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What is WOKE ideology, and where did it come from?

Written by TaChelle Lawson, President, FIG Strategy & Consulting

How is woke idealogy impacting hospitality?
There's a significant difference between woke ideaology and DEI. One is good for business, one isn't. If it isn't inclusive, it's woke.

$50 billion. Six months. The total commitment by corporations to (DEI) diversity, equity and inclusion from June to December 2020. It was the result of us all being at home (thanks to COVID shutdowns), watching replays of an American police officer putting his knee on the neck of an American citizen. 

30 years earlier, a similar incident caused a nationwide stir. Rodney King was pulled from his vehicle and beaten half to death by the police, resulting in resounding anger and fear throughout the Black community, sparking the infamous LA riots. Shortly after, my mom gave me the talk. She explained what us and them meant, determined to prepare me for possible experiences as a Black person in America. I didn’t know it then, but it was my first lesson in wokeness. 

Although the term has changed over time, it traces back to Black communities during the civil rights movement, referring to a consciousness of individuals who were socially or politically aware of racial discrimination and systemic injustices. Today, it’s a catchall term for inequities concerning gender, sexuality, classism (privilege), and ableism and is responsible for new movements like feminism, LGBTQ+, and indigenous rights.  

I call this “new wokeness” or woke ideology since it generalizes all marginalized issues and polarizes anyone who doesn’t share the beliefs or perspectives. It suggests only underrepresented individuals are worthy of acknowledgment and support. And that white individuals should feel guilt, shame and apologize for their whiteness. 

Despite the DEI commitment evaluation reaching over $240 billion, new wokeness threatens progress. It’s disruptive and not in the new opportunity or untapped market way. It is responsible for DEI's media manipulation and political polarization, which is seen in daily headlines. According to media and politicians, DEI wants white people to be punished for past offenses to marginalized communities. The soundbites portray DEI as the culprit for attacking whiteness, traditional values and privilege. This is new wokeness, not DEI. Consequently, the misrepresentation has led to mountains of corporations, non-profits and government agencies abandoning DEI initiatives.  

According to the 2021 Department of Labor, nearly 50% of the food & beverage industry comprises minorities. Sounds good, right? However, according to a 2022 Deloitte report, food & beverage is still 58% behind other industries in minority representation in leadership positions. Believing the new woke narrative could paralyze the food and beverage industry, including negative consequences for workplace culture and talent acquisition, customer perception, and the ability to innovate and adapt in a rapidly evolving market.

DEI is good for business, and true DEI professionals know that white is not the problem. Neither is privilege. Living in a safe neighborhood with affordable healthcare and access to fresh, healthy food is a privilege. Privilege isn’t the problem. The lack of privilege is. No one needs to apologize for privilege. However, we need to understand and acknowledge privilege. Qualified individuals are denied promotions and opportunities based on race, gender, religion, etc. This is true. Whether it’s your truth isn’t the point. Acknowledging it is.

Both new wokeness and DEI recognize the reality of intersectionality and that individuals hold multiple social identities, resulting in different experiences. The key differentiator is new wokeness, which specifically calls out privilege, while DEI focuses on inclusion. I wish all the noise affecting DEI were wrong, but it’s not. Like any other industry, some give it a bad name. According to an HBR study, American companies have spent over $8 billion in DEI training, yet reports of progress are abysmal. Combining the ineffectiveness of over 80% of DEI programs with the obnoxious perspective of new wokeness, and boom, DEI is less credible. But we need it. Now more than ever. 

By dismantling DEI (particularly in schools), we eliminate truth and fail to provide individuals with a comprehensive understanding of social issues to promote critical thinking and inclusion. Regardless of which side of the fence you’re on, the role of educational institutions is to prepare students (our future business, community and political leaders) for the real world. The responsibility of business leaders is to take DEI seriously by doing more than performative training and speaking up for the importance of DEI to the business world. Basically, do more than check boxes. 

A world that, according to the US Census Bureau, will drastically change over the next 20-plus years, resulting in a new majority and white minority population. Eliminating DEI initiatives puts us at risk of repeating the same cycles of division and dishonesty while keeping it equips us with the cultural competency, empathy and understanding to succeed in a diverse world. We need collaborative leaders who navigate various cultural environments, leading to better (and inclusive) business decisions.  

Companies like Starbucks would benefit from (real) DEI. Instead, they took a new woke approach to the 2018 incident in Philadelphia where two Black men were discriminated against. The coffee conglomerate was recently ordered to pay $25 million for firing white employees who weren’t even involved. Decisions like that cause mistrust in DEI effectiveness and chip away at its credibility and, consequently, its necessity. Still, I assure you, we need DEI.

But first, we have to be honest and stop manipulating the facts. Truth hurts, and we know it. Yes, you spend too much money on shoes. No, you can’t sing. And I’d rather get advice on romantic relationships from a nun. My feelings might be hurt if someone said one of these things to me. It doesn’t make them less true. Any more than telling a convincing lie. Like this one, "And we'll continue to move forward as a colorblind society, which is really, the aspiration I believe of every American," said Mike Pence. 

Pence’s statement is tone-deaf. Colorblindness is not the answer. I am a Black woman and not uncomfortable being described as a Black woman. Seeing color isn’t the problem. Pretending you don’t is a problem. Treating someone differently because of their skin color is a problem. Refusing to acknowledge that life experiences can vary based on skin color is a problem. Suggesting that all doors are open regardless of skin color is a lie and a problem.

Acknowledging that our country will not improve on its own and that we all have a role to play is not a DEI, woke, or affirmative action issue. It’s an individual choice—one we must all make. 


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