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What does woke really mean?

BACKGROUNDER | Woke has come to describe left-wing political ideology, but it originally had a different meaning


Illustration by Krieg Barrie

What does <em>woke</em> really mean?
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The term woke gets thrown around a lot these days. It appears in various forms, from wokeness, woke-o-­meters, and woketopia to calls to “stay woke.” Have you avoided using it in part because you’re not quite sure what it means?

Let’s start with the obvious: The word comes from the past participle of the verb wake, defined by Merriam-Webster as “to rouse from sleeping.”

When did woke become an adjective? In 1938, blues singer Huddie Ledbetter, aka Lead Belly, advised that black people “best stay woke, keep their eyes open,” referring to racist violence. Black novelist William Melvin Kelley wrote a piece for The New York Times in 1962 titled, “If You’re Woke You Dig It,” on beatniks and slang within the Harlem jazz scene. Black nationalists and civil rights activists in the 20th century used the word to promote social and political consciousness.

How has the word evolved? It remained within the African American vernacular, sometimes used as slang for staying awake or being suspicious of a cheating partner. But in 2014, the phrase “stay woke” took off on social media following the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Black Lives Matter proponents adopted the phrase as a blanket call to social activism against racism, injustice, and police brutality. But as protests grew louder, woke took on a new meaning.

How do progressive social activists use the term now? Woke has become a catch-all term encompassing critical race theory, left-wing political ideology, and other issues. In 2017, three University of Miami researchers defined the term as ­“critical consciousness to intersecting systems of oppression.” In 2017, the Oxford English Dictionary added woke to its collection with the defi­nition, “Alert to racial or social ­discrimination and injustice.” Merriam-Webster identifies it as U.S. slang meaning “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially of racial and social justice).” Some liberals still refer to activists who emphasize systemic injustice and political ­concerns as woke, but less so as ­conservatives have turned the word into a pejorative.

What do conservatives mean when they say woke? Right-wing pundits and politicians began using woke as a derisive term describing modern progressive ideologies, especially the belief that society is inherently oppressive toward minorities and those who identify as LGBT. “Wokeism, multiculturalism, all the -isms—they’re not who America is,” departing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted in 2019. Two years later, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, described “wokeness” as a form of “cultural Marxism” that threatens to delegitimize America’s history and institutions. Whether or not that prediction comes true, it appears woke is here to stay.

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