The meaning of “wokeness,” explained

By Olivia Montes

Lifestyle Editor

 In a world where cancel culture and political correctness are reshaping how citizens across the United States interpret the political and social climate around them, another term has become as prominent in the mainstream: “wokeness.”

While the word itself has been used throughout multiple contexts within Black American communities, from being a verbal survival tactic warning of impending danger to becoming prominent on social media, wokeness, or being woke, has evolved, according to Vox’s Aja Romano, for many, into a label, and a way of life, that many strive to achieve — and to watch out for when navigating the uncertainty of a modern world.

The term itself — which became recognized in 2014 following the police-related murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. — originated in the early 20th century as a catchword for Black Americans to be watchful of threats to their communities and identity. From there, it become a statement meaning being politically and socially conscious of the events, and actions, of those around them.  

Like its relative cancel culture, and branching off political correctness, being woke involves being aware of issues concerning social and racial justice, and lack thereof, thus pushing for mass reaction from the public. 

“Before 2014, the call to ‘stay woke’ was, for many people, unheard of,” Romano said on Oct. 9. “But in 2014, ‘stay woke’ suddenly became the cautionary watchword of Black Lives Matter activists on the streets, used in a chilling and specific context: keeping watch for police brutality and unjust police tactics.”  

Now, with the mounting presence of the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as the recent rise of other social issue movements, including #MeToo, #Time’s Up, and LGTBQ+ rights, “woke” has become a term used to spread advocacy for effective and inclusive social and systematic change.  

With this connotation of alertness, of waking up towards one’s own lack of understanding towards the unfolding of recent events, the concepts behind wokeness strive to make people conscious of what is going on around them — and provide a foundation for how they can be more knowledgeable for the future. 

However, in recent years, the term, along with “politically correct,” has now become, according to The New York Times’ Amanda Hess, an opportunity for those seeking allyship for any social issue. From BLM to the fourth wave of feminism, these individuals want “some public recognition [or] a social affirmation of the work” they have done to be this understanding regarding these issues, and don’t hesitate to jump at the chance to challenge those who oppose their newfound views. 

“Think of ‘woke’ as the inverse of ‘politically correct,’’” Hess said in 2016. “If ‘P.C.’ is a taunt from the right, a way of calling out hypersensitivity in political discourse, then ‘woke’ is a back-pat from the left, a way of affirming the sensitive.”

“It means wanting to be considered correct and wanting everyone to know just how correct you are,” she said. 

With this mindset, the act of being woke has now turned from focusing on providing “a single-word summation of leftist political ideology, centered on social justice politics and critical race theory” to being the centered focus of the campaign to rather than the actual issues at hand, leaving both sides defeated because of the lack of attention or action, according to Romano. 

“In other words, while many people on the right may be disenchanted with wokeness because they see it as an upgraded form of ‘political correctness,’ many people on the left may be just as frustrated with it,” Romano said.

“Claiming wokeness is often about maintaining the superficial trappings of progressive idealism without doing the real work to understand and change systems of oppression,” she said. 

Those who particularly identify with right-wing conservative ideals have also taken this idea of wokeness through the use of political slander, viewing those who strive to be culturally correct when addressing social and racial issues of today as trying to be elite rather than sincere with their attempts.

“Rather than rejecting the concept of wokeness outright, today’s detractors often claim they are rejecting the word as a signifier of pretentiousness and ‘cultural elitism,’” The Guardian’s Steve Rose said on Jan. 21. “Criticizing ‘woke culture’ has become a way of claiming victim status for yourself rather than acknowledging that more deserving others hold that status.”

The idea of being and maintaining one’s wokeness has now become distorted from its original meaning; it has shifted from supporting BLM and similar movements towards being a foundation for arguments as to how more woke one person or group is over the other. 

Rather than bringing people together towards a mass collection of understanding, this distortion of wokeness is pitting activists against one another in a misguided effort to measure how much more woke one individual or group was than those around them. 

But the concept behind being — and staying — woke means not only learning from one’s past actions, experiences, or behaviors towards a particular social issue, but also to make the movement actually focus on these issues, as well as the individuals affected by them.

While it does appear that heightening one’s allyship as the main face of the movement will inspire others, it ultimately excludes those that these issues are affecting, as well as the advocacy itself for the cause. 

However, by bringing those impacted by these social issues as the face of their respective movements, it allows them to have these problems acknowledged, and eventually promote further action from the public, all while teaching those around them what it means to be an ally as well as woke. 

“The latest revolution of ‘woke’ doesn’t roll its eyes at white people who care about racial injustice, but it does narrow them at those who seem overeager to identify with the emblems and vernacular of the struggle,” Hess said. 

“Being an ally means speaking up on behalf of others — but it often means amplifying the ally’s own voice or centering a white person in a movement created by black activists, or celebrating a man who supports women’s rights when feminists themselves are attacked as man-haters,” she said. “Wokeness has currency, but it’s all too easy to spend it.” 

Featured Photo caption: With recent protests across the United States, including the Black Lives Matter protests against policy brutality, one’s “wokeness” towards these issues has come into question. Photo Courtesy of Vince Fleming.

4 thoughts on “The meaning of “wokeness,” explained

  1. Pretty interesting discourse.
    I must confess, however, that I am thoroughky unattached to any population segment that would rather focus on the upon the injustices perpetrated upon the , real or perceived, rather than the opportu ities to advance and rise above those setbacks and the ones allegedly guilty of perpetuating them.
    No group in our history has been without struggle, without injustice and without priviledge and benefit. It all depends on the angle of the lens and the time in history.
    We have opportunity despite the hindrances. If we focus on access to the opportunities, it becomes more of an assessment of individual talent and willpower than it does about class suppression.
    One viewpoint unites.
    One viewpoint divides.
    I ask which one will make a better tomorrow for all people in this country?

  2. Thanks for this explanation. One question I have is that “woke” is past-tense, as in “I woke up at 8:00 today.” Why do people use this past-tense word instead of a present-tense word like “wake”. As in “I am awake to the social issues”? or “I have been awakened to social injustice”? How did “woke” come to be used in this context instead of “wake”?

  3. After reading the above article I still have no understanding of what the word WOKE means. Being that the word is used in the political circle daily, surely a simple explanation can be made as to the meaning!!!!!!

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