Woke (// WOHK) is a term, originating in the United States, that originally referred to awareness about racial prejudice and discrimination. It subsequently came to encompass an awareness of other issues of social inequality, for instance regarding gender and sexual orientation. Since the late 2010s, it has also been used as a general term for left-wing political movements and perspectives which emphasise the identity politics of people of color, LGBT people, and women.
The phrase "stay woke" had emerged in the United States by the 1930s. Developing within African-American Vernacular English, "woke" referred to an awareness of the social and political issues affecting African Americans, especially with regards to racial prejudice and discrimination. In this form it appeared in various contexts, for instance in songs by Lead Belly and Erykah Badu. Following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, the phrase was popularised by Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists seeking to raise awareness about police shootings of African Americans. Widely used on "Black Twitter", it gained traction as an Internet meme and was increasingly utilised by individuals who were not African American, often to signal their support for BLM; some commentators criticised this as cultural appropriation. Particularly associated with the young millennial generation, the term spread internationally and was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2017.
Amid its increasing adoption beyond its African American origins, the term "woke" gained broader connotations. Rather than being applied solely to racial issues, it was increasingly used as a catch-all term to describe those left-wing ideologies, often centred on the identity politics of minority groups and informed by academic movements like critical race theory, which identified themselves as being devoted to "social justice". This included BLM but also related forms of anti-racism as well as campaigns on women's and LGBT issues. The terms "woke capitalism" and "woke washing" were coined to describe companies who signalled their support for such causes. By 2020, parts of the political right in several Western countries were using the term "woke", often in an ironic way, to describe various leftist movements and ideologies they disagreed with. In turn, some left-wing activists came to consider it an offensive term used to denigrate those campaigning against discrimination.
In some varieties of African-American English, woke is used in place of woken, the usual past participle form of wake. This has led in turn to the use of woke as an adjective equivalent to awake, which has become mainstream in the United States.
Black American folk singer-songwriter Huddie Ledbetter, a.k.a. Lead Belly, uses the phrase near the end of the recording of his 1938 song "Scottsboro Boys", which tells the story of nine black teenagers accused of raping two white women, saying: "I advise everybody, be a little careful when they go along through there – best stay woke, keep their eyes open". Aja Romano writes in Vox that this represents "Black Americans' need to be aware of racially motivated threats and the potential dangers of white America." J. Saunders Redding recorded a comment from an African American United Mine Workers official in 1940, stating: "Let me tell you buddy. Waking up is a damn sight harder than going to sleep, but we'll stay woke up longer."
By the mid-20th century, woke had come to mean 'well-informed' or 'aware', especially in a political or cultural sense. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the earliest such usage to a 1962 New York Times Magazine article titled "If You're Woke You Dig It" by African-American novelist William Melvin Kelley, describing the appropriation of African American slang by white beatniks.
Woke had gained more political connotations by 1971, when the play Garvey Lives! by Barry Beckham included the line: "I been sleeping all my life. And now that Mr. Garvey done woke me up, I'm gon' stay woke. And I'm gon help him wake up other black folk." Garvey had himself exhorted his early 20th century audiences, "Wake up Ethiopia! Wake up Africa!" Romano describes this as "a call to global Black citizens to become more socially and politically conscious".
Through the 2000s and early 2010s, woke was used either as a term for not literally falling asleep, or as slang for one's suspicions of being cheated on by a romantic partner. In the 21st-century's first decade, use of woke encompassed the earlier meaning with an added sense of being "alert to social and/or racial discrimination and injustice".
This usage was popularized by soul singer Erykah Badu's 2008 song "Master Teacher", via the song's refrain, "I stay woke". Merriam-Webster.com defines the expression "stay woke" in Badu's song as meaning, "self-aware, questioning the dominant paradigm and striving for something better"; and, although, within the context of the song it did not yet have a specific connection to justice issues, Merriam-Webster credits the phrase's use in the song with its later connection to these issues.
Songwriter Georgia Anne Muldrow, who composed "Master Teacher" in 2005, told Okayplayer news and culture editor Elijah Watson that while she was studying jazz at New York University, she learned the invocation Stay woke from Harlem alto saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin, who used the expression in the meaning of trying to "stay woke" because of tiredness or boredom, "talking about how she was trying to stay up – like literally not pass out." In homage, Muldrow enscribed stay woke in marker on her t-shirt, which over time became suggestive of engaging in the process of the search for herself (as distinct from, for example, a merely personal productivity).
In a tweet mentioning the Russian feminist rock group Pussy Riot, whose members had been imprisoned in 2012, Badu wrote: "Truth requires no belief. Stay woke. Watch closely. #FreePussyRiot". This has been cited[by whom?] as a harbinger of the #Staywoke hashtag.
Black Lives Matter
Following the shooting of Michael Brown in 2014, The phrase stay woke was used by activists of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement to urge awareness of police abuses. BET's documentary "Stay Woke," which covered the movement, aired in May 2016. Within the decade of the 2010s, the word woke (the colloquial, passively voiced past participle of wake) obtained the meaning "politically and socially aware" among BLM activists.
The term "woke" became increasingly common on "Black Twitter", the community of African American users of the social media platform Twitter. André Brock, a professor of black digital studies at the Georgia Institute of Technology, suggested that the term "woke" proved popular on Twitter because its brevity suited the platform's 140-character limit. The phrase Stay Woke became an Internet meme, with searches for "woke" on Google surging in 2015.
In June 2016, Twitter's CEO Jack Dorsey was interviewed while wearing a Twitter-branded "#StayWoke" t-shirt. Dorsey commented that for him, the slogan meant "being aware...staying aware and keep questioning." The following month, the BLM activist and author DeRay Mckesson, who co-founded non-profit advocacy group StayWoke.org, gained wider prominence after he was photographed wearing one of these Twitter t-shirts at a protest in Baton Rouge.
The term "woke" increasingly came to be identified with members of the millennial generation. In May 2016, MTV News identified "woke" as being among ten words teenagers "should know in 2016", while the following year, Dejuana Thompson of Birmingham, Alabama established Woke Vote, an organization devoted to registering millennials.
In November 2016, the singer Childish Gambino released the song "Redbone", which used the term "stay woke" in reference to infidelity. In December 2015, BuzzFeed published an article titled "Can We Talk About How Woke Matt McGorry Was In 2015," a reference to the actor's support for forms of socio-political activism, while in December 2016, a Bloomberg Businessweek headline asked "Is Wikipedia Woke?", in reference to the largely white contributor base of the online encyclopaedia. The American Dialect Society voted it the slang word of the year. In 2017, the term was included as an entry in Oxford English Dictionary.
Vox's Aja Romano wrote that the word was adopted by members of online groups, identifying them as professing of social consciousness and activism, from which woke evolved into a "single-word summation of leftist political ideology, centered on social justice politics and critical race theory." According to the New York Times's Amanda Hess, writing in 2016, woke was "a back-pat from the left, a way of affirming the sensitive." Essayist Maya Binyam, writing in The Awl, ironized about a seeming contest among players who "name racism when it appears" or who disparage "folk who are lagging behind."
Linguist Ben Zimmer writes that with mainstream currency, the term's "original grounding in African-American political consciousness has been obscured". Journalist Amanda Hess says social media accelerated the word's cultural appropriation, writing, "The conundrum is built in. When white people aspire to get points for consciousness, they walk right into the cross hairs between allyship and appropriation." Writer and activist Chloé Valdary has stated that the concept of being woke is a "double-edged sword" that can "alert people to systemic injustice" while also being "an aggressive, performative take on progressive politics that only makes things worse."
While the term "woke" initially pertained to issues of racial prejudice and discrimination impacting African Americans, it was appropriated by other activist groups with different causes. The commentator Kenya Hunt noted that while the term originally pertained specifically to an alertness to racial issues, it came to encompass "conversations around art, politics, economic and social class, gender inequality, trans rights and environmentalism." Similarly, Abas Mirzaei, a senior lecturer in branding at Macquarie University noted that the term "has been cynically applied to everything from soft drink to razors".
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defined "woke" as meaning a state of being "aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice)." Writing for The Guardian, in 2019 the commentator Chitra Ramaswamy described "woke" approvingly as "a pledge to stay vigilant to oppression". While there was no agreed upon definition of what "woke" meant, it was largely associated with ideas that "involve identity and race" and which were being promoted by progressives, such as the notion of white privilege or slavery reparations for African Americans.
The term "woke" gained popularity amid an increasing leftward turn on various issues among the American Left; this was partly a reaction to the right-wing politics of US President Donald Trump, who was elected in 2016, but also by a growing awareness regarding the extent of historical discrimination faced by African Americans. Ideas that came to be associated with "woke" included a rejection of American exceptionalism; a belief that the United States has never been a true democracy; that people of color suffer from systemic and institutional racism; that white Americans experience white privilege; that African Americans deserve reparations for slavery and post-enslavement discrimination; that disparities among racial groups, for instance in certain professions or industries, are automatic evidence of discrimination; that U.S. law enforcement agencies are designed to discriminate against people of color and so should be defunded, disbanded, or heavily reformed; that women suffer from systemic sexism; that individuals should be able to identify with any gender or none; that U.S. capitalism is deeply flawed; and that Trump's election to the presidency was not an aberration but a reflection of the prejudices about people of color held by large parts of the US population. Although increasingly accepted across much of the American Left, many of these ideas were nevertheless unpopular among the U.S. population as a whole and among other, especially more centrist parts, of the Democratic Party.
Social justice scholars Tehama Lopez Bunyasi and Candis Watts Smith, in their 2019 book Stay Woke: A People's Guide to Making All Black Lives Matter, argue against what they term as "Woker-than-Thou-itis: Striving to be educated around issues of social justice is laudable and moral, but striving to be recognized by others as a woke individual is self-serving and misguided."
The impact of "woke" sentiment on society was criticised from various perspectives. In 2018, the British political commentator Andrew Sullivan spoke critically of a "Great Awokening", describing it as a "cult of social justice on the left, a religion whose followers show the same zeal as any born-again Evangelical [Christian]" and who "punish heresy by banishing sinners from society or coercing them to public demonstrations of shame". In 2021, the British filmmaker and DJ Don Letts suggested that "in a world so woke you can't make a joke," it was difficult for young artists to make protest music without being accused of cultural appropriation. By 2019 the term "woke" was increasingly being used in an ironic sense, reflected in two books published that year: Brendan O'Neill's Anti-Woke and the comedian Andrew Doyle's Woke, written as his fictional character Titania McGrath.
"Woke capitalism" and "woke washing"
This section needs expansion. You can help by adding to it. (March 2021)
Woke elements appeared in advertising scripts by the mid 2010s. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat coined the term "woke capitalism" for companies signaling their support for progressive causes in order to maintain their influence in society. According to The Economist, examples of "woke capitalism" include advertising campaigns designed to appeal to millennials, who often hold more socially liberal views than earlier generations.
Businesses whose intellectual properties were created by individuals whose works or personal statements have been "called out" (alleged as expressions of insensitivity or worse), may experience abruptly negative financial consequences. The pro-activist campaigns launched by various companies were often perceived as insincere and inauthentic. The meme "get woke, go broke" appeared as part of this backlash.
In 2020, cultural scientists Akane Kanai and Rosalind Gill warned of the dangers of what they called "woke capitalism", i. e. the "dramatically intensifying" trend to include historically marginalized groups (currently primarily in terms of race, gender and religion) as mascots in advertisement with a message of empowerment to signal progressive values. On the one hand, this creates an individualized and depoliticized idea of social justice, reducing it to an increase in self-confidence. On the other hand, the omnipresent visibility in advertising can also amplify a backlash against the equality of precisely these minorities. These would become mascots not only of the companies using them, but of the unchallenged neoliberal economic system with its socially unjust order itself. For the economically weak, the equality of these minorities would thus become indispensable to the maintenance of this economic system; the minorities would be seen responsible for the losses of this system.
The term "woke washing" was also used by British left-wing commentator Owen Jones in The Guardian. In 2019, the term was used at a conference by Alan Jope, the chief executive of Unilever, who warned that brands which failed to take action on their rhetoric could "further destroy trust in our industry".
"Woke" as a pejorative term
By at least early 2020, figures on the political right were criticising what they termed "woke culture," with right-leaning media sources increasingly using the term "woke" as a pejorative. Those who used it as a term of derision were often in disagreement with movements like BLM which the term was associated with, or believed that they were exaggerating the extent of the social problems they were campaigning on. In The Guardian, commentator Kenya Hunt suggested that in this pejorative sense, "woke" was used to describe anyone who was "a slave to identity politics," while also in The Guardian, Steven Poole commented that it was being used "mockingly for a kind of overrighteous liberalism." Writing for FiveThirtyEight, the journalist Perry Bacon Jr. suggested that many American right-wingers used "woke" as "an all-encompassing term for liberal ideas they don't like, particularly ones that have emerged recently".
In the U.S., members of the Republican Party were increasingly using the term to criticize members of the Democratic Party, while more centrist members of the latter were using it against more left-leaning members of their own party. Bacon connects this "anti-woke posture" to the Republican Party's longstanding promotion of backlash politics, such as conservative backlash in response to political gains by African Americans and changing cultural norms respectively. In the UK, the actor-turned-activist Laurence Fox published an article entitled "Why I won't date 'woke' women," after which he was praised by commentator Toby Young for "terrorising the Wokerati." Right-leaning tabloid The Sun accused Prince Harry and his wife Meghan Markle of being "the oppressive King and Queen of Woke;" right-leaning Daily Mail referred to Harry as having transformed from "fun loving bloke to the Prince of Woke."
In a January 2021 speech, Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch complained of the "awful woke orthodoxy" in Western society, while at an Ohio rally in June, former US President Donald Trump criticised "woke generals" in the US Army. Following the toppling of an Edward Colston statue in Bristol and activist calls for similar statue removals elsewhere in Britain, in January 2021, the UK's Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick complained about "town hall militants and woke worthies" who sought the removal of statues of controversial figures "at the behest of a baying mob."
Writing in The Guardian, the commentator Steve Rose claimed that the political right had "weaponised" the term "woke." He compared it to "politically correct" as a term originally coined by leftists but then adopted by their right-wing rivals; this comparison was also made by American linguist and social critic John McWhorter. Also in The Guardian, the commentator Evan Smith compared the use of "woke" by the British right to their use of the term "loony left" during the 1980s. The commentator Kenan Malik warned that setting up a binary division between the "woke" and "unwoke" was tribalistic and hindered constructive political conversations. He compared "woke" to terms like "radicalism," "fascism," and "racism", all words that were "used so promiscuously that their value is only as a means of political positioning".
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