August 30, 2023
“What’s all this stuff about being woke?” That’s what Betty asked last year at dinner. Betty, my neighbor, is my southern, Republican, Mormon mother. She’s in Fox News’s demographic, so of course she hears woke more as perjorative than progressive. Plain and simple, woke means being aware of racial and social prejudice, injustice, and discrimination. Turns out there’s a rich, linguistic history behind the word.
Jamaican philosopher and social activist Marcus Garvey wrote “Wake up Ethiopia! Wake up Africa!” in 1923. He used this metaphor for Black political consciousness. Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, in his 1938 song “Scottsboro Boys” incorporated the phrase “stay woke” in the lyrics. It became a key word in African-American communities for folx to be aware of threats and dangers. By mid-century, the word moved beyond the community to mean being well-informed or aware. Erykah Badu’s song “Master Teacher” contains the refrain “I stay woke.”
Michael Brown’s shooting in 2014 spurred the Black Lives Matter movement to begin using the phrase “stay woke” as a way to recognize police abuses against African-Americans. During that decade, the past participle moved its way into mainstream vocabulary, appropriated by other groups that suffered prejudice, injustice, and discrimination. The pundits took aim. Aja Romano, culture commentator for Vox, wrote woke is a “single-word summation of leftists political ideology, centered on social justice politics and critical race theory.” Conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote: “to be woke is to be radically aware and justifiably paranoid. It is to be cognizant of the rot pervading the power structures.” The American Dialect Society voted woke as the “slang word of the year,” while the Oxford English Dictionary included it as a neologism.
Those who oppose progressive movements see woke as “overrighteous liberalism” (British journalist Steven Poole) and Forbes defined it as “following an intolerant and moralizing ideology.” Woke has become an insult. Republicans call Democrats “woke.” Centrist Democrats call their liberal colleagues “woke.” Florida’s legislature enacted the Stop WOKE Act, limiting discussion of racism in Florida schools. The “woke mob” tries to suppress Josh Hawley’s book. The Biden administration is “destroying the country with wokeness” (D. Trump).
The term has moved into business and marketing, used to sell “soft drink[s] to razors” (A. Mirzaei). White liberals are accused of co-opting the word to appear progressive, resulting in woke-washing. Woke capitalism tries to include marginalized groups in ad campaigns targeted to millennials.
All this culture war just because we want to be aware of how we treat others. Obviously, the Golden Rule died a long time ago. Maybe if the Golden Rule had been enforced from the beginning, wokeness wouldn’t be a thing. But that’s another essay for another day. I’m lucky I’ve traveled the world and experiences many types of folx and cultures. We all want the same thing — to be healthy and have a good home for ourselves and those we love. Know how I know that? I learn about other people. I treat everyone as human.
Brooks, David (July 25, 2017). “Opinion | How Cool Works in America Today”. The New York Times.
Mirzaei, Abas (September 8, 2019). “Where ‘woke’ came from and why marketers should think twice before jumping on the social activism bandwagon”. The Conversation.
Poole, Steven (December 25, 2019). “From woke to gammon: buzzwords by the people who coined them”. The Guardian.
Romano, Aja (October 9, 2020). “A history of ‘wokeness’”. Vox.