As more people champion movements like Black Lives Matter or the Women’s March on Washington, many have started to realize that being ‘woke’ — the idea of being aware of social problems — may also be alienating others within their own movement.
“I often think when we become involved in social justice work, we begin to operate as if we’ve always been this knowledgeable on multiple topics and identities and forget something woke us up. Nobody was actually born woke, ” Brittany Packnett, co-founder of Campaign Zero, a police reform initiative, and vice president of national community alliances for Teach for America, tells NationSwell. “There was someone there to teach me and use language to invite me in instead of making me feel ostracized.”
Language has always complicated the progressive movement, garnering attention in recent years as a handful of leaders were denounced for not using the right terms or for not being sensitive enough to minority groups.
In March, author and feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was singled out for not being inclusive when discussing trans women. She defended her words, telling The Guardian, “This is fundamentally about language orthodoxy. There’s a part of me that resists this sort of thing because I don’t think it’s helpful to insist that unless you want to use the exact language I want you to use, I will not listen to what you’re saying.”

Focusing too narrowly on progressive language can limit the spread of social movements, says activist Linda Sarsour.

So how do you become more inclusive with your words? Packnett, a 2017 Nationswell Summit on Solutions panel speaker, says to keep it simple and use the same language as those who are trying to “wake up” to social issues — even when you’re frustrated.
“I understand when people don’t have that amount of patience,” Packnett says. “But when that happens, we have to tag other people in who are emotionally able to be more forgiving, to be more patient and to open up the language to call people in, instead of calling people out.”
In October, Linda Sarsour, co-chair of the 2017 Women’s March, told a room full of activists at a conference about inspiring social change at the Brooklyn Museum that progressives can be too “intellectual.”
“Sometimes I’m sitting in spaces and people are trying to explain to me ‘hetero-patriarchy’ — and I get it and keep having those conversations — but I always say if my Palestinian immigrant mother in [Brooklyn] doesn’t know what you’re talking about, then we got a problem,” she says. “We have to remember we’re organizing people with people who have high school diplomas, who may have sixth grade literacy levels. If we’re not reaching most lay people… then we’re not doing a good job.”