Woke (/ˈwk/ WOHK) is a term that refers to awareness of issues that concern social justice and racial justice.[4] 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[5] and other social disparities such as discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community, women, immigrants and other marginalized populations.[6]

Congresswoman Marcia Fudge with a "Stay Woke: Vote" tee shirt in 2018
"Wake up Africa! Let us work towards the one glorious end of a free, redeemed and mighty nation." —Marcus Garvey, Philosophy and Opinions (1923)[1][2][3]

Woke has also been the subject of right-wing memes, ironic usage and criticism[7] 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.[8]

History and usage

In some varieties of African-American English, woke is used in place of woken, the usual past participle form of wake.[9] This has led in turn to the use of woke as an adjective equivalent to awake, which has become mainstream in the United States.[9][4]

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".[10][11] 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."[12] 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."[13]

By the mid-20th century, woke had come to mean 'well-informed' or 'aware',[14] especially in a political or cultural sense.[9] 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"[15] by African-American novelist William Melvin Kelley, describing the appropriation of African American slang by white beatniks.[9]

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."[16][17] Garvey had himself exhorted his early 20th century audiences, "Wake up Ethiopia! Wake up Africa!"[18] Romano describes this as "a call to global Black citizens to become more socially and politically conscious".[12]


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

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.[12] 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".[9]

This usage was popularized by soul singer Erykah Badu's 2008 song "Master Teacher",[4][14] via the song's refrain, "I stay woke".[16][19] 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.[4][7]

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).[20]

In a tweet mentioning the Russian feminist rock group Pussy Riot, whose members had been imprisoned in 2012,[21][22] Badu wrote: "Truth requires no belief. Stay woke. Watch closely. #FreePussyRiot".[23][24][25] This has been cited as a harbinger of the #Staywoke hashtag.[26][27][28]

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.[29][12] BET's documentary "Stay Woke," which covered the movement, aired in May 2016.[30] Within the decade of the 2010s, the word woke (the colloquial, passively voiced past participle of wake) obtained the meaning "politically and socially aware"[31] among BLM activists.[9][29]

Vox's Aja Romano wrote that the word was adopted by members of online groups, identifying them as professing of social consciousness and activism,[12] from which woke evolved into a "single-word summation of leftist political ideology, centered on social justice politics and critical race theory."[12] 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."[29] 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."[29]

The term received an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary in 2017.[32][9]

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

The phrase Stay Woke having become a meme,[7] activist DeRay Mckesson – podcaster, published author, and co-founder (with Brittany Packnett Cunningham[33]) of social-justice advocacy non-profit StayWoke.org[34] – 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."[35][36][37][38] 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."[39][40][41]

MTV News identified it among ten words teens "should know in 2016";[42] The same year: A headline in Bloomberg Businessweek asked "Is Wikipedia Woke?", in reference to the largely white contributor base of the online encyclopedia;[43] and the American Dialect Society voted woke the slang word of the year.[44][45][46]

In 2017, Woke Vote, dedicated to registering millennials, was founded by Dejuana Thompson of Birmingham, Alabama.[47][48][49]

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."[50][51][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, the periodical Les Echos described the English word woke as among words adopted by the younger generation in France, that it believes to indicate a "societal turning point" there.[56]

In business and marketing

Woke elements appeared in advertising scripts by the mid 2010s.[32] 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.[57] 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.[58]

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.[59]

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.[60]

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.[61] According to linguist and social critic John McWhorter, woke has come to function similarly to politically correct.[62]

Linguist Ben Zimmer writes that with mainstream currency, the term's "original grounding in African-American political consciousness has been obscured".[16] Journalist Amanda Hess says social media accelerated the word's cultural appropriation,[29] 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."[4][29] 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."[12]

21st-century backlash

Woke has become an insult used by opponents of movements such as Black Lives Matter, often to mock or belittle supporters of such causes.[63] Among American conservatives, the term is often used mockingly or sarcastically.[12] 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.[8] 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.[64]

In the run up to the launch of the self-declared "anti-woke"[65] GB News television channel, advertisers were called to boycott the channel over fears that GB News would be funding "hate".[66]

See also

  • African-American culture
  • Political hip hop
  • Social justice warrior


  1. "Word: Woke". Believer Magazine. 1 February 2019.
  2. Romano, Aja (9 October 2020). "How being "woke" lost its meaning". Vox.
  3. Marcus Garvey (1923). Amy Jacques-Garvey (ed.). Philosophy and Opinions. Universal Publishing House.
  4. "Stay Woke: The new sense of 'woke' is gaining popularity". Words We're Watching. Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 26 December 2016.
  5. Richardson, Elaine; Ragland, Alice (Spring 2018). "#StayWoke: The Language and Literacies of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement". Community Literacy Journal. 12 (2).
  6. Bacon, Perry Jr. (16 March 2021). "The Ideas That Are Reshaping The Democratic Party And America". FiveThirtyEight.
  7. Pulliam-Moore, Charles (8 January 2016). "How 'woke' went from black activist watchword to teen internet slang". Splinter News. Retrieved 20 December 2019.
  8. Bacon, Perry Jr. (17 March 2021). "Why Attacking 'Cancel Culture' And 'Woke' People Is Becoming The GOP's New Political Strategy". FiveThirtyEight.
  9. "New words notes June 2017". Oxford English Dictionary. 16 June 2017.
  10. Matheis, Frank (August 2018). "Outrage Channeled in Verse". Living Blues. 49 (4). p. 15.
  11. Lead Belly – "Scottsboro Boys" (song). SmithsonianFolkwaysRecordings. 2 July 2015. Event occurs at 4:26 via YouTube.
  12. Romano, Aja (9 October 2020). "How being 'woke' lost its meaning". Vox.
  13. J. Saunders Redding (1942). "Southern Awakening". Negro Digest. 1. p. 43.
  14. Krouse, Tonya; O'Callaghan, Tamara F. (2020). Introducing English Studies. London: Bloomsbury Academic. p. 135. ISBN 978-1-350-05542-1.
  15. Kelley, William Melvin (20 May 1962). "If You're Woke You Dig It; No mickey mouse can be expected to follow today's Negro idiom without a hip assist". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331.
  16. Zimmer, Ben (14 April 2017). "'Woke,' From a Sleepy Verb to a Badge of Awareness". Word on the Street. The Wall Street Journal.
  17. Beckham, Barry (1972). Garvey Lives!: A Play.
  18. 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.
  19. Badu, Erykah (7 February 2019). "Master Teacher Medley" via YouTube.
  20. "The Origin Of Woke: How Erykah Badu And Georgia Anne Muldrow Sparked The "Stay Woke" Era". Okayplayer. 27 February 2018.
  21. Parker, Suzi (14 September 2012). "Pussy Riot should continue their mission even if freed". The Washington Post.
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  24. "Obama warns against social media call-out culture". New Atlas. 31 October 2019.
  25. Badu, Erykah [@fatbellybella] (8 August 2012). "Truth requires no belief. Stay woke. Watch closely. #FreePussyRiot" (Tweet) via Twitter.
  26. Hartley, John (2020). Communication, Cultural and Media Studies: The Key Concepts (5th ed.). Routledge. pp. 290–291. ISBN 978-1-3518-4801-5.
  27. Mirzaei, Abas (8 September 2019). "Where 'woke' came from and why marketers should think twice before jumping on the social activism bandwagon". The Conversation.
  28. Marsden, Harriet (25 November 2019). "Whither 'woke': What does the future hold for word that became a weapon?". The New European.
  29. Hess, Amanda (19 April 2016). "Earning the 'Woke' Badge". The New York Times Magazine. ISSN 0028-7822. Retrieved 26 December 2016.
  30. Nicole Holliday (16 November 2016). "How 'Woke' Fell Asleep". OxfordDictionaries. Archived from the original on 27 December 2016.
  31. "wake | Origin and meaning of wake by Online Etymology Dictionary". www.etymonline.com.
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  36. Kosoff, Maya (12 July 2016). "What Silicon Valley Doesn't Get About Race". Vanity Fair.
  37. Epps, Garrett (14 December 2019). "Don't Let the First Amendment Forget DeRay Mckesson". The Atlantic.
  38. "Black Lives Matter activist Mckesson released from jail". Associated Press. 10 July 2016.
  39. Graham, Jefferson (1 June 2016). "Twitter's Dorsey describes time in Ferguson, Mo., as wake-up call". USA Today.
  40. Miller, Matt (2 June 2016). "Behold: The Most Painful T-Shirt on the Internet". Esquire.
  41. Tolentino, Jia (2 June 2016). "Sweet Jesus, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey's #StayWoke Shirt Is Incredibly Embarrassing". Jezebel.
  42. Trudon, Taylor (5 January 2016). "Say Goodbye To 'On Fleek,' 'Basic' And 'Squad' In 2016 And Learn These 10 Words Instead". MTV News. Retrieved 26 December 2016.
  43. Kessenides, Dimitra; Chafkin, Max (22 December 2016). "Is Wikipedia Woke?". Bloomberg Businessweek. Retrieved 26 December 2016.
  44. "2016 Word of the Year is dumpster fire, as voted by American Dialect Society" (PDF).
  45. "'Dumpster Fire' Is the Word of the Year for 2016". Time.
  46. King, Georgia Frances. "The American Dialect Society's word of the year is "dumpster fire"". Quartz.
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  48. Botel, Megan (18 August 2020). "'Crucial voices': the US women leading the fight against voter suppression". The Guardian. Retrieved 24 March 2021.
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  50. Worth, Sydney (19 February 2020). "The Language of Antiracism". Yes! Magazine.
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  54. Lloyd, Robert (9 September 2020). "In 'Woke,' a Black cartoonist gets political. But don't expect a sermon". Los Angeles Times.
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  56. https://start.lesechos.fr/societe/culture-tendances/huit-mots-pour-comprendre-la-generation-z-1302488
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  59. 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.
  60. Kanai, A.; Gill, R. (28 October 2020). "Woke? Affect, neoliberalism, marginalised identities and consumer culture". New Formations: a journal of culture/theory/politics. ISSN 0950-2378.
  61. "Bonfire of the insanities". The Economist. 438 (9233). 18 February 2021. pp. 21–22. ISSN 0013-0613.
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  63. Butterworth, Benjamin (21 January 2021). "What does 'woke' actually mean, and why are some people so angry about it?". inews.co.uk.
  64. Kilgore, Ed (19 March 2021). "Is 'Anti-Wokeness' the New Ideology of the Republican Party?". Intelligencer. Vox Media.
  65. Colson, Thomas (6 March 2021). "The man behind Britain's anti-'woke' GB News channel explains how he plans to revolutionize TV news in the UK". Business Insider. Retrieved 6 March 2021.
  66. Ponsford, Dominic (8 February 2021). "GB News faces advertising boycott: Andrew Neil sets out 'anti woke' vision". Press Gazette.

Further reading

  • The dictionary definition of woke at Wiktionary
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