Woke ( woʊk WOHK ) is a term that refers to a perceived awareness of issues that concern social justice and racial justice. It derives from the African-American Vernacular English expression stay woke. … Its widespread use since 2014 is a result of the Black Lives Matter movement and the death of George Floyd in 2020.
How a Black activist watchword got co-opted in the culture war.
before 2014, the call to “stay woke” was, for many people, unheard of. The idea behind it was common within Black communities at that point — the notion that staying “woke” and alert to the deceptions of other people was a basic survival tactic. But in 2014, following the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, “stay woke” suddenly became the cautionary watchword of Black Lives Matter activists on the streets, used in a chilling and specific context: keeping watch for police brutality and unjust police tactics.
In the six years since Brown’s death, “woke” has evolved into a single-word summation of leftist political ideology, centered on social justice politics and critical race theory. This framing of “woke” is bipartisan: It’s used as a shorthand for political progressiveness by the left, and as a denigration of leftist culture by the right.
On the left
To be “woke” means to identify as a staunch social justice advocate who’s abreast of contemporary political concerns — or to be perceived that way, whether or not you ever claimed to be “woke” yourself. At times, the defensiveness surrounding wokeness invites ironic blowback. Consider the 2020 Hulu comedy series Woke, which attempted to deconstruct the identity politics behind ideas like “wokeness,” only to garner criticism for having an outdated and too-centrist political viewpoint — that is, for not being woke enough.
On the right,
“woke” — like its cousin “canceled” — bespeaks “political correctness” gone awry, and the term itself is usually used sarcastically. At the Republican National Convention in August, right-wing Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) scolded “woketopians,” grouping them together with socialists and Biden supporters, as though the definition of a “woketopian” was self-evident.
But as use of the word spreads, what people actually mean by “woke” seems less clear than ever.
After all, none of these recent political concepts has anything to do with the idea of demanding that people “stay woke” against police brutality. Despite renewed activism against police brutality in 2020, the way that terms like “woke” and “wokeness” are used outside of the Black Lives Matter community seems to bear little connection to their original context, on either the right and the left.
Shifting a Black Lives Matter slogan away from its original meaning is arguably the least woke thing ever — yet that seems to be just what happened with, of all things, “woke” itself.
To understand how “woke” came to stand in for an entire political ideology, it’s helpful to trace how the term traveled so far and wide within the American mainstream — and what that journey reveals about a polarized society.
“Stay woke” began as a watchword for Black Americans
The first time many people heard “woke” in its current context was likely during the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement. In 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, Black citizens took to the streets nightly to protest the police shooting death of Michael Brown. As they did so, they urged each other to “stay woke” against police actions and other threats.
But “woke” and the phrase “stay woke” had already been a part of Black communities for years, long before Black Lives Matter gained prominence. “While renewed (inter)national outcry over anti-Black police violence certainly fueled widespread and mainstream usage of the word in the present, it has a much longer history,” deandre miles-hercules, a doctoral linguistics researcher at the University of California Santa Barbara, told me.
The earliest known examples of wokeness as a concept revolve around the idea of Black consciousness “waking up” to a new reality or activist framework and dates back to the early 20th century. In 1923, a collection of aphorisms and ideas by the Jamaican philosopher and social activist Marcus Garvey included the summons “Wake up Ethiopia! Wake up Africa!” as a call to globalBlack citizens to become more socially and politically conscious. A few years later, the phrase “stay woke” turned up as part of a spoken afterword in the 1938 song “Scottsboro Boys,” a protest song by Blues musician Huddie Ledbetter, a.k.a. Lead Belly. The song describes the 1931 saga of a group of nine Black teenagers in Scottsboro, Arkansas, who were accused of raping two white women.
Lead Belly says at the end of an archival recording of the song that he’d met with the Scottsboro defendants’ lawyer, who introduced him to the men themselves. “I made this little song about down there,” Lead Belly says. “So I advise everybody, be a little careful when they go along through there — best stay woke, keep their eyes open.”
Lead Belly uses “stay woke” in explicit association with Black Americans’ need to be aware of racially motivated threats and the potential dangers of white America. Lead Belly’s usage has largely stayed the common, consistent one ever since, including during one notable brush with the mainstream in 1962, via the New York Times.
That year, a young Black novelist named William Melvin Kelley wrote a first-person piece for the Times called “If You’re Woke You Dig It; No mickey mouse can be expected to follow today’s Negro idiom without a hip assist.” In the piece, Kelley points out that the origins of the language of then-fashionable beatnik culture — words like “cool” and “dig” — lay not within white America but with Black Americans, predominantly among Black jazz musicians.
How the word ‘woke’ was weaponised by the right
Like “politically correct” before it, the word “woke” has come to connote the opposite of what it means. Technically, going by the Merriam-Webster dictionary’s definition, woke means “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice)”, but today we are more likely to see it being used as a stick with which to beat people who aspire to such values, often wielded by those who don’t recognise how un-woke they are, or are proud of the fact.
Laurence Fox nailed his colours to the latter mast this weekend, doubling down on his defense of the privileged white male on last week’s Question Time to a Sunday Times article under the banner “Why I won’t date ‘woke’ women”. Toby Young piled in, applauding how Fox was “terrorizing the Wokerati”, while the Sun last weekend branded Harry and Meghan “the oppressive King and Queen of Woke”.
For those who would broadly consider themselves woke, the word has been weaponized against them. But the Fox/Young brigade often claim the same.
The origins of woke, in this context – as forged by African American communities – dates back at least to the 60s, but its mainstream ubiquity is a recent development. Fuelled by black musicians, social media, and the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the term entered the Oxford English Dictionary only in 2017, by which time it had become as much a fashionable buzzword as a set of values. Some of those who didn’t keep up with the trend felt left behind: if you didn’t know the meaning of woke, you weren’t.
Rather than rejecting the concept of wokeness outright, today’s detractors often claim they are rejecting the word as a signifier of pretentiousness and “cultural elitism”. However, as Fox and others have shown, it is as much to do with the issues of racial and social justice. Criticizing “woke culture” has become a way of claiming victim status for yourself rather than acknowledging that more deserving others hold that status. It has gone from a virtue signal to a dog whistle. The language has been successfully co-opted – but as long as the underlying injustices remain, new words will emerge to describe them.
The more affluent control the narrative so being “woke” will be hot until the rest of black America gets a voice
Everybody’s woke now, right? I wonder how that’s working out? The term “woke” simply refers to not being asleep, not being ignorant to the issues that plague black America—racism, poor schools, food deserts, crooked cops, our broken justice system, unfair hiring practices, and the banks that bury us with vicious Black Taxes like unfair interest rates on mortgages. You know . . . the hurdles.
Woke people know the origins of everything that hurts black people, the policies that allow these systems to function, and have the most effective language when given the opportunity to explain these issues, mainly online or during the intermission at spoken-word readings. Woke people are smart—they are normally educated with at least one bachelor’s degree, keep a copy of a James Baldwin or bell hooks book on their person, have a passport, are fluent in all forms of social media, and have been to Cuba at least once since Obama lifted the embargo.
Woke people wear locs or baby fros and use coconut oil, olive oil, and hemp soap. They blog, they have a brand, they wrap themselves in henna or war paint at festivals even though they rarely engage in a physical war, if they ever engage at all.
Woke people have the best graphic T-shirts and catchiest hashtags. They have great jobs or no job because their families can afford to float them, they are the first to pop up at a protest, take the best viral images, and run home to talk about it on the internet. Sharing variations of the same image repeatedly. Here are some of my favorites:
- Group selfie at the protest
- Screaming at a cop they’d never touch
- Definitely that iconic image where a small group does the black power fist pump
- Solo image doing the black power fist pump
- And if you are lucky, you’ll get that news worthy clip of yourself being arrested shouting “fight the power” as you go off to be detained for three hours
I went to protests before I realized they weren’t for me. The woke crowd seemed off and I didn’t know why. I guess it felt like everybody was talking to a group of people who don’t listen. It wasn’t until Donald Stevenson, a real activist sitting in the audience at a panel I sat on in Southeast DC, broke it down that I understood.
I shared the stage with two well-known authors and community leaders, re-entry expert Tony Lewis Jr. and artist Aaron Maybin. We were talking about our community work to a small crowd, sharing successes and failures and telling people what they could do to help us if they wanted to be a part of the positive changes happening in DC and Baltimore, beyond protests. It was light, funny, and I think some people were inspired. Then this loudmouth dude in a linty sweater with sparkles and wide-leg dres’ pants barged in yelling, “Y’all Black Lives Matter people not gonna be coming to my neighborhood and telling me how to run it!”
This is not where the original Woke people wanted to go I’m sure they wanted something that would make people stand up and notice Africa America had a problem and it was not being dealt with by the Government. This is not a pet rock if some of you remember that? this is about Black America being treated Very Poorly even some that were killed because they are black. This is very serious stuff, not a Joke. That is how America is starting to look at it because of Hollywood and its superstar rich status. Now, who is going to listen to them (what do they know about being poor?).
Why Being ‘Woke’ Is Not Enough
But today ‘wokeness’ has become a product available for all Americans to purchase. ‘Wokeness’ is on the middle shelf, ready to be grabbed and thrown in the shopping cart. Its commodification has made its purchase possible and convenient but with very few demands placed on the buyer.
This is precisely where the danger lies. ‘Wokeness’ as something to opt-in or opt-out of has obscured the essential nature of social awareness. If one can opt-out of being ‘woke’ or politically engaged, it becomes easier to shirk our responsibilities as citizens. What was once a civic duty becomes a mere add-on to our identities. What was an attempt to help us understand each other’s humanity becomes a trendy dating requirement for millennials aged 18-25. Too many of us feel the pressure to perform wokeness but not enough of us want to embody it. It’s an easy trap to fall into. Humans are lazy creatures, and if we can find a way to minimize the otherwise arduous process of true involvement and character building, we will gladly take it. Think about it in different terms. If ‘wokeness’ as a framework can provide us with a quick shortcut to decipher the contents of one’s character, what’s stopping us? Selfish human tendencies have driven us to co-opt a label that should be used to do so much more than vain virtue signaling.
There are a few core questions to ask of our newest popular label ‘woke’. If one achieves ‘woke’ status, is that enough? Is that anything? Who does the ‘woke’ label serve? Reciting the word intersectionality in casual discourse may be impressive, but is that all ‘wokeness’ requires of us?
Imagine a conversation between a college student and her friend about the merits of her newest love interest.
“You know what makes him even more perfect?”
“He’s woke too,” she swoons.
“Wait, how do you know?
“He went to the Women’s March, don’t you remember from his Instagram?”
In this conversation, the presupposed inferiority placed upon the ‘un-woke’ elevates the status of this new love interest in the head of another self-identified ‘woke’ individual. It’s presumptuous. With evolving social taboos, many millennials are willing and able to write off others who don’t have the ‘woke’ badge as both lesser than and not plugged into modern society. Staying ‘woke’ has gone from a movement bent on creating genuine social change to a flimsy status symbol, obscuring its original role as an agent for change. Instead of developing critical consciousness for the sake of making the world a better place, it is becoming too easy to self-identify as ‘woke’ and reap the cash benefits of the label without the sweat, blood, and tears of the activism needed to put critical consciousness to use.
How can we reframe ‘wokeness’ and broaden its function beyond the status-seeking apparatus it has become? Instead of using the adjective ‘woke’ to characterize a person, we should use it to characterize acts. This way, by applauding someone for engaging in a ‘woke’ act, we can encourage each other to think and more importantly act politically while reducing identity-based polarization. If x individual spends their Fridays on college campuses coaching young adults to be active bystanders at parties, they are engaging in a ‘woke’ act or one that does social good. Assigning their entire person the ‘woke’ label is unnecessary, comes with a high error rate, deepens polarization, and encourages a self-serving performance of ‘wokeness.’
While millennial slang has its place in our modern context, it is on us to tighten our language and refine it as we see fit. On appearance, the slang – in particular the political slang – we use may appear harmless but further inspection reveals a rotting underneath sure to decay our political discourse over time if we do nothing to intervene. Belonging to a national context rich with identity-based politics, we have forced social awareness into a packaged product. Its neat packaging is convenient, selfishly-motivated, and profitable. Almost too naturally, our capitalist tendencies have commercialized “wokeness” and in doing so obscured its true meaning and stripped it of its rich roots. The bottom line is simple. Every citizen with a vested interest in the healthful functioning of our nation should strive to develop critical consciousness. We should desire wokeness not because of the false sense of superiority it provides us but rather for its true merits. The more politically aware our citizenry becomes, the more we can protect one another from social ills.