The “Woke” Factor in Student Affairs: Being Awake Means Doing Work

Unless you have been living off the grid, you’ve probably encountered the word “woke” in conversations about activism.

The concept of “staying woke” tell us that we must be aware of the injustices that happen at both a local and national level. But like anything that garners viral attention from social media, some believe the term has lost its weight in social justice circles.

While some believe the word has helped amplify what others should be doing to right the wrongs of our world, it is safe to say that being woke is no longer enough.

But why?

Melvin Kelley told us through his articles and plays about the need to wake up and become politically conscious, but today, the term “woke” implies a need to not only be vigilant but aware of how injustice affects those who are often silenced by systems of oppression.

While the uptick of the popularity of the term has been tied to the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the death of Black people, the concept of being “woke” is a reminder that there is more than one reality for marginalized people who live in the United States.

The problems we face as people are much deeper than just being “woke” can handle, and in fact, being aware of the problem is only half of the battle.

The privilege in “wokeness”

Today, folks often use the term to highlight what they know about injustice, but rarely does that knowledge extend to how they use their understanding (and privilege) to act on the behalf of those who are victimized.

Often, the term implies that someone seems to fully comprehend the issues that marginalized people face, but rarely does using the word imply that someone is willing to risk their own comfort to act on them.

Calling someone “woke” should mean that that person is willing to use their privilege, in whatever capacity that might be, to make sure that others understand how their actions are oppressive. As someone who identifies as woke, you should always be willing and ready not to just call out oppressive behavior when you see it, but be willing to help others understand how their oppressive actions affect marginalized groups. By using the word “woke,” you must fully understand where the word comes from, what it means, and why it could, in fact, be considered appropriation.

It’s understanding the luxury you have of knowing that oppression exists and having the option to make a decision on whether or not you plan to act. It means knowing that as someone who is not affected by a particular injustice, you get to choose and control your comfort level around how you choose to act.

Are there spaces that others can’t access where you can give voice to the injustice that your students or other staff members face? How can you begin to challenge fragility and systems of white supremacy within your organization?

As student affairs leaders, we have to recognize the access we have to be able to amplify the issues that marginalized students and staff face.

A great way to use your privilege to show that you not only see and understand the issue is to look for ways to center those issues in the work you do.

Just because you “get it,” doesn’t mean you get it

A common belief is that just because someone has seen or heard about the struggles of marginalized people they are somehow better equipped to assist in advocating for the needs of those who face oppression.


It is important to understand that with each “—ism” comes a subset of complexities that are often hard to fully navigate.

There is no way to completely understand an issue and how it affects someone, and experiences differ from person to person. One has to understand that just because you know how the problem affects the community, doesn’t mean you are the best person to speak on or lead work around that issue.

A great way to show that you truly get it is by challenging those in your space to start thinking about who the individuals are who lead the conversation around change agency on your campus. Are we talking directly with those who are affected by the issues within our college community?

While this notion should not be confused with complacency, we have to understand that being woke means being responsible the knowledge that one holds about an issue. There are often various folks within the community who can truly speak to the work that needs to be done and who we should be connected to. Making sure we are vested in those who are often voiceless being at the center of the conversation is a great way to acknowledge that you understand the plight of marginalized people.

Wokeness as righteousness

Something that goes without saying is that if you have to call yourself “woke,” you may want to reassess your priorities. Being woke isn’t something that should be worn as a medal and honestly, vying for the “woke” title does nothing for those who truly need the help.

Yes, being woke is important, but if we spend more time talking about you being woke than what you are actually doing to help marginalized people, then we have a problem. While marginalized people appreciate the help, the last thing you should ever want to do is declare how woke you truly are.

A great way to show that you truly get it is by accepting the challenge to become a fully-developed person who leads others to do the same work and complementary work. Challenge others to do their work to become aware of their blind spots. Challenge others to check their privilege in moments where they may say or do something that could unintentionally be hurtful to those who are already experiencing pain.

It is important to note that being woke is by no means a problem. We need people who understand the issues. We need people to aid in the struggle on campus because without accomplices, nothing ever gets done. But the conversation can’t just stop at how woke you are or with the process you’ve had in your awakening.

We must keep working to understand how privilege plays a role in our own awareness and what we can do to make sure that our “wokeness” isn’t coming across some kind of way. If you are a person in a position of privilege or if you truly want to be seen and respected as someone who is “woke,” you must examine the responsibility that comes with it as well as where and how we show up, and how your “wokeness” might still might feed into white supremacy.

We must understand that while the term “woke” is ever-changing, we must be willing and ready to shine the light on the areas where we all need to do work.

Despite the changes in the meaning of the word, let’s adhere to the idea that being woke is no longer something we want to aspire to be called, but something we want to have as the foundation and fabric of our leadership.

How do you understand the “woke” factor within your work? Tweet us @themoderncampus and @DoctorJonPaul.


Dr. Jonathan Higgins

About the author: Dr. Jonathan P. Higgins (he/him) is a speaker, writer and activist with more than 10 years of student affairs experience. Their work focuses on race & identity and ways to better support marginalized students while eradicating oppression. Learn how we can help get your students involved.