IT’S a dark and stormy night in the summer of 2019. Britain is in a state of democratic deadlock as a right-wing government insists on pushing ahead with the result of a vote that was won on the basis of an explicitly xenophobic and dishonest campaign.

Attempts to weed out undocumented immigrants have been stepped up, with demands on employers, doctors, midwives and teachers to pass on information to the authorities. British-born people of colour find themselves rejected as tenants because landlords are asked to make judgments about their immigration status.

People who have no memory of any other country than the UK are being thrown out of their homes and lives because they don’t have the right documents. In 10 Downing Street sits an openly racist, Islamophobic bully.

In the White House, his mirror image smiles as he signs off on deportation hearings and the indefinite detention of small, unaccompanied children with no access to legal representation. In the face of criticism from political opponents, he says that the Congresswomen of colour who don’t like his approach should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came”. Meanwhile, black and Latino Americans continue to be at a far higher risk of being incarcerated or killed by police than their white counterparts.

In Brazil, the Amazon rainforest is burning while the President, who has repeatedly complained about the size of protected reserves afforded to its indigenous population, looks on. All across the world, the far-right is gaining an electoral foothold, while networks of white supremacist groups are growing daily.

No, this is not dystopian fiction. The everyday horror of racial injustice hangs over our political moment like an axe, ready to drop. And yet there are those, from the sensible centre to the radical left, who would rather spend their time decrying the apparent silliness and hypersensitivity of “woke” politics than the abusive structures it seeks to dismantle. And they wonder how we got here and why things aren’t getting better?

Speaking at Edinburgh University earlier this year, internationally renowned Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw responded perfectly to the perception that “identity politics” are undermining efforts to effect real, structural change.

“Identity becomes relevant through its relationship to institutions and power,” she said.

As the mind behind the now much-maligned term “intersectionality” – put simply, the notion that black women face a unique form of oppression through a combination of both racism and sexism – Crenshaw knows more than most about how marginalised communities’ attempts to name their own experiences are routinely and systematically disrupted.

Like “identity politics”, intersectionality (coined in 1989) has been dismissed by more than a few self-proclaimed progressive voices who see it as an abstract, ineffectual concept at best and as actively harmful to unified political movements at worst. Plus, the word obviously has too many syllables for normal people to understand anyway.

The evolution of the word “woke” has followed a similar trajectory. Within the last decade, the term “stay woke” emerged among black American activists in connection with the Black Lives Matter movement to describe an awareness of social injustice. If you’re a fan of Karl Marx, you might say this is a very similar idea to “class consciousness”, but where the significance of racist structures is put front and centre.

Now, after the somewhat predictable co-opting of the phrase into the mainstream lexicon, “woke” has contorted into a term used almost entirely as a byword for “politically correct” or any of the other iterations typically used to denigrate bleeding-heart, tree-hugging lefties.

This framing by those on the right is to be expected, but when it is echoed gleefully on the left – dare I say, very often by men – it’s … well, it’s equally unsurprising, but it is a bit more disappointing. It is particularly jarring when people branding themselves as the “anti-woke left” are celebrated in the pages of such illustrious publications as Spiked Magazine (which, by the way, receives funding from the American right-wing Charles Koch Foundation).

When your political opponents are cheering you on, it might be time to stop and consider why that might be.

What is interesting about this current debate is that the brave souls challenging “wokeness” tend to act as though this is a new phenomenon that threatens to ruin the true spirit of left-wing politics. But while the language may have changed, this is nothing more than the same decades-old struggle between universalism and the belief that multi-layered experiences of inequality must be addressed in their specificity.

In a nutshell, the argument made by critics of “identity politics” is that talking about subjective concepts such as language and representation sidesteps the real issues such as violence and poverty and that analysing the experiences of smaller, identity-based groups, as opposed to economic class, undermines the potential for a society-wide revolution.

These tensions are nothing new. In fact, they have been a consistent feature of social movements on the left, most strikingly since the rise of modern liberation movements in the 1960s.

It was these very conversations that drove women socialists to set up their own feminist campaigns after they struggled to have their voices and experiences of sexism taken seriously by their male peers. Black feminism was borne out of a resistance among white feminists to acknowledging the significance of race and among anti-racist men to acknowledging the significance of gender.

In response, dominant voices in the wider movements were always quick to dismiss these activities as a distraction, as divisive, and ultimately as trivial. Then, as now, the major failing in this line of defence was that it was based on the idea of a universal, shared experience which could transcend all differences and bring people together around a single aim.

In sticking with this argument until the bitter end, despite the protestations of the many people who said their own multifaceted experiences of oppression were never reflected by this “universal” archetype, people were alienated from the wider cause.

Perhaps the most pernicious mischaracterisation of intersectional politics – by which I mean a politics that believes that structural inequality can never be reduced to one axis, be that class, gender or race – is that it is in some way wishy-washy and immaterial. As though gender inequality does not have real economic and political consequences for women beyond hurt feelings. As though racism is not ripping our world apart before our eyes. As though violence motivated by these “identities” is not commonplace.

The idea that identity politics is all about “taking offence” and curtailing free speech is one that the right created to discredit their opponents. Sadly, it is one which too many on the left are willing to accept, because it means that they too can go on ignoring the voices of women, of people of colour, of LGBT people.

But even the notion that language is irrelevant to the bigger picture is ridiculous. Language is an integral part of the process of building consensus and shaping the way people think. Language can close doors as well as open them. It can inspire empathy or it can fuel hatred and dehumanisation.

If you do not accept that the language our politicians and media have used has helped to lead us to where we are today, then we are further from a solution than any of us should hope. And if you insist on ignoring the political relevance of identities while oppressive structures and right-wing leaders place them under sustained attack, then you are part of the problem. Mock me if you will, but I’d rather be “woke” than wilfully asleep.