The term ‘woke’ has been used a lot in political discourse lately. What is your reaction when you hear ‘woke’? Is it something you aspire to, or do you dismiss the idea as something not worth consideration? The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines ‘woke’ as “aware of and actively attentive to important societal facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice)”
Though the term has been included in the Oxford English Dictionary only since 2017, it is not new and has not always been political. The 1962 New York Times essay by novelist William Melvin Kelley, “If You’re Woke You Dig It,” is considered a celebration of black culture. From the early to the mid-20th century, woke has been used in writing aimed at promoting social justice. Around 2014, after the high-profile police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, to name a few, the word became prominent as more people were open to developing a deeper understanding of injustices in our nation’s history and current events. The Black Lives Matter movement was rising to prominence in the wake of those senseless tragedies.
I remember my teenage son telling me that I wasn’t ‘woke’ a few years back. I believe either my husband or I was telling a joke, probably based on some stereotype that we had grown up with. My son was right. Like most people, I had (and still have) much to learn about the experiences of people different from me.
I grew up in greater Boston in the ’70s and 80s. In Elementary school, we were taught about MLK, Rosa Parks, the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and how Dr. King believed in nonviolent protest. I felt smugly fortunate to be growing up in New England rather than Birmingham Alabama in the 1950s. My mother told me stories of when she was a child visiting her grandparents in a place where some of the water fountains were for other people. My state was among the first to name King’s birthday as a holiday. At the same time, it was also extremely segregated. I lacked the opportunity to grow up with people that looked different from me. Still, I went off to college wearing my ‘Erase Racism’ pin, unaware of the unconscious prejudices I had been fed throughout life.
Several events in the last few years have forced many of us to examine our ignorance and privilege. The slang word has so accurately described this process of waking up. We had become too comfortable in believing that a post-racial society was inevitable because, as we were told, discrimination and harassment were no longer tolerated in schools and the workplace. We believed the struggles learned about in school were no longer an issue, because they happened in another time and place.
Wokeness is to read, listen, and learn. It is then to be aghast at how much there still is to learn.
Why then, does woke now have a negative connotation? We hear politicians rile their base describing detractors as the ‘woke mob’, as if empathy and acceptance were a bad thing. After the widespread protests in 2020, we began to hear about wokeness that represented cancel culture, CRT, and social justice warriors. Like all these boogeyman terms, woke had bounced around in speeches from former governor and potential 2024 presidential candidate, Nikki Haley, who referred to woke as “a virus more dangerous than any pandemic…,” to Florida governor Ron DeSantis who described woke ideology as “an attempt to really delegitimize our history and to delegitimize our institutions.”
It may seem odd why a state leader would spend time denouncing a movement that is based on justice and awareness of history, but you must look at the action items of state governments across the country to see the pattern. Florida’s own Stop W.O.K.E Act (W.O.K.E stands for Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees), is intended to provide backlash against DEI training in schools and businesses.
Talk show hosts, podcasters, bloggers, and other purveyors of right-wing talking points have long been manipulating otherwise decent people, out of their compassion for years with tropes such as welfare mothers driving Mercedes Benz cars. This characterization was used by radio hosts, in films, and even by a past president. More recently, when the ‘Zero Tolerance’ immigration policy caused children to be removed from their parent’s custody, after fleeing violence in Central America, the action was described by a popular cable news entertainment host as “Just like Summer camp.” As long as one or more groups can be characterized as ‘other’, people can be manipulated from compassion to fear and resentment. This doesn’t happen by accident. Like the Rogers and Hammerstein lyrics say, “You have to be carefully taught.”
Since these talking points are flung from every direction it’s easy to have a visceral reaction to a single word. Like the terms ‘politically correct’, ‘social justice warrior’, and ‘cancel culture’, wokeness has been maligned to the point of becoming a deflection shield for those who don’t want to take part in any discussion of the issues. If you don’t want to hear about a difficult issue, refer to the person you are debating as woke, end of discussion. Anti-woke rhetoric has morphed into new terms such as ‘woke capitalism’ and ‘woke supremacy’, designed to evoke ominous imagery, no doubt.
This rhetoric has a purpose. It closes people down from learning about social justice and inclusion. This makes it easier for lawmakers in states around the country, who have been hard at work legislating the way racial and LGBTQ issues are taught (or not) in public schools. According to the ACLU mapping of the 2023 legislative session, there have been 211 anti-LGBTQ laws introduced that propose to change how issues of gender and race are taught in public schools and colleges, including SB 280 which is pending in the legislature of Connecticut.
How should we respond to those that use ‘woke’ as an insult? Perhaps asking a person to explain why ‘woke’ is so horrible may get them thinking about how they got the idea that empathy and understanding is a bad thing.
There can be several interpretations of the word ‘woke’. I like one of the definitions by Mahogany L. Browne in the book on which she collaborated, Woke: A Young Poet’s Call to Justice. “To be WOKE is to understand that equality and justice for some is not equality and justice for all. We must stay alert. We must ask hard questions. We must stand for what is right—even when it is difficult and scary.”