Now that Ron DeSantis is officially in the running for US President, I suspect we’ll be hearing a lot more about woke culture, wokeness and ‘the woke mind virus,’ which according to DeSantis ‘is basically a form of cultural Marxism.’ I think he may have offended Marxists with that one while simultaneously whistling to antisemitic conspiracy theories of the World War 1 era.
The way ‘woke’ is getting bandied about these days, I’m starting to wonder if I know what it means. I’m not the only one, a survey conducted at King’s College London found that 25% of people think that ‘woke’ is a compliment, another 25% think it’s an insult and the rest either don’t know or have never even heard of the term.
According to the Oxford Online Dictionary, it’s an adjective meaning ‘alert to injustice and discrimination in society, especially racism.’ The dictionary cites these examples: “We need to stay angry, and stay woke” · “Does being woke mean I have to agree with what all other woke folks say should be done about issues in the black community?” · “The West Coast has the wokest dudes.”
The consensus is that ‘woke’ derived African American Vernacular English (also called Ebonics) and was originally about someone being alert to racial discrimination and prejudice. Some sources claim the word in this sense was coined by the novelist William Melvin Kelley, who in 1962 authored an essay for the New York Times entitled ‘If You’re Woke, You Dig It.’ The word didn’t catch on or acquire a more political or broader meaning to include discrimination other than racial until the earlier 2000’s. The singer Erykah Badu used the phrase ‘Stay woke’ in her song Master Teacher in 2008. Badu was singing about all types of injustices all over the world.
These definitions and uses make wokeness sound much more passive than it appears to be by those who attack it. More than just being alert, people who are labelled as woke want to change school curricula and laws that affect our jobs and ways of life. In a recent Wall Street Journal survey, 55 percent of US Republicans said, ‘Fighting woke ideology in our schools and businesses’ was more important than ‘protecting Social Security and Medicare.’
This so-called woke ideology that has entered American schools and universities has many progressive forms, such as Critical Race Theory. This approach to studying history is nothing more than understanding past events in their social and political contexts, acknowledging the roles of women and ethnic minorities. This makes people on the right uncomfortable as it destroys some of the myths of US history that have fed public discourse and patriotism for decades. This is nothing new. Throughout the twentieth century, plenty of scholars have posited revisionists histories, some leaking their way into popular writing – Gore Vidal’s brilliant Burr comes to mind.
‘Woke’ as something to spit at the left has also crept into British culture. The current Home Secretary Suella Braverman referred to Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters as ‘Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati.’ For me this makes the label ‘woke’ a badge of honour.
But it’s not so straight forward. Popular media has linked wokeness to debates around cancel culture. Those who want to cancel scholars and public figures who are gender critical and want women’s sex-based rights protected. On this point, I feel very unwoke as I support freedom of speech and freedom of research (along with gender criticality). This makes me uncomfortably aligned with the American right and in search of a sick bucket.
I’m suspecting this is a generational issue as well with the young left wing taking progressive positions a step too far for some of us older progressives. Putting generational differences into the mix was mentioned in a recent BBC article. Ash Sarkar, contributing editor for Novara Media group, explained that differences on issues such as climate change and race are making the use of woke a pejorative term, and that it has become a ‘convenient vehicle for lots of right-wing anxieties about a generational divide in political outlook.’
Ultimately, woke has become multi-faceted and slippery and as complex as what it means to be liberal these days.