Modern conservative use of the word “woke” taps into a larger societal backlash against social justice movements and efforts to confront racism. It’s a word that means something very different now than it did just a few years ago in the Black community.
“Woke initially came out of the Black community … It meant that, if you were saying ‘stay woke’ or ‘be woke’ there was a kind of seriousness and playfulness, that you need to be aware of the social conditions of America to survive it.” —Joshua Adams, journalist
Broader attitudes toward “wokeness” invoke similarly co-opted and weaponized concepts such as “cancel culture” and “political correctness.” But when we dig deeper into the meaning of the word and how it is used by conservatives and most white Americans, it becomes clear that the word has lost all of its original meanings in order to create a new slur to be leveled against progressives and African Americans.
Listen: Writers Joshua Adams and Damon Young discuss the word “woke” and how it has been co-opted by the political right.
He says that language is incredibly important in the Black community. ”African American vernacular English comes out of the slave experience,” he says. “Black people couldn’t learn the language formally … We had to learn it through the ear.” He also notes the necessity for slaves to be able to communicate in ways that slave owners couldn’t understand.
“Woke initially came out of the Black community,” says Adams. “It meant that, if you were saying ‘stay woke’ or ‘be woke’ there was a kind of seriousness and playfulness, that you need to be aware of the social conditions of America to survive it.”
He says, although the meaning of the word has changed for people who aren’t Black, the meaning hasn’t changed as much for African Americans.
“For Black people, ‘woke’ still has the same connotation as someone who has consciousness, but maybe takes that consciousness too far,” Young explains, “someone who maybe believes conspiracy theories, who maybe shows a more performative Blackness.”
Young says conservatives like to co-opt and weaponize terms that begin in the Black community.
“They are very effective at distilling these complex ideas around a single word and galvanizing support around the use of that single word,” he says. ”It’s easier to rail against something than to create something.”