It seems that you can’t go a day without hearing some politician call out something for being “woke”. If you fact-check a right-winger on Twitter (still not calling it X) the chances are you’ll get called “a woke lefty snowflake” but surely not everything can be woke?
Well if you’re a right-wing or conservative politician it seems anything is fair game when it comes to wokery.
For example, conservative leaning Chick-fil-A (an American fast food chain known for supporting anti-LGBTQIA+ organisationsBBC News: Reading Chick-fil-A outlet to close in LGBT rights row) suddenly became the target of their own conservative customers because they had (shock horror!) a diversity and inclusion policyCNN Business: How Chick-fil-A became a target for going ‘woke’ (which is a legal requirement by the way).
But what the heck does woke actually mean?
What’s The Right-Wing Definition Of Woke?
Well, according to a Donald Trump, Republican’s don’t have a clueRolling Stone: Trump Admits Republicans Don’t Even Know What ‘Woke’ Means and doesn’t like the term himself[Newsweek: Donald Trump Criticizes Conservatives Saying ‘Woke’ All the Time](https://www.newsweek.com/donald-trump-criticizes-conservatives-saying-woke-all-time-1803954) even though he used it a few hours later to describe the military[Insider: … Continue reading (but it’s Donald Trump so do we expect any less?)
Conservative commentator Bethany Mandel got into a bit of a pickle when asked to define woke during an interview to promote her new book “Stolen Youth: How Radicals Are Erasing Innocence and Indoctrinating a Generation” which, embarrassingly says in the book’s introduction:
We named this book Stolen Youth but we could have just as easily called it Woke War on Families because the assault on childhood is an all-out battle against the American family
And the authors devote an entire chapter (Chapter 2: Wokeness in the time of the pandemic) to the term and yet can’t easily define it.
You can watch her interview here – I’ve cued it up so it starts at the point she brings woke into the conversation but you should watch the whole thing for full context:
So what does woke really mean? Why has it been adopted by the right-wing, what does it mean to them and will it be possible to ever reclaim the original meaning of the word?
The History Of The Term “Woke”
The term “woke” comes from African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) and has a long and important history.
Woke is the past participleScribbr: What Is a Past Participle? | Definition & Examples of wake and some see the term woke as the equivalent to the word “awake”.
If we’re awake then we are aware of our surroundings, we know what is going on and we can be an active participant in society.
While the exact origins of “woke” aren’t fully known, the concept of being woke/awake seems to have been first used by Jamaican author and philosopher Marcus Garvey in an 1923 collection of writings Wikipedia: Woke saying:
Wake up Ethiopia! Wake up Africa! Let us work towards the one glorious end of a free, redeemed and mighty nation. Let Africa be a bright star among the constellation of nations.
Black American folk singer Lead Belly then used the phrase “stay woke” as a spoken afterword to his 1938 song “Scottsboro Boys”, highlighting the need for African Americans to stay alert and be aware of injustices in the system and racial prejudice that would affect their every day livesVox: A history of “wokeness”.
From this point on, woke took on the mantle of meaning being actively socially conscious and well informed but was mainly kept within the black community and it wasn’t really used in mainstream communication.
The Politicisation Of Woke
The word became fully politicised in 2014 when 18 year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, MissouriWikipedia: Killing Of Michael Brown. Protests followed and the seeming lack of consequences for the police officer sparked outrage.
In the wake of Brown’s death, the phrase “Stay Woke” was used by the then fledgling Black Lives Matter movement (BLM was formed in 2013Howard University: A Brief History of Civil Rights in the United States: The Black Lives Matter Movement) to highlight the need to be aware of institutional racism[Institute Of Race Relations: What is institutional racism?](https://irr.org.uk/article/what-is-institutional-racism/) in the police force and systemic racismToday: What is systemic racism? in wider society.
It wasn’t until 2017 that the word “woke” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary with the definition of “being aware” or “well-informed” in a political senseIndependent: What is the history of the word ‘woke’ and its modern uses?.
From this point on the word was co-opted to mean any political ideology that was perceived to be left-leaning or progressive. This link with left-wing politics meant that right-wing and conservative political movements (mainly in America) began to use the term in a demeaning manner to put down any ideology that they perceived to be counter to their own beliefs.
The Impact Of Social And Main Stream Media
As social media has gained traction over the years, sites like Twitter (still not calling it X) have caused us to truncate our thoughts and arguments into 280 character (or less – and yes, I am aware you can now have more in some cases), politicians vie for air time by coming up with the best soundbites and MSM need to grab people’s attention which they usually do through fear.
Words like “woke”, “cancel culture”, “snowflake”, “liberal”, “radical left” and “social justice warrior” among other terms all fit nicely into this new media landscape by defining a concept in just a few words and this word can be attached to a concept, movement or minority in order to instil fear.
The problem is, these words don’t actually define anything.
What is woke to me may not be woke to you.
According to current Home Secretary Suella Braverman (a Conservative), protesting the UK Government’s shocking record on environmental issues is “woke” and that is bad apparently, as is supporting them or being an member of an opposition party (Labour and Liberal Democrat) – you have to see it to believe it:
Yes, you heard that right, if you’re progressive who wants stronger environmental protections and an end to climate change or not in the Conservative party you’re a part of the “Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati” – see what I mean about the uses soundbite and fear?
What Is The Problem With Woke Though?
While woke used to mean being socially and politically aware, with the term being hijacked (and it has been hijacked) by right-wing conservative groups it no longer means what it is supposed to.
It has been so over-used as a derogatory term that its true meaning has been lost.
This has happened in the past. The LGBTQIA+ community is finally regaining control over the word “Queer” after it being used as a homophobic slur for yearsGay Times: Reclaiming the word ‘queer’: what does it mean in 2019?.
But woke’s overuse will probably be its downfall and lead to its reclamation by the Black communities that first coined it.
When the right wing are calling everything woke from BlackRockNew York Post: Florida yanks $2B from ‘woke’ BlackRock over ‘social-engineering project’ to DisneyThe Hill: Disney may be woke, but it’s also goofy (and yes, both those examples relate to Florida because Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is the antiest-woke person on the face of the planetTime: Florida’s Governor Just Signed the ‘Stop Woke Act.’ Here’s What It Means for Schools and Businesses) and if you’re left leaning you’re woke or if you’re a centrist you’re woke but you’re also woke if you’re a liberal or a socialist or a Marxist then it’s probably easier to define what isn’t woke: Old Rich White Men.
The Official List Of Woke Things pic.twitter.com/yv7mr9b3EF
— The Exploding Heads (@Exploding_Heads) September 28, 2023
But, to me, if I get called “woke” I view that as a badge of honour, it’s proof that I am doing something right, that I am challenging the status quo and upsetting the right people.
The right might see it as a demeaning term but I see it as a compliment.
That being said, when a word is used constantly and incorrectly applied to literally everything, it loses its meaning.
It loses its power.
And that day can’t come fast enough in my view.