The Three Buckets of "Wokeness"

“You’re not woke! You’re not even awake!”

This was a recent quote from my friend Karen Gordon, which I thought was hilarious, talking about someone that she had been doing some business with who was slow to realize that they really weren’t paying as much attention, or doing as much to foster diversity and inclusion, as they thought. I’ve been thinking about it a lot, because it’s hilarious, but I also have been thinking about the underlying question— how do you tell if you’re woke?

This is a hard enough challenge for individuals, but it’s damn near impossible for companies. How does an organization understand where is it is on the spectrum. We were at a lunch recently and were talking about — what else — diversity and inclusion, and specifically how corporate America is slowly but surely moving in the right direction as far as this stuff is concerned, and this concept came up.

The sentiment being expressed at the table was that over the past few years — let’s say the process started about 2013 but has really picked up steam in 2017–2018 — companies have really started to become aware of the importance of diversity and inclusion and tried to make it a part of their business model. That, in and of itself, is a good thing, even if this process is taking place, say, 150 years after it should.

But once companies acknowledge that this is important, then what? There is a huge disparity in how and what they can do to acknowledge these problems.

So, allow me to present what I am calling the “Three Buckets of Wokeness.” (I thought about calling them “baskets,” but that seemed like a bad idea. *Sigh*)

Recently I read an article somewhere where the author hand-drew all the images, which I thought was clever and hilarious, so I’m trying that here.

Recently I read an article somewhere where the author hand-drew all the images, which I thought was clever and hilarious, so I’m trying that here.

Bucket A is just being aware of there being issues or problems or challenges. This is the basic bucket — about calling attention to these matters, about making them a public and thoughtful part of the business, about raising awareness and committing yourself to change.

Bucket B is when you’ve identified specific things that have happened, or you have attempted to understand the landscape. Analyzing the statistics governing diversity and inclusion at your company and making goals for the future is a great example of Bucket B. A company that looks and says, “we’ve only got 20 percent women working here, and our goal for the next year is 25 percent,” is a really good example of a Bucket B scenario. Similarly, a company unearthing an incidence of racial bias or sexual harassment that occurred in the past and taking some sort of corrective action for it is also an example of Bucket B.

The last bucket, Bucket C, is the most interesting one. This is the bucket of companies that are aware of the problem, have identified things that have happened in the past, AND are committed to creating an environment where things are happening in real time to prevent these types of situations from happening again. They have moved the point of awareness significantly forward and are working to empower themselves and their employees to take action in real time to prevent these types of issues from occurring in the first place. They are changing their behavior and their actions and giving themselves the mechanisms to chart a different course.

Let’s look at a well-known example — the progression of hashtags surrounding sexual harassment in the workplace and society and the extremely negative experiences . It started with #metoo, shortly after the Harvey Weinstein stories broke. #metoo is a good example of bucket A — awareness. Unfortunately, many people and many businesses weren’t aware of the extent or pervasiveness of the problem, of the ubiquity of this type of behavior. And so the #metoo movement really brought this front and center for those who weren’t aware of what was happening.

Then they started to fall. Male celebrity and business leader after male celebrity and business leader, going down for past bad behavior— #timesup was the new hashtag. This is a really good example of the second bucket — “we’ve realized what happened, and we’re making changes to prevent this from happening in the future.” Policies being changed, bad behavers being relieved of their jobs, of their money, of their power, of their fame, of their chances to do these sorts of things again in the future. All of this was a great example of the power of change and awareness, and indeed, the power of a collective desire to stop bad things from happening.

But there is another bucket — stopping it in the moment. The next phase of the movement around sexual harassment at work would be to convert the energe from the #metoo and #timesup movements into a third movement — #notok, for instance — that dealt with things as they happened. In the moment. Someone starts to sexually harass someone and they hear about it right then; they are reported that day; they are removed from their post or reprimanded immediately. Even more importantly, awareness is raised to the point that people start to self-regulate, and avoid these situations enitirely. That when these things start to happen, everyone, including the perpetrator, reminds themselves and anyone around them that this is #notokay. This is what change feels like.

The key is to focus on the third bucket — Bucket C — which basically means “In real time I will build infrastructure and resources to prevent these matters from becoming an issue in the first place.”

The key is to focus on the third bucket — Bucket C — which basically means “In real time I will build infrastructure and resources to prevent these matters from becoming an issue in the first place.”

What we are really talking about here is intervention, at the right moment, in the right fashion. There is something really powerful about the concept of intervening. It's a whole other level of awareness. For example, consider the idea behind the Rethink keyboard, a novel invention from a young entrepreneur named Trisha Prabhu. Trisha invented a keyboard to combat cyberbullying. When you write something in your phone that can be perceived as a bullying statement, the app simply asks you if you are sure you want to go through with what you are writing. 93 percent of the time, according to Trisha, the user "rethinks" and decides not to send what they are going to send. 93 percent! She basically eliminates cyberbullying with one swift action.

Another example, from our time at 1871. One of our employees suggested that, if someone hears an offensive statement -- whether it is directed at them or not -- they should respond by saying something like, "I think what you just said might be misinterpreted. Would you like to clarify?" Basically a shot across the bow, to let the person know that they've crossed the line, and they have a chance to -- quickly -- walk it back. You don't need to hear this sort of warning too many times before behavior gets changed. It becomes a sort of a game -- like it's a race among the employees to see who can be the most conscious, the most aware, the most in-the-moment, the most ready to defend others, the most woke. This is free, btw. You can start doing this today, or tomorrow -- you don't need to get budget approval or ask your boss. And it will immediately begin to change the culture.

You can create infrastructure and technology that will support this. You can implement technology that will track the introduction of racial or gender biases into specific processes; you can monitor scenarios where certain individuals on your team are repeatedly violating policies or values of the organization, and intervene before they are able to. 

At this point, most of the businesses in the country, and many of the people, are at least in Bucket A of wokeness. 150 years too late, to be sure, but we have finally arrived at the age of inclusion. Our collective effort has to be around moving everyone toward Bucket C. We can’t stop until we get there.

Tom Alexander