interview), the fact that she didn’t think she needed a clear and tight definition of the word to begin with seems emblematic of what has made “woke” such a versatile weapon for white conservatives. In their mouths it can mean whatever they need it to mean in the moment. To them it means nothing in particular. It’s merely a lullaby meant to keep more Americans from waking up.

Donate to Support Independent Journalism!

Donate Now!