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Then-United States Congresswoman Marcia Fudge with a T-shirt reading "Stay Woke: Vote" in 2018

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 emphasising the identity politics of people of colour, 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 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.[1] 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. Mainly associated with the young millennial generation, the term spread internationally and was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2017.

As use of the term has spread beyond its African-American origins, woke has increasingly been used as a catch-all term to describe left-wing social-justice movements and ideologies. 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 center and right wing in several Western countries were using the term woke, often in an ironic way, as an insult for various leftist movements and ideologies perceived as over-zealous or insincere. In turn, some left-wing activists came to consider it an offensive term used to denigrate those campaigning against discrimination.[2]

Origins and usage

"Wake up Africa! Let us work towards the one glorious end of a free, redeemed and mighty nation." --Marcus Garvey, Philosophy and Opinions (1923)[3][4][5]

In some varieties of African-American English, woke is used in place of woken, the usual past participle form of wake.[6] This has led to the use of woke as an adjective equivalent to awake, which has become mainstream in the United States.[6][7]

20th century

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."[8][9] Aja Romano writes at Vox that this represents "Black Americans' need to be aware of racially motivated threats and the potential dangers of white America".[4] 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."[10]

By the mid-20th century, woke had come to mean 'well-informed' or 'aware',[11] especially in a political or cultural sense.[6] 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.[6]

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."[12][13] Garvey had himself exhorted his early 20th century audiences, "Wake up Ethiopia! Wake up Africa!"[14] Romano describes this as "a call to global Black citizens to become more socially and politically conscious".[4]

2000s and early 2010s, #Staywoke hashtag

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.[4] In November 2016, the singer Childish Gambino released the song "Redbone", which used the term stay woke in reference to infidelity.[15] In the 21st century's first decade, the use of woke encompassed the earlier meaning with an added sense of being "alert to social and/or racial discrimination and injustice".[6]

"Master Teacher", a 2008 song by the American singer Erykah Badu (pictured in 2012) included the term stay woke

This usage was popularised by soul singer Erykah Badu's 2008 song "Master Teacher",[7][11] via the song's refrain, "I stay woke".[12][16] Merriam-Webster 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.[7][17]

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 wrote stay woke in marker on a T-shirt, which over time became suggestive of engaging in the process of the search for herself (as distinct from, for example, merely personal productivity).[18]

According to The Economist, as the term woke and the #Staywoke hashtag began to spread online, the term "began to signify a progressive outlook on a host of issues as well as on race".[19] In a tweet mentioning the Russian feminist rock group Pussy Riot, whose members had been imprisoned in 2012,[20][21] Badu wrote: "Truth requires no belief. Stay woke. Watch closely. #FreePussyRiot".[22][23][24] This has been cited[by whom?] as a harbinger of the #Staywoke hashtag.[25][26][15]

2010s: Black Lives Matter

A protest in St. Paul against police brutality by Black Lives Matter supporters

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.[27][4] The BET documentary Stay Woke, which covered the movement, aired in May 2016.[28] Within the decade of the 2010s, the word woke (the colloquial, passively voiced past participle of wake) obtained the meaning 'politically and socially aware'[29] among BLM activists.[6][27]

Broadening usage

The term woke became increasingly common on Black Twitter, the community of African American users of the social media platform Twitter.[15] 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.[15] The phrase Stay Woke became an Internet meme,[17] with searches for woke on Google surging in 2015.[26]

The term increasingly came to be identified with members of the millennial generation.[15] In May 2016, MTV News identified woke as being among ten words teenagers "should know in 2016",[30][15] while the following year, Dejuana Thompson of Birmingham, Alabama established Woke Vote, an organization devoted to registering millennials.[31][32][33]

"#StayWoke" hashtag on a placard during a December 2015 protest in Minneapolis

In December 2015, BuzzFeed published an article titled "Can We Talk About How Woke Matt McGorry Was In 2015", a reference to actor Matt McGorry's support for forms of socio-political activism,[17] while in December 2016, a Bloomberg Businessweek headline asked "Is popflock.com resource Woke?", in reference to the largely white contributor base of the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia.[34] In June 2016, Twitter's CEO Jack Dorsey was interviewed while wearing a Twitter-branded "#StayWoke" T-shirt.[15][35][36] Dorsey commented that for him, the slogan meant "being aware...staying aware and keep questioning".[37] The following month, the BLM activist and author DeRay Mckesson, who co-founded non-profit advocacy group StayWoke.org,[38] gained wider prominence after he was photographed wearing one of these Twitter T-shirts at a protest in Baton Rouge.[39][40][41][42]

The American Dialect Society voted woke the slang word of the year in 2017.[43][44][45] In the same year, the term was included as an entry in Oxford English Dictionary.[46][6]

While there is no single agreed-upon definition of what woke means, it is largely associated with ideas that involve identity and race and which are promoted by progressives, such as the notion of white privilege or slavery reparations for African Americans.[2] Voxs Aja Romano writes that woke evolved into a "single-word summation of leftist political ideology, centered on social justice politics and critical race theory".[4]

Linguist Ben Zimmer writes that with mainstream currency, the term's "original grounding in African-American political consciousness has been obscured".[12] The Economist states that as the term came to be used more to describe white people active on social media, black activists "criticised the performatively woke for being more concerned with internet point-scoring than systemic change".[19] Journalist Amanda Hess says social media accelerated the word's cultural appropriation,[27] 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."[7][27] Hess calls woke "a back-pat from the left, a way of affirming the sensitive".[27]

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".[4] 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."[47][48][49] 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".[27][further explanation needed]

"Stay Woke - Bin Off this Bloke", a placard criticising media mogul Rupert Murdoch at an environmentalist protest in Melbourne, Australia in 2020

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.[26] Abas Mirzaei, a senior lecturer in branding at Macquarie University says that the term "has been cynically applied to everything from soft drink to razors".[26]

The term woke has gained popularity amid an increasing leftward turn on various issues among the American left; this has partly been a reaction to the right-wing politics of US President Donald Trump, who was elected in 2016, but also to a growing awareness regarding the extent of historical discrimination faced by African Americans.[50] Ideas that have come to be associated with wokeness include 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.[50] 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.[50]

The impact of woke sentiment on society has been criticised from various perspectives. In 2018, the British political commentator Andrew Sullivan described the "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".[26] 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.[51] 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.[52]

The 2020 TV series Woke features the political awakening of fictional San Francisco black cartoonist Keef Knight, played by Lamorne Morris.[53][54][55]

In March 2021, Les Echos listed woke among eight words adopted by Generation Z that indicate "un tournant sociétal" ["a societal turning point"] in France.[56]

In interviews about his book Woke Racism, Columbia linguist John McWhorter (who labels himself "woke") labels as "hyper woke" a group he calls the "elect," which he argues "are the woke who are mean."[57] McWhorter argues, "The elect are people who believe, as an inheritance from critical race theory, that battling power differentials should be central to all intellectual, moral and artistic endeavours. They believe that anyone who disagrees with them deserves a public shaming and a general deprivation of their titles, possibly their job, any honours that they've had."[58]

As a pejorative term

Among American conservatives, woke has come to be used primarily as an insult.[59][2][4] In this pejorative sense, woke means "following an intolerant and moralising ideology."[19] Journalist Steven Poole comments that the term is used to mock "overrighteous liberalism".[60] Romano says that on the American right, "'woke' – like its cousin 'canceled' – bespeaks 'political correctness' gone awry".[4]

Opponents of progressive social movements often use the term mockingly or sarcastically,[4][61] implying that "wokeness" is an insincere form of performative activism.[59][4] Such critics often believe that movements such as such as Black Lives Matter exaggerate the extent of social problems.[61] In the U.S., members of the Republican Party have been increasingly using the term to criticize members of the Democratic Party, while more centrist Democrats use it against more left-leaning members of their own party; such critics accuse those on their left of using cancel culture to damage the employment prospects of those who are not considered sufficiently "woke".[2] Bacon connects this "anti-woke posture" to the Republican Party's long-standing promotion of backlash politics, by promoting white and conservative fears in response to political gains by African Americans and changing cultural norms respectively.[62][2] Linguist and social critic John McWhorter argues that the history of woke is similar to that of politically correct, another term once used self-descriptively by the left which was appropriated by the right as an insult, in a process similar to the euphemism treadmill.[63]

Following remarks by chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley in June, in which Milley defended the idea of teaching critical race theory at U.S. military academies,[64][65] former U.S. President Donald Trump said at a political rally in Ohio that military leaders were becoming too "woke",[66] later saying, "You know what woke means, it means you're a loser" and "Everything woke turns to shit" at a rally in Alabama.[67] Trump later told Fox News that the administration of president Joe Biden was "destroying" the country "with woke".[59] 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".[68] In 2021, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán said criticisms by EU leaders's criticism of certain sovereign laws in Hungary (reflecting traditional views about such things as gender) are based in a "neo-Marxist ideology" that is termed in the U.S. "woke."[69] According to the New York Times, government-aligned media in Hungary "regularly rails against the destabilizing effect that Western 'woke' culture has on traditional society."[70]

Woke capitalism and woke-washing

Woke elements[further explanation needed] appeared in advertising scripts by the mid 2010s.[46] The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat coined the term woke capitalism for companies signalling their support for progressive causes in order to maintain their influence in society.[71] 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.[72]

Janek Ratnatunga, CEO of the Institute of Certified Management Accountants, writes that businesses whose intellectual properties were created by individuals whose works or personal statements have been called out, i.e. alleged to be expressions of insensitivity or worse, may experience abruptly negative financial consequences.[73] The pro-activist campaigns launched by various companies were often perceived[by whom?] as insincere and inauthentic.[26] The meme "get woke, go broke" appeared as part of this backlash.[26]

In 2020, cultural scientists Akane Kanai and Rosalind Gill described "woke capitalism" as 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.[74]

The term woke-washing has been used 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".[75]

See also


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  8. ^ Matheis, Frank (August 2018). "Outrage Channeled in Verse". Living Blues. 49 (4). p. 15.
  9. ^ Lead Belly - "Scottsboro Boys" (song). SmithsonianFolkwaysRecordings. 2 July 2015. Event occurs at 4:26 – via YouTube.
  10. ^ J. Saunders Redding (1942). "Southern Awakening". Negro Digest. 1. p. 43.
  11. ^ a b Krouse, Tonya; O'Callaghan, Tamara F. (2020). Introducing English Studies. London: Bloomsbury Academic. p. 135. ISBN 978-1-350-05542-1.
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  13. ^ Beckham, Barry (1972). Garvey Lives!: A Play.
  14. ^ Garvey, Marcus; Garvey, Amy Jacques (1986) [1923]. The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey, Or, Africa for the Africans. Dover, Mass.: The Majority Press. p. 5. ISBN 978-0-912469-24-9. 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.
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  24. ^ Badu, Erykah [@fatbellybella] (8 August 2012). "Truth requires no belief. Stay woke. Watch closely. #FreePussyRiot" (Tweet) – via Twitter.
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  57. ^ Criticizing cancel culture as a 'woke' author|Books|DW
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  67. ^ Garcia, Eric (22 August 2021). "Trump mixes election grievance while railing against Biden's Afghanistan policy in Alabama". The Independent.
  68. ^ Adkins, William (18 January 2021). "UK defends plan to protect statues from 'woke worthies'". Politico. Retrieved 2021.
  69. ^ https://hungarytoday.hu/orban-protection-carpathian-basin-hungarians-centuries-long-mission/
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  73. ^ Ratnatunga, Janek (November 2020). "Stay Woke' or Go Broke: A New Awakening for Global Business". Journal of Applied Management Accounting Research. 18 (2). pp. 27-33.
  74. ^ Kanai, A.; Gill, R. (28 October 2020). "Woke? Affect, neoliberalism, marginalised identities and consumer culture". New Formations: A Journal of Culture/Theory/Politics. 102 (102): 10-27. doi:10.3898/NewF:102.01.2020. ISSN 0950-2378. S2CID 234623282.
  75. ^ Davies, Rob. "Unilever boss says brands using 'woke-washing' destroy trust". The Guardian. Retrieved 2021.

Further reading

External links

  • The dictionary definition of woke at Wiktionary

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