What is “woke,” really? And why is everyone fighting about it?

For years, progressives, especially Black progressives, have been explaining that people need to be “woke” — that is, fully aware of and pursuing action on racial and equity issues. Now there’s a conservative “anti-woke” backlash. But what exactly is “woke,” and why is it such a flashpoint?

Merriam-Webster says “woke” is a slang term that is going mainstream. From the M-W site:

But stay woke and woke became part of a wider discussion in 2014, immediately following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The word woke became entwined with the Black Lives Matter movement; instead of just being a word that signaled awareness of injustice or racial tension, it became a word of action. Activists were woke and called on others to stay woke.

The meaning of “woke”

“Woke” carries a connotation of a shift in perspective — of waking up from a comfortable fantasy about the world and realizing that it isn’t what you thought it was. For Black activists, it may imply action. To me, and I think to the broader world, though, it reflects what we know, how we think, and how we act on it every day, not whether we’re marching in a protest.

I’ve gone out of my way in the last ten years to work closely with colleagues, authors, and executives who were Black or in other minorities. None were activists, and only one was an expert on Diversity and Inclusion. The rest were just being experts in whatever they were good at: customer experience, consumer attitudes, branding, or creativity, for example.

But like anyone in a minority who was prominent and visible, they had opinions about race, and talking to them has shifted the way I thought about it. They shared their experiences, which opened my eyes.

My own woke experience centers on this:

Understanding that — viscerally, constantly, and based solely on who they are — the challenges and experiences of Black people and other people of color are very different from what white people deal with.

There are things that I as a white person do not worry about. I do not worry about people assuming I am a criminal if they happen upon me on the street in a hooded sweatshirt. I do not worry about whether my doctor understands my medical issues. I do not worry about whether my children will be treated fairly in school. Basically, I worry about only making my way in a world that I believe will treat me fairly.

That, in a word, is privilege. Because unlike me . . .

The Black man who has to behave very carefully during a traffic stop to avoid getting shot or tased has to worry.

The Black woman who has to wait in long lines to vote in Georgia has to worry.

The Asian woman who gets continually asked, “where are you from, you know, really” has to worry.

The Hispanic family that’s lived here for 25 years but must continually prove they’re citizens has to worry.

They all have do more than just make their way in a world that will treat them fairly, because some people won’t.

The fight over wokeness

Conservatives are now bashing Democrats with wokeness. To them, wokeness is not Black activism, or racial justice. They’ve reframed it as political correctness and extreme points of view.

Go ahead. Search Fox News for woke.

You’ll see Hannity talk about how “the [Academy] awards have turned into one big far-left protest where self-obsessed celebrities berate the American people and tell them how to think.”

You’ll see Georgia Governor Brian Kemp blame “the woke cancel culture movement” for criticism of the new Georgia election law.

And some guy in the Orlando Sentinel is writing about how wokeness is ruining Disney World, because it no longer bases rides on “Song of the South” or features natives selling shrunken heads.

Democratic strategist James Carville told Vox that “Wokeness is a problem and everyone knows it.” It’s this backlash that he’s referring to.

Abolishing police and generating guilt about being white aren’t central tenets of Democratic politics, but you’d think so if you followed conservative media.

I’m sure there are plenty of Black activists who will accuse me of appropriation for making my own definition of what “woke” is. But the problem isn’t me, friends, it is Republicans who have used this term to bludgeon Democrats both mainstream and on the fringes.

Honestly, if you could get 80% of white America to realize that their Black and Hispanic and Asian neighbors are humans with families who have to deal with extra challenges every day just because of who they are, you’d be well on the way to making changes in social justice. That 80% isn’t going to be marching in the streets or facing down the police. But they will be electing Democrats who change laws, put more inclusive and tolerant law enforcement in place, and appoint judges that will protect civil rights.

One by one, they’ll become more woke about their neighbors’ struggles. That’s about as woke as they’re going to get.

It’s a lot harder to come out against the idea that “my neighbors are human” than it is to bash the straw men that Republicans are setting up.

I’d like my politics like that, please. Especially if the alternative is sorting ourselves into warring camps.

25 responses to “What is “woke,” really? And why is everyone fighting about it?

  1. how woke of you!
    yet another generalized summary from one of the two agendas that pollute the topic

    1. Totally, I have long hair and Ride a Motorcycle and I HAVE TO BEHAVE different in a traffic stop to NOT get tazed!!!… Oh wait NO I dont I just behave!!! like a human that was stopped for reason, if not I file a complaint!!!.

  2. I subscribe to your definition of woke-ness. It’s essentially awareness. Being aware that other people who are not white, male, heterosexuals have a different and more difficult chore of making their way in the world. In big ways (like avoiding being murdered by the police for minor infractions) or in small ways (like being followed by security while simply shopping in a store). Being woke is the state of being aware of other people’s experiences and then being empathetic and understanding of their different obstacles and challenges.

    1. Why? Life is different for everyone depending on circumstances. Trying to be. “Woke” is absurd in itself it get you to be racist.

  3. The usage of “woke” I’ve heard for years has been by the organic food-anti-vaxx-alternative medicine-crowd. They have been “woke” about not using “chemicals” in their medicines and food for years. The science-based medicine folks applied “woke” derogatorily to them. It’s of course funny that the COVID-vaccine-deniers on the right are referring to others as “woke,” even as they are being “woke” about vaccines.

  4. As a graphic designer with a half-century of successful experience, I was recently contacted to re-design a version of the Coca-Cola logo to read “Woca-Cola” or “Woka-Cola” … you know, that white script on a red field.

    I didn’t do it. In my vast experience I’ve always rejected clients and projects having to do with politics because no matter how right or wrong it is, you’re always going to piss somebody off.

    But I really had to chuckle. I envisioned the finished logo, and it was fantastic… would probably have gone viral, licensed for Tshirts and all kinds of swag!

    Coca-Cola wasn’t really “woke” for their stand on the Georgia voting law. It was either ignorance, or willful pandering to the “woke”. Same with Major League Baseball — who moved from a 50/50 diverse community to a 90/10 community. They actually did the opposite of wokeness.

    Technically, the term means a state of being aware, of social problems such as racism and inequality: companies that commit Woke-a-cide, believe everything is racist — like requiring an ID to vote is “Jim Crow” or calling climate change or interstate highways racist.

    At the end of the day, the financial wealth I could have gained off the mark would not have offset the potential repercussions. After all, Coke is now training their employees how to be “less white.” Not interested. Got too many more important things to worry about.

    Here . . . take a look : https://bit.ly/330k9Nl


  5. There is an of echo of Plato in “woke”, the notion that we aren’t capable of truly seeing reality unless we are enlightened.
    I find your version of “woke” anodyne and agreeable, but like many Americans, I am cautious of labels for my religion, politics, and opinions. Consider the multitude of beliefs we might argue are “Christian values”. When a word becomes something one defines for oneself but implies membership in a group, it hardly seems worth using at all.

  6. The thing is, no one is really awake yet. All this racist bullshit is just a red herring for the class struggle. The Haves keep the Have-nots fighting amongst themselves for their “rights” and “freedoms”, so they don’t look where the real power and oppression is. It’s no coincidence that the middle class is shrinking.

    It’s true what they say, it really doesn’t matter whether you’re Black or Latino or Asian or White or Gay or Straight. When you’re poor, you’re oppressed. The more imaginary lines you draw in the sand between yourselves, the less united you will be against the real problem. Powers that be want to keep you that way so they can rule over you like an untouchable aristocracy, and we idiots worship them for it. We keep blaming society’s problems on immigrants stealing our jobs, or minorities ruining our neighborhoods, or homosexuals ruining our religious values when the real problem is greed. Greed keeping this country from making any progress, keeping our schools penniless, keeping our roads broken, keeping our votes off the ballots, keeping our healthcare out of reach. There are forces trying to keep the people in this country uneducated, ignorant, hateful, sick, and impoverished and tearing at each other for scraps.

    History tells us that this type of corruption is what leads to the fall of empires. Wake up people! Y’all still sleeping.

    1. Yes and no on this. The oppression of poverty is real and crosses racial, ethnic and gender lines, BUT being poor and a white male is much easier than being poor and black, native, asian, lgbtq, female, etc….. Just a fact unfortunately. Yes we must look past that and work together for the well being of ALL our community members both human and the rest of life on this planet. GREED is killing our social structure and the ecosystems of this planet which sustains our species.


  7. The only “woke” that makes sense to me is what happens after my second cup of morning coffee. As to seeing others as just people-without-labels, that started when I was 5 years old with a dream of being a missionary. That didn’t happen, but I still see everyone as having value for who they are. As a WF, I would not go by myself to certain areas of the world. At least not until we are all holding hands and singing kum-ba-yah. I don’t understand the riots. I do understand freedom of speech (what is left of it). But if wanton destruction is part of the woke culture, leave me out of it, thank you.

  8. It may seem like a small thing, but I think the choice of words can have an impact on how ideas are perceived. For example, the term ‘privilege’ is used to refer to the difference between how Whites and minorities experience the world. That particular word can alienate people who happen to be White but who have struggled through disadvantages (e.g., poverty) and don’t see themselves as ‘privileged’ as a ‘trust fund’ kid. To me, ‘privileged’ impliles that you always win. What would make more sense to me is the word ‘advantaged’. For example, if you are in a Formula 1 race and your car is better than all the others, you have an advantage over the other racers. But winning also depends on luck and skill. Your car can have a flaw; other drivers may be more skillful. ‘Advantage’ implies that, all things being equal, you may have a better chance; ‘privilege’ implies that you will ALWAYS win, no matter what (even with a lousy car, bad skills, and bad luck). I think there is a similar problem with “De-fund police.” That term doesn’t accurately describe what the movement is about, and implies that the sole objective is to take money away from police departments. In fact, in some cases, fixing the problem will require more money, not less — better training, better screening criteria, maybe better salaries/benefits to attract better police officers. The purpose isn’t to dismantle the police force but rather to make it serve the entire community better. A more appropriate term might be “Re-boot the police.” When your computer isn’t working right, you turn it off and turn it on again to re-boot it and get it on the right track. Many people are alienated by the use of inflammatory language, and those who would reject changes regardless of how they are worded are handed a very blunt instrument to fight those changes. Meanwhile, replacing inflammatory words with phrasing that more accurately reflects the purpose might lead more people to actually listen to the arguments about what needs to be done and embrace the ideas.

    1. You’re 100% right, but those words were very, very specifically chosen to specifically be innaccurate (‘redefined’) and off-putting … in order to shut down any discussion, debate or differing perspective from any non-POC by taking the ‘moral high-ground’. Because if you don’t agree unreservedly, if you question any pillar of the movement, or even if you don’t understand the new meanings … you’re a racist (another recently redefined term).

      This is, of course, a *brilliant* tactic in a democracy, where smaller groups need to build coalitions to make meaningful change.

      Which, of course, makes you wonder if meaningful change is actually the goal.

  9. I’m not sure if you were being intentionally vague and dishonest or if you’re just hopelessly naive, but you were definition of woke is woefully incomplete, to say the least. Your article is full of easily disproved assertions and tired tropes and it substitutes anecdotes and feelings for actual facts, stats and data, and is a standard tactic of the radical far-left, which has completely co-opted the Democrat Party. Whether you choose to call it “woke”, CRT, Identity Politics, Anti-racism or some other moniker, it is clear you have bought into the nebulous concept of “systemic racism”. But it is nothing more than Marx’s “Conflict Theory” substituting “race” for “class”, so a more apt name is “Neo Marxism”. One only needs to open any history book to see the plentiful examples of how Marxism in all of its forms has been an abysmal failure everywhere it was ever implemented, and often resulted in the deaths of millions. And none but the weak of will or weak of mind are being fooled by it. The Woke have discounted any doctrine heterodox to the solipsistic tenets of their unscientific hogwash, which routinely discards objective reality in favor of perception and experience (it’s “MY” truth). Anyone who disagrees with them is labeled a “racist” or phobe of some sort. And since there is no evidence to support their false premise, therefore they can’t argue using logic or reason, they conveniently deride logic and reason THEMSELVES as being racist! How convenient! The fact that woke ideology is based entirely on analyzing EVERY phenomenon through the lens of “systemic power” reveals the true goals of the ideology, which is to gain “systemic power”. Believers in this nonsense beclown themselves.

  10. Woke, a state of being aware, of social problems such as injustice or inequality. Truly has nothing to do with white, heterosexual, male, Christian, affluent or ay other commonly targeted group. Every group of people on the planet needs to wake up and be aware of the injustices and inequalities in the world for everybody.

  11. WOKE” was appropriated from the Buddhist religion. It has no color or community other than what it brings to the world from Buddhism. No one has the right to claim
    it for themselves until they understand the origins. When the Buddha reached enlightenment he said “I am awake”. And it was appropriated from there.

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