I’m Woke Now, But It’s Complicated

Anant Rangaswami, November 8, 2017

Woke (adj): "Aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice)"

When I was about 5 years old, and I took the first train journey that I can remember, I remember being permanently at the window, taking in all the sights. And the smells.
There were many of both.

As soon as I smelled something weird, I would yell for my father or brother and get them to the window. One or both would explain to me that the smell meant that we were approaching or were passing by a large factory or a steel plant. In a few minutes, we would see belching smoke, thick and dark, which proved the imminence of the factory or plant.
All of us gathered at windows to look at these marvels of manufacturing.
Smoke and these funny smells were good news; it meant that India was progressing.
No mention was made of pollution.
That’s how life was in the 1960s, 1970s and the 1980s.
Manufacturing was everything, pollution didn’t matter.

I started smoking, unfortunately, at the age of 16. It wasn’t a crime for someone my age to smoke in Calcutta. I could walk up to a 60 year old smoker on the streets, someone I didn’t even know, and ask him for a light. He would stop and hold out his cigarette for me to light one.
The ill effects of smoking weren’t a topic of conversation.
So it was with many things.

We weren’t ‘woke’ about these things, then.
We are, now.

I wasn’t woke about ‘woke’ till a few days ago. I now learn that ‘woke’ is to be acutely aware about something.

As times change, and social mores change, we become more and more woke about new things.
Society is woke about sugar. About transfats. About the need for a seatbelt while driving a car and the need for a helmet while riding a two-wheeler.
Society is woke about gender equality and about sexual harassment and child marriage.
Society is woke about pollution, in the air and water. Society is woke about afforestation and about animal rights. Society is woke about the use of plastic and about inequality in wealth.

Society is also woke about irresponsible advertising and irresponsible brands and obscene profits.

Brands need to be woke about these issues, too.
It’s complicated, but stay asleep at your peril.