A study in definition.
Recently, a woman who has written an entire book on the concept of “Woke,” was hawking her wares on some talk show or podcast or other and was asked a simply question that one assumes a person who has taken the time to “research” and pen a tome on one subject would be able to answer. “What does Woke mean to her?” She stammered through a weak aside before falling silent and looked as though she had lost her puppy. Of course, this is 2023, so she was summarily lambasted on social media and even made the remark that her flummoxed response would likely “go viral.” To be fair, even to those would write entire books about a subject they cannot fathom, no one appears to know a thing about a term that has come to define the political and cultural divisions in America.
I’ll give it a shot.
Since Republicans are woefully bereft in policy and ideology, the entire purpose of the party’s existence seems to be about attacking progress or as Brandon Tensley couched recently on cnn.com as “an imprecise term used to decry progressive action.” This strategy to stem the tide of cultural evolution worked out great for the Whigs. (That was sarcastic.) They went bye-bye like most movements based on stopping progress. Ask Southern Democrats or the Catholic Church, or really any church to be fair. Still, “woke” has become the No. 1 priority for the modern Republican Party, a term they abhor and often cite with the pejorative suffixes, Woke Mob, Woke Mania, and the neatly designed “Wokism.” Ascribing an “ism” on something brings Reality Check into the fray, as both a cultural/political movement and sheer linguistic fun.
First off, “woke” has been attached to things it has nothing to do with; for instance this past week when those Silicon Valley banks went belly up due to banking regulations being stripped by the former president, a Republican, in order to cover their asses, GOP voices began blaming the banks’ failures on being “woke,” which I assume means that they kowtowed to diversity and cultural understanding of minorities and/or women, who thanks to the Supreme Court are officially and legally now minorities. This is insane when considering women are fifty-one percent of the populace and yet are treated by law as secondary to men, but this is where we are now, and even not as crazy as determining financial institutions failing due to a misunderstood cultural phenomenon.
“Woke” is not a liberal term, the fighting of which may well be the Republican nominee for president, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ entire purpose for political existence. Another “conservative” politician with nothing to offer society beyond fighting progress, free speech, gender and sexual politics and other scary things to the imbecilic among us, he props up “woke” as a cheap enemy to which only he “has the balls to fight.” (Classic politico crap.) The origin of the term is a response to the mistreatment of persons of color, specifically African-Americans.
Since it is now in the dictionary, a book that woman who wrote what must be a completely hackneyed farce of a thing must be familiar with, we can start there. Merriam-Webster defines “woke” as: “Aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice).” More to the point, a term for marginalized communities to recognized and respected for existing. It’s cultural origins coming out of the Black community to rise above the stereotypes perpetuated on them, as must every societal minority. Having less to do with other cultures, mainly the White race, which has now taken up a knee-jerk defense to this term or the idea that anyone can rise to their “status,” fears their “culture” is being usurped.
I have zero time to discuss white supremacy and systemic racism, which is essentially the entirety of American history in this space. If you wish to do so, I suggest doing my research than Ms. Woke Book did on her project.
For our succinct purposes here, the term was first used in a 1962 New York Times op-ed by Black novelist, William Melvin Kelley titled “If You’re Woke, You Dig It.” You can’t read that piece today online without paying the publisher, but since I read it in my Journalism class in college in the early 1980s, I can tell you it is a revolutionary and revelatory depiction of how the Black community defined itself based on the kind of oppression and discrimination mentioned above. But since most cultural movements after the 19th century begin with art forms other than that of the written word, it was singer-songwriter Erykah Badu’s 2008 song, “Master Teacher” and the empowering phrase “I stay woke” that did the trick.
Similarly, I was reminded of “woke” during my activism in support of Russian feminist group Pussy Riot, who you might remember were imprisoned for a protest intended to shine a light on the oppression of women, when Badu tweeted: “Truth requires no belief. Stay woke. Watch closely. #FreePussyRiot.” Two years later Michael Brown’s murder by the hand of white cops in Ferguson, Missouri triggered the phrase “Black Lives Matter” and “woke” being used more freely to expressing much-needed systemic change. And so, it became a police thing, and for those who think the police can do no wrong, a belief mostly held by Republicans, it therein became political.
The slow transfer of “woke” to the ensuing #MeToo movement, which further alienated specifically white men being threatened by women no longer wanting to be culturally mistreated was then applied to any form of diversity and inclusion efforts – and not by its proponents but opponents. Of course, demonizing a term or a culture is as old as civilization itself, yet, unlike foreigner or Communist ,“woke” is quasi-defined by both those who use it in protest and to silence protest.
In a very weird way that culture creeps up on us, “woke” has become an indefinable word like “love” or “God” that can never fully be applied to the very thing it supports or attacks.