Woke (// WOHK) is a term that refers to awareness of issues that concern social justice and racial justice. It is sometimes used in the African-American Vernacular English expression stay woke. Woke resurfaced in 2014, during the Black Lives Matter movement, as a label for vigilance and activism concerning racial inequalities and other social disparities such as discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community, women, immigrants and other marginalized populations.
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Woke has also been the subject of right-wing memes, ironic usage and criticism to the point where for some progressive political activists it is now considered an offensive term used to denigrate those campaigning against racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination.
History 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 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 as a harbinger of the #Staywoke hashtag.
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.
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."
The phrase Stay Woke having become a meme, activist DeRay Mckesson – podcaster, published author, and co-founder (with Brittany Packnett Cunningham) of social-justice advocacy non-profit StayWoke.org – became prominent in part after news photos of his arrest at a July 2016 protest in Baton Rouge showed in a teeshirt emblazoned with the Twitter hashtag "#StayWoke." Twitter's founder, Jack Dorsey, said his own habit of wearing a teeshirt thus-emblazoned advocated for "being aware...staying aware and keep questioning. [...] We saw that in Ferguson."
MTV News identified it among ten words teens "should know in 2016"; The same year: A headline in Bloomberg Businessweek asked "Is Wikipedia Woke?", in reference to the largely white contributor base of the online encyclopedia; and the American Dialect Society voted woke the slang word of the year.
In 2017, Woke Vote, dedicated to registering millennials, was founded by Dejuana Thompson of Birmingham, Alabama.
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 2020 TV series Woke features the political awakening of fictional San Francisco black cartoonist Keef Knight, played by Lamorne Morris.
In business and marketing
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 so-called "called out" (alleged as expressions of insensitivity or worse), may experience abruptly negative financial consequences.
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.
Reception and analysis
The meaning of the term woke took on additional connotations, in the context of the 21st-century culture wars over incipient social norms. According to linguist and social critic John McWhorter, woke has come to function similarly to politically correct.
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."
Woke has become an insult used by opponents of movements such as Black Lives Matter, often to mock or belittle supporters of such causes. Among American conservatives, the term is often used mockingly or sarcastically. FiveThirtyEight's Perry Bacon Jr. writes that as of 2021, woke is mainly a pejorative used by centrists and conservatives to denote progressive politics that emphasize race or identity, often alongside the idea that critics of "woke" ideas are the victims of cancel culture. Bacon connects this "anti-woke posture" to the Republican Party's longstanding promotion of backlash politics, such as white backlash and conservative backlash in response to political gains by African Americans and changing cultural norms respectively.
- African-American culture
- Political hip hop
- Social justice warrior
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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.
- Badu, Erykah (7 February 2019). "Master Teacher Medley" – via YouTube.
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adverts span from 2015–2018, which reflects the point at which the language of 'woke(ness)' entered mainstream media and marketing spheres
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- "woke adjective earlier than 2008". Oxford English Dictionary. 25 June 2017.
- The dictionary definition of woke at Wiktionary