Former President Barack Obama sought to banish an idea that to be “woke” means being as judgmental as possible Tuesday at the Obama Foundation summit.
“This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically woke and all that stuff — you should get over that quickly,” Obama said.
He spoke before a crowd in Chicago, the birthplace of the president’s nonprofit, which encompasses a mission to connect people globally and change the world.
This year’s summit theme was “Places reveal our purpose.”
Michelle Obama announced the theme in a September web post, in which she reflected on her life growing up in the Windy City.
“It was there, in a diverse and changing neighborhood, that I began a journey that took me to settings I never could have imagined at that age,” she said. “It’s the place that made me who I am.”
She later said at the summit Tuesday that community and family are the glue of it all. She said what she and Barack learned from family, friends and their larger communities growing up informed everything they did in the White House.
“What our parents gave us was unconditional love and a notion that our voices mattered and that our opinions counted, and that what we said and thought had meaning,” she said.
The summit featured an array of notable Black leaders, from filmmaker Ava DuVernay, who spoke about the power of storytelling, to “Pose” actor Billy Porter, who talked about coming out in 1985 as a gay man and having to fight for his life.
“I never dreamed it could look like this,” he said. “You know, there was no context for any of this to look like this.”
Porter said it’s easy to be who you are when who you are is what’s popular, but he instead chose to be authentic.
The president weighed in on the topic of authenticity too in a discussion of how others interpret what it means to be woke.
“The world is messy,” he said. “There are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids and share certain things with you.”
He said he talks to his elder daughter all the time about a sense he gets that some young people think to make change you have to be “as judgmental as possible about other people and that’s enough.”
“Like if I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right, or used the wrong verb, then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself because: ‘Man, did you see how woke I was? I called you out. Now I can get on TV. Watch my show, watch ‘Grown-ish,'”
“That’s not activism,” he added. “That’s not bringing about change. If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far. That’s easy to do.”