The War On “Wokeness” Is A War Against Martin Luther King Jr.’s Legacy

·11 min read

Today may just be my least-favorite day on the internet, and yet, it’s one of my favorite days of the year. Every year on this day, I re-read Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s seminal text “ Letter from Birmingham Jail”, which he wrote while imprisoned for protesting segregation. I read it as a tribute to one of the most influential Black activists to ever live on the day commemorating his life and legacy, but also to remind myself of the radical, anti-capitalist, anti-establishment intention behind Dr. King’s work. In the letter he writes, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” You’re going to see those eight words a lot on your timelines today, probably on a cute backdrop in IG-friendly font. You’re going to see people twisting and contorting MLK’s words to fit their own selfish agendas. Far-right conservatives will use “hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that” as a justification of their own hateful rhetoric. And left-leaning moderates will post MLK’s “white moderate” quote not realizing they are subtweeting themselves (Hillary Clinton, ma’am, the call is coming from inside the house).

The reason today’s performative memorialization — specifically on Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2022 — is so insufferable is that we’re in a war against the very ideals MLK was killed for defending. These posters and retweeters use MLK as a beacon of civility and inaction, when he was a revolutionary of audacity and action. This happens every year. And usually, I just scroll past, roll my eyes, and take comfort in Dr. King’s words in their actual context. But this year, I heard someone use his words as a way to defend their anti-“woke” stance and something in me snapped. We cannot continue to keep scrolling when Dr. King’s words are sanitized and stripped of their true meaning because we need them now more than ever.

These posters and retweeters use MLK as a beacon of civility and inaction, when he was a revolutionary of audacity and action.

On the January 10 episode of the media criticism podcast Canadaland, host Jesse Brown had a conversation with former Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) journalist, Tara Henley, a white woman. Henley went viral earlier this month and was embraced by far-right pundits and Fox news for a sensational Substack post announcing she quit her contract job at the public broadcaster because her former employer was too “woke.” In the piece, which is lacking in facts to back up her undeveloped and odious argument, Henley states that working at the CBC is to “accept the idea that race is the most significant thing about a person” and that she had to constantly explain to concerned readers and listeners why the company was so far left. “People want to know why, for example, non-binary Filipinos concerned about a lack of LGBT terms in Tagalog is an editorial priority for the CBC, when local issues of broad concern go unreported,” she wrote. “Or why, exactly, taxpayers should be funding articles that scold Canadians for using words such as ‘brainstorm’ and ‘lame.’” (One piece she is referring to is about culture, marginalization, and the history of colonialism. The other is about the origin of words and how language evolves over time. Both are solid pieces of journalism.)

Henley, who as Gawker columnist Sarah Hagi so rightly pointed out, never wrote or tweeted about the issues she’s so upset the CBC ignored (according to Henley), defended her post on Canadaland by invoking the words of Dr. King. “We are moving into a new way of looking at race right now,” Henley said. “We have gone from that MLK idea of colorblindness and ‘judge me on the content of my character and not on the color of my skin’ and we’re now moving into this other idea where the way to best represent racial justice and diversity is to look at the exact demographics in a population and try to apply those demographics onto institutions… It doesn’t necessarily make sense to me to choose that approach.”

Based on her assertions, I would guess, like many people posting about him today, that Henley has never read any of Dr. King’s work in full. In fact, like so many before her, Henley has used Dr. King to try to rewrite the truth. They’ll use MLK’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech (the exact “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” part that Henley references) to paint a picture of a man who aimed for a colorblind, post-racial utopia, not one who risked his freedom and his life to condemn police brutality, to push against the “white power structure” of capitalism, or as someone who was chastized and disapproved of by Well Meaning White Folk at every turn. Read this passage and tell me that any of MLK’s thoughts were rooted in “colorblindness”:

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

I chose this quote specifically because Henley is a self-described left-wing liberal who repeatedly but vaguely told Brown that she believes in diversity. It appears she just doesn’t believe in the incremental changes being made in Canadian media to assure that diversity. She is the white moderate King warned us about. I am also specifically choosing a Canadian example of the war on “woke” media not just because I am a Black Canadian person working in media, but because Canada itself is also a shining example of “shallow understanding” and “lukewarm acceptance.” On paper, we’re the “woke” country. We’ve got a prime minister who proudly claims to be a feminist. Every time a horrific crime is committed against a Black citizen by police in America, white Canada smugly denounces the existence of the same issues, even though the historic civil rights battle MLK waged was fought in Canada, too.

This country, including its media, has conveniently forgotten that fact over the years. And the overwhelming response to Henley’s post (it was liked over 16,000 times on Twitter and “Defund CBC” trended, proving once again that white people will co-opt anything) shows that there are many “white moderates” in Canada who are willing to align themselves with someone pushing antiquated ideas hiding under the guise of journalistic integrity. These are the same people who will claim Canada isn’t a racist country. If the pushback against basic human decency (like equality, Black rights, intersectionality, and trans lives) has made it across the border to Canada, the country that is supposed to be an oasis of multiculturalism, then it must be a worldwide phenomenon.

Henley has helped to bring “woke wars” to Canada, but they are, of course, well-documented in the U.S. and the UK. “In the United States and Britain, the right-wing establishments are embracing a doctrine of anti-anti-racism,” the Washington Post declared last year. This doctrine has manifested in the heated backlash against everything from critical race theory in schools to the banning of historical works like The 1619 Project. Let’s unpack what the people are really fighting against. “Woke” is a term that originated from Black Americans which simply means (according to the Oxford dictionary) “​​an alert to injustice in society, especially racism.” It dates back to the 1940s where activists would use the term, for example, in defense of labor unions. In 1965 at Oberlin College, MLK essentially gave a speech on wokeness.

“There are all too many people who, in some great period of social change, fail to achieve the new mental outlooks that the new situation demands. There is nothing more tragic than to sleep through a revolution. There can be no gainsaying of the fact that a great revolution is taking place in our world today. It is a social revolution, sweeping away the old order… The wind of change is blowing, and we see in our day and our age a significant development. … The great challenge facing every individual graduating today is to remain awake through this social revolution.”

That passage could be from June 2020.

Remember the social revolution of “listening and learning” where white moderates promised to do better after the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and countless other unarmed Black people? Now they are the ones pushing against the small ways in which that revolution is showing up in our media. In “Letter from Birmingham Jail” MLK wrote, “History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.” What we are witnessing in real time is the refusal of groups to give up their privilege of comfort and of ignorance.

Since her viral substack post and subsequent TV and podcast appearances, Henley has become an outspoken advocate against… talking about race? Wait, reporting on race? Acknowledging that race exists? Based on her post and her interviews, I am genuinely unsure. Does Henley want to go back to the days when there were barely any Black people in senior positions at major media companies? Remember almost 80% of the leadership at CBC is white. It’s almost laughable that Henley called the CBC a radical left broadcaster. As Shree Paradkar, a columnist for The Toronto Star, wrote: “The CBC has problems. Being too woke isn’t one of them.” Henley also complains about having to book guests of certain races. Does she want to go back to the days when there were four white people on a panel talking about Black and Indigenous issues? (Again, that shit still happens). No? Okay, I got it. In her words, she wants to go back to the mythical time when Martin Luther King Jr.’s “idea” was that people shouldn’t see race.

The great challenge facing every individual graduating today is to remain awake through this social revolution.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

This is a testament to Henley’s ignorance and its ripple effect. A few days after Henley’s piece, there was a story on CBC News on how remote work is impacting Black employees, specifically how “employees are shielded from everyday microaggressions, inappropriate remarks” in the workplace. The comments on a tweet linking the post were vitriolic, citing Henley’s Substack as a reason this article shouldn’t exist because it’s too “woke.” As journalist Vicky Mochama tweeted, the impact of this thinking is “a chill on journalists telling the truth and on racialized people talking to journalists after the trolls go after them.”

What’s happening as a result of the “war on wokeness” isn’t more freedom of speech or diversity of thought or whatever Henley claimed to be hoping for. It’s that stories about microaggressions, something that impacts many employees of color, are being unfairly categorized as unimportant or somehow taking away from more serious issues. The incremental change that has been made is being branded as a threat to white identity, instead of a long-overdue correction of decades of anti-Black racism, transphobia, and sexism in media.

If white people really had to face these stories instead of dismissing them, they’d have to face too uncomfortable truths about themselves and their own behavior. It’d be the same if they took Dr. King’s words as they are, in all of their socialist, radical glory. They would rather pat themselves on the back for sharing a seemingly innocuous quote with a clear conscience instead of reckoning with its true intention. The same people who water down MLK’s message willfully ignore the fact that he was murdered weeks after advocating for reparations. Try even bringing up that word today without a troll screaming about “the woke media” in your mentions.

Nuanced conversations about race, which journalists of color have been fighting for for years, are still not represented enough in mainstream media. Every time I talk about race, I will get hoards of abuse in my DMs and comments about how I’m ruining this hallowed space of Canadian media by daring to exist and speak truth to injustice. My colleagues face the same. “Writers such as [Pacinthe] Mattar, [Haroon] Siddiqui, [Azeezah] Kanji and [Nora] Loreto have faced years of hate and abuse for pointing out systemic issues in the media and other sectors,” Paradkar wrote. “They stand as testimony to how arduous it is to move institutions and systems towards justice. The Substack blog, on the other hand, shows how easy it is to unravel even the most superficial steps towards improvement, for it aligns perfectly with power.”

Simply stating facts about injustice and the reality racialized people face is seen as too radical, too extreme. Be like MLK, they say. Be a good, quiet, amenable activist. But that’s not who Martin Luther King Jr. was. And that’s not how change happens or how truth is reported. I’ll leave you with another MLK quote that I rarely see on pretty IG feeds or used as Twitter propaganda. This is the MLK we should be remembering today:

“So the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?”

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