Widgets Magazine


How do we know what we don’t know?

Colleges this year are said to be experiencing a “surge” in student organizing. According to a recent study from UCLA, more American college students participated in protests in 2015 than in any year in the past fifty. This moment of increased student activism has fostered a culture of competitive social consciousness. We trade in knowing the latest Twitter debacle, using jargon like “folx” and having read the most radical think-piece on “Formation.” This hyper-social awareness makes sense given the role student movements have historically played in social progress. How do students define social awareness?

The newest measure of social consciousness is in terms of “woke” or “not woke.” Like other words on the vanguard of the English language, woke has its roots in Black Twitter (and before that in Erykah Badu’s 2008 song “Master Teacher”). #StayWoke emerged alongside #BlackLivesMatter in 2012 after the non-indictment of George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin shooting. It meant: Stay aware of the systematic racism in criminal justice. “Woke” on its own has since entered general American vernacular as an adjective used to describe someone aware of social, racial and/or economic injustice.

“Stay Woke”’s innovation is the suggestion that knowledge is ever-evolving – one must “stay,” that is, continue learning and becoming aware. There is no set list of books to read in order to be woke. It is a form of knowledge that rests on both traditional sources of information like literature, history or critical theory, and contemporary Internet discourse like Reddit (forums), Tumblr (blogs) and Instagram (picture-sharing). True to the medium that created the term itself, wokeness is a process that involves popular feedback and participation – a two-way street of social consciousness.

Confronting this feedback can be uncomfortable. I recently posted a picture on Facebook with the hashtag “#womyn.” A friend commented back: “PSA: womyn is transmisogynistic.” I was embarrassed to be called out in (online) public –“But I swear I’m not a transmisogynist!” I wanted to protest. I considered deleting the picture with hopes of erasing the evidence of a misstep; after all, I didn’t want to seem not woke! While thinking about it I googled “womyn + transmisogyny” and learned about the Michigan Womyn’s Festival that excludes trans women. In the end, I didn’t delete the picture for the sake of transparency. I couldn’t pretend I was born knowing that history. This was merely me learning (also offending, for which I apologized). If awareness is truly a process, then this incident was a normal step along the way.

I could have avoided the offense all together had I done some Googling before posting. Proactive research also reduces the burden of teaching that often falls on people with marginalized identities. The Internet has given us all access to limitless information, but the Internet also requires knowing where and how to look. Like any tool, Google is only powerful with some directions. I would not have thought to research “womyn” because I didn’t know it needed researching. In other words, it’s hard to know what you don’t know.

Another challenge of using the Internet to see our blind spots is that more and more social media curate the content that pops up on feeds. Facebook’s news feed algorithm, for instance, features people, photos and articles similar to that which the user has previously liked or viewed. By design, users are less likely to see information or opinions that differ from their own. The result is an ideological bubble that gets thicker and thicker.

In theory, the Internet has put the world at our fingertips. In practice, that world can be hard to navigate, and can be filtered to reinforce our pre-existing preferences, rather than challenge them.

Views are contested offline when people with different life experiences or divergent opinions come into contact. School, for many of us, is the place where that will happen most. In these crossover interactions, being called out becomes merely finding out what we don’t know. This willingness to be wrong, to learn and to teach creates social awareness. Of course, there is some baseline level of knowledge to which all students should be exposed, so that we are at least speaking in mutually audible registers. A debate over the content of that baseline – a core curriculum – is currently underway on campus. The outcome matters because it will shape the conversations we have, the worldviews that are challenged and what we as students will collectively contribute to society.


Contact Madeleine Chang at madeleinechang@stanford.edu.