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What Does “Woke” Mean?


March 21, 2023

Woke. Is there any word currently whose definition has become more muddled? This video is making the rounds -- a conservative commentator who writes about wokeism is asked to define the word and she has a senior moment.

To me, woke us synonomous with aware. Aware that others may be different than me and face different issues than I face. It's also synonomous with curiosity in that not only do I understand others are not like me and face different issues but that I am also curious about what those people are like.

I am proud that I am more aware than I was five years ago. I am proud that when I drive between downtown and the Grounds, I wonder what it must be like to grow up Black and poor in the shadows of affluence. I don't think lesser of myself; in fact I feel better about myself because I am more curious, and I believe, empathetic about others.

I thank those folks who through their passions have inspired me to be more aware -- or probably more accurately -- aware!

If that means I am woke, then call me woke. Then again, given the misunderstanding caused by the word, call me awake!!

According to Merriam-Webster:


1 of 2



woker; wokest

Synonyms of woke

chiefly US slang


: aware of and actively attentive to important societal facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice)

But we will only succeed if we reject the growing pressure to retreat into cynicism and hopelessness. … We have a moral obligation to "stay woke," take a stand and be active; challenging injustices and racism in our communities and fighting hatred and discrimination wherever it rises.

—Barbara Lee

… argued that … Brad Pitt is not only woke, but the wokest man in Hollywood … because he uses his status—and his production company Plan B—to create space for artists of color, with such films as 12 Years a Slave, Selma, and the upcoming film Moonlight.

—Giselle Defares

Being woke to gender discrimination is difficult; it ruins things you love. Entire canons of art are rotten to the core with it.

—Rachel Edelstein

—often used in contexts that suggest someone's expressed beliefs about such matters are not backed with genuine concern or action

There is never really a moment where a person of color doesn’t have to deal with discrimination, whether it be veiled and passive or as blunt as possible. So, woke white people, why can’t you step in?

—Lauren Sanchez

Enter the age of the performatively woke brand. Politics has become a kind of fashion accessory for corporate America these days, a way to profit from protest.

—Jon Gingerich

"Fake woke" behavior arises. We put the hashtags on our social media. #Sayhername, #icantbreathe, #blacklivesmatter. And repeat. The problem is that the level of concern we express online doesn’t match the everyday behavior we exhibit.

—Surayya Walters

also : reflecting the attitudes of woke people

woke values/language

In our newly woke times, there has been increased scrutiny of old films dealing with sensitive subjects.

—Hannah Jane Parkinson

He wants to make The Wombles more "woke" so the characters are gender-fluid or of different races.

—Liz Perkins


disapproving : politically liberal (as in matters of racial and social justice) especially in a way that is considered unreasonable or extreme

The national conservatives view today’s liberals as woke cultural warriors who pose an existential threat to the nation and its traditions.

—Shadi Hamid

He’s built a social media brand on the right railing against "woke liberals" and supporting former President Donald Trump.

—Marissa Martinez

The military is struggling to find new recruits to fill its ranks. … While the official reasons given by the military—including fewer face-to-face recruitments during the pandemic, and fewer young people who meet the physical standards required—likely play a role, some say it’s because the military is too "woke," turning off its normal constituency of young, conservative recruits.

—Suzanne Bates

If there is any hope, it’s that voters are rejecting woke green goals. Already this has occurred in Sweden and Italy, where voters threw out left-wing governments …

—Michael Shellenberger

'Woke capitalism' tends to be a term that critics use to refer to … portfolios that are built around environmental, social and governance issues like climate change or diversity.

According to that "reliable" source, Wikipedia:

Origins and usage

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

While it is not known when being awake was first used as a metaphor for political engagement and activism, one early example in the United States was the paramilitary youth organization the Wide Awakes, which formed in Hartford, Connecticut in 1860 to support the Republican candidate in the 1860 presidential election, Abraham Lincoln. Local chapters of the group spread rapidly across northern cities in the ensuing months and "triggered massive popular enthusiasm" around the election. The political militancy of the group also alarmed many southerners, who saw in the Wide Awakes confirmation of their fears of northern, Republican political aggression. The support among the Wide Awakes for abolition, as well as the participation of a number of Black men in a Wide Awakes parade in Massachusetts, likely contributed to such anxiety.

20th century

Among the earliest uses of the idea of wokeness as a concept for Black political consciousness came from Jamaican philosopher and social activist Marcus Garvey, who wrote in 1923, "Wake up Ethiopia! Wake up Africa!"

A 1923 collection of aphorisms, ideas, and other writing by Garvey also adopts this metaphor in the following epigram: "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-songwriter Huddie Ledbetter, a.k.a. Lead Belly, used the phrase "stay woke" as part of a spoken afterward to a 1938 recording of his song "Scottsboro Boys", which tells the story of nine black teenagers and young men falsely accused of raping two white women in Alabama in 1931. In the recording, Lead Belly says he met with the defendant's lawyer and the young men themselves, and "I advise everybody, be a little careful when they go along through there (Scottsboro) – best stay woke, keep their eyes open." Aja Romano writes at Vox that this usage reflects "Black Americans' need to be aware of racially motivated threats and the potential dangers of white America".

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 Black 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."

2000s and early 2010s, #Staywoke hashtag

Through the 2000s and early 2010s, woke was used either as a term for literal wakefulness, or as slang for suspicions of being cheated on by a romantic partner. In November 2016, the singer Childish Gambino released the song "Redbone", which used the term stay woke in reference to infidelity. 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".

This usage was popularized by soul singer Erykah Badu's 2008 song "Master Teacher", via the song's refrain, "I stay woke". 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.

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).

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". 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 Know Your Meme as one of the first examples of the #Staywoke hashtag.

2010s: Black Lives Matter

A 2015 protest in St. Paul by Black Lives Matter supporters against police brutality

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. The BET 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.

Broadening usage

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. While there is no single agreed-upon definition of the term, it came to be primarily 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. Vox's Aja Romano writes that woke evolved into a "single-word summation of leftist political ideology, centered on social justice politics and critical race theory." Columnist David Brooks wrote in 2017 that "to be woke is to be radically aware and justifiably paranoid. It is to be cognizant of the rot pervading the power structures." Sociologist Marcyliena Morgan contrasts woke with cool in the context of maintaining dignity in the face of social injustice: "While coolness is empty of meaning and interpretation and displays no particular consciousness, woke is explicit and direct regarding injustice, racism, sexism, etc."

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 proved popular on Twitter because its brevity suited the platform's 140-character limit. According to Charles Pulliam-Moore, the term began crossing over into general internet usage as early as 2015. The phrase stay woke became an Internet meme, with searches for woke on Google surging in 2015.

The term 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 U.S. President Donald Trump, who was elected in 2016, but also to a growing awareness regarding the extent of historical discrimination faced by African Americans. According to Perry Bacon Jr., 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 U.S. 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.

The term 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". The American Dialect Society voted woke the slang word of the year in 2017. In the same year, the term was included as an entry in Oxford English Dictionary. By 2019, the term woke was increasingly being used in an ironic sense, as reflected in the books Woke by comedian Andrew Doyle (using the pen name Titania McGrath) and Anti-Woke by columnist Brendan O'Neill. By 2022, usage of the term had spread beyond the United States, attracting criticism by right-wing political figures in Europe.

As a pejorative

By 2019, opponents of progressive social movements were often using the term mockingly or sarcastically, implying that "wokeness" was an insincere form of performative activism. British journalist Steven Poole comments that the term is used to mock "overrighteous liberalism". In this pejorative sense, woke means "following an intolerant and moralising ideology".

United States

Among American conservatives, woke has come to be used primarily as an insult.

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. Perry Bacon Jr. suggests that this "anti-woke posture" is connected to a long-standing promotion of backlash politics by the Republican Party, wherein it promotes white and conservative fear in response to activism by African Americans as well as changing cultural norms. Such critics often believe that movements such as Black Lives Matter exaggerate the extent of social problems.

Among the uses by Republicans is the Stop WOKE Act, a law that limits discussion of racism in Florida schools. A program of eliminating books by LGBT and Black authors from schools was conduced by the Florida government and by vigilantes calling themselves "woke busters."

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. Romano compares woke to canceled as a term for "'political correctness' gone awry" among the American right wing. Attacking the idea of wokeness, along with other ideas such as cancel culture and critical race theory, became a large part of Republican Party electoral strategy. Former President Donald Trump stated in 2021 that the Biden administration was "destroying" the country "with woke", and Republican Missouri senator Josh Hawley used the term to promote his upcoming book by saying the "woke mob" was trying to suppress it.

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