In Depth

The original meaning of woke

Culture wars ‘coming to the UK’ as Labour and Tory supporters split on wokeism

Wokeism is on course to cause a chasm among voters, with the two main parties increasingly divided on cultural lines, a veteran US pollster has predicted.

Frank Luntz, who went to Oxford University with Boris Johnson and has spent nearly 30 years carrying out work for the Republicans, claims that cultural divisions in Britain will catch up with those in America within six to 12 months, reports The Times.

“The problem with woke and with cancel culture is that it is never done. The conflict and divisions never end,” he said. “This is not what the people of the UK want - but it’s coming anyway.”

In a survey for London’s centre-right think tank Centre for Policy Studies, Luntz found that out of 20 ideologies, wokeism was the third most “concerning” for Britons, outranked only by racism and religious fundamentalism.

It was the number one concern among Tory voters, with more than a third saying it bothered them more than other behaviours or practices such as homophobia, anti-Semitism and sexism, while only 11% of Labour voters listed it as their main concern.

What is wokeness?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines woke as “originally: well-informed, up-to-date. Now chiefly: alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice”.

The term is most frequently traced to an essay called “If you’re woke you dig it” by African-American novelist William Melvin Kelley that was published in The New York Times in 1962, though some have traced its use as far back as the 1940s. 

Since then, the term has been widely used among black Americans, but it took on particular prominence during the beginnings of the Black Lives Matter movement. Through the use of the hashtag #staywoke, activists issued a call to arms against the various racial injustices occurring across the globe.

The term gained wider prominence through its use in popular culture such as the song Redbone by Childish Gambino, aka Donald Glover. 

Today, however, woke is most commonly used as a pejorative term, or in a joking sense about any vaguely enlightened act.

Although the term originated from a racially political movement, the “butt of many ‘woke’ jokes seem to be white folk who care - or seem to care - about ethnic minority issues”, says Metro

The Telegraph’s Charles Moore suggests the trend of woke culture has resulted in people claiming victimhood, with others automatically believing them rather than looking at the evidence. “This is not a grown-up state of mind, and it rightly creates a sense of gross injustice in the minds of those falsely accused, whether they be a whole group, such as men, or a named individual,” he writes.

Steve Rose in The Guardian argues that the word has been “weaponised by the right” and it “has come to connote the opposite of what it means” but he says “as long as the underlying injustices remain, new words will emerge to describe them”.

Is it problematic?

One of the arguments that Kelley made in his 1962 essay was that once words used to define certain aspects of blackness are adopted by a white mainstream, they lose their value.

In 2016, journalist Amanda Hess raised concerns that the term woke had been culturally appropriated. In an article for in The New York Times Magazine, she argued: “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.” 

Elijah Watson, news and culture editor for hip-hop site Okayplayer, told NPR that the word “was something that we were taking seriously and then it kind of transformed into something ironic and then it became a meme and then it became a trademark”.

After writing a definitive history of the term, Watson says he no longer uses it. He compares the co-opting of woke to the way that music steeped in black tradition moves through mainstream culture.

“We made jazz, we made rap, we made all these different things,” Watson says. “It’s sad to say but we’re used to being taken advantage of and to have things stolen from us. But at the same time we’re quick to evolve and adapt because we need to in order to survive.”

But “the more woke is used as a slur, joke or shorthand to mock the hypersensitivity of the left, the more we need it”, argues The Guardian’s Chitra Ramaswamy. She adds that when she was a child, “there were no words for any of this, but the microaggressions, triggering and misogynoir went on regardless”. 

In an opinion piece for The New York Times, David Brooks says that while “it’s always good to be more woke”, wokeness “jams together the perceiving and the proposing”.

In fact, “wokeness puts more emphasis on how you perceive a situation - how woke you are to what is wrong - than what exactly you plan to do about it”, he writes.


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