“Florida is where woke goes to die,” Governor Ron DeSantis said to the crowd gathered for his reelection celebration in 2022. “Stay woke,” blues musician Lead Belly said in 1938. Depending on who you’re talking to, “woke” can mean staying aware of injustices, believing in politically progressive values, or wanting to control what others say and think. While it’s become hard to avoid debates about “wokeness” in the United States, the term and concept are spreading internationally. What does “woke” actually mean? In this article, we’ll discuss the word’s origins, its fraught evolution, and its impact.
“Woke” has become a complex term that for some means being aware of social justice issues, while for others, it means being obsessively politically correct and judgmental. In the United States, it’s been weaponized against BIPOC, the LGBTQ+ community, and other marginalized groups.
Where did the word “woke” come from?
Originally, “woke,” or rather, “stay woke” meant to stay aware of the systemic injustices and inequalities targeting Black people. In 1938, American blues singer Lead Belly released a song about the Scottsboro Boys, who were nine Black teenagers accused of rape in Alabama. Despite evidence of their innocence, eight of the nine were found guilty by an all-white jury and sentenced to death. While they escaped execution, they were nearly lynched and ended up imprisoned for years. In an interview about the song, Lead Belly said, “I advise everyone to be a little careful when they go down there (to Alabama). Best stay woke, keep your eyes open.” “Woke” was a term created by and for the Black community; to be woke was to be smart and alert to racism.
The 2010s saw the establishment of the Black Lives Matter organization and increased awareness of police brutality and systemic racism. “Woke” became better known beyond the Black community. It also morphed into a catch-all description for left politics and social justice. It was no longer a piece of advice specifically for Black people, but rather a vaguer, broader summary of what it means to be politically progressive.
How is “woke” used today?
“Woke” originally meant to be aware of injustices, but do people still define the term this way? According to a 2023 USA Today/Ipsos poll, 56% of Americans still believe “woke” means “being informed about social injustices.” 39% defined the term as being “overly politically correct” and policing the words of others. A participant’s political affiliation mattered. 56% of surveyed Republicans saw the term in a negative light. They viewed wokeness as a tool to suppress free speech, control what others say, and inflict moral judgment. These beliefs aren’t limited to Republicans, however. You can find left-leaning groups arguing amongst themselves on whether there’s too much policing, judgment, and division in their communities. These are age-old debates, and many left-wing groups work through their struggles without appropriating “woke.” In recent years, it’s right-wing groups that have weaponized the term most significantly.
Those who see wokeness as a grave threat to society deploy the word freely and without a clear or consistent definition. In a perspective in The Washington Post, Damon Young describes how “woke” has become shorthand for the mere presence of Black people where they (the right-wing) “didn’t expect them to be.” As an example, when the film Jurassic World: Dominion released a promotional image of actor DeWanda Wise, a tweet bemoaning how “woke” the franchise had become went viral. A film simply featuring a Black woman was enough to make the movie “woke,” and according to some, bad. The Little Mermaid remake starring Halle Bailey and Disney as a whole have received similar complaints of having bowed to the “woke mob.” Even financial crises are not immune. When the Silicon Valley Bank collapsed in the 2nd-largest bank failure in US history, many Republicans blamed diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, aka “wokeness.”
What is the impact of attacking “wokeness?”
While labeling movies and banks as woke may seem fairly innocuous, the war on wokeness has serious consequences. Here are four of the biggest impacts:
#1. Attacks on education
In the past few years, attacks on curriculum and books featuring anti-racist teaching and discussions of gender and sexuality have skyrocketed in the United States. The governor of Florida – Ron DeSantis – has been one of the most aggressive anti-woke crusaders. As an article in Vox describes, DeSantis’ actions include legislation that restricts teachers from talking about LGBTQ+ topics and race. Most of the laws are so vague, teachers aren’t sure what they can and can’t say. To DeSantis, “woke” means “the belief there are systemic injustices in American society and the need to address them.” In one speech, he vowed to “fight the woke” in the legislature, the corporations, and the schools.
The American Library Association revealed that 2022 experienced the highest number of attempted book bans since the ALA started compiling censorship data. Of the 2,571 titles targeted, most were written by or for people of color and the LGBTQ+ community. 58% of the targeted books were from school libraries. This attack is coordinated. Censorship groups like Moms For Liberty, a self-described “parental rights group,” pass around lists of books they want to ban. They also run for political office and school boards, so they can fight “wokeness” from within the system.
When a product or company gets labeled as “woke,” there are consequences. In early 2023, Dylan Mulvaney, a transgender influencer with millions of followers, did an ad for Bud Light. Conservative pundits responded with fury, calling for a boycott. It appears to have been successful, at least for a time. Bud Light’s parent company Anheuser-Busch InBev reported a 10.5% decline in April-June compared to a year earlier. Mulvaney also received significant harassment and no support from the company whose ad exposed her to so much hate.
Other companies have faced calls for boycotts, usually for simply featuring LGBTQ+ people in their advertising or expressing the most basic support. Woolworths, a South African fashion retailer, posted a tweet in honor of International Pride Month on June 1. The company was quickly labeled as “woke,” while some claimed they would never shop there again. Woolworths didn’t back down, tweeting that everyone has the right to dignity.
#3. Normalization of hate
While most people recognize the seriousness of book bans, many of the attacks on wokeness seem silly and bizarre. After all, what does arguing about whether a Disney princess movie is “woke” really accomplish for anyone? Individual attacks on wokeness can seem meaningless, but taken together, the anti-woke movement fuels the normalization of hate against the LGBTQ+ community, people of color, and other marginalized groups. The anti-woke movement is primarily driven by voices claiming that learning about or simply seeing Black people, trans people, and others will ruin society. This dehumanizes entire groups of people, which normalizes hatred against them.
Normalizing hate encourages hate speech. The Cambridge Dictionary defines hate speech as “public speech that expresses hatred or encourages violence towards a person or group based on something such as race, religion, sex, or sexual orientation,” but legal definitions vary. For the anti-woke movement, there’s often a sense of pride in being as “anti-woke” as possible, which encourages a culture built on prejudice and hate. People can say things most people would consider “hateful” without it qualifying as legal hate speech, but it still feeds the normalization of hate.
#4. Distraction from real issues
Seemingly silly and pointless attacks on wokeness contribute to hate, but they serve another important function: they distract from tangible problems. When people get caught up in debates, real or in jest, about whether it’s “woke” for an M&M mascot to wear sneakers instead of boots, they’re ignoring systemic racism, gender inequality, poverty, poor mental health, and other escalating problems. In the United States, one of the two major parties (the Republican party) has become fixated on complaining about candy and Disney, but not even their own constituents are especially pleased. According to one poll, just 24% of Republican participants said they would choose a candidate focused on eliminating “radical woke ideology” from schools, media, and culture over one who wanted to restore “law and order.”
Toni Morrison said the function of racism was distraction, and that it “keeps you from doing your work.” While she wasn’t talking about “wokeness,” the sentiment rings true. When the presence of Black people and teaching the truth about America’s racism qualifies as “woke,” attacking wokeness is a form of racism. Attacks on the LGBTQ+ community fall into a similar category. This isn’t to say that racism, transphobia, and homophobia aren’t real and serious issues, but the anti-woke movement distracts from real conversations about these issues.
How is “woke” perceived globally?
While the term and its impacts have been concentrated in the United States, concerns and confusion have spread to other countries. In France, where it’s known as le wokisme, wokeness is framed as a US import that could tear France apart. The president, Emmanuel Macron, even told a magazine in 2021 that “woke culture” was racializing the country and causing divisions. In Britain, four out of five people had a positive view of wokeness, saying it meant being aware of race and social injustices. Like the US, however, right-wing groups in the UK are on the offensive. When heritage charity the National Trust reported on the property’s links to slavery and colonialism, Conservative lawmakers threatened its funding. Further east in Russia, Vladimir Putin will often signal “anti-wokeness” as part of his strategy to endear himself to American right-wing groups. Globally, “woke” has evolved just as much as it is in the United States, and while there are legitimate criticisms to be made about how vague and broad even positive definitions of the term are, the biggest issue is how it’s been weaponized by right-wing groups.