How woke conquered the world
And why this is a problem
11th May 2021
Joanna Williams argues that woke’s moral righteousness and veneer of egalitarianism belies the intolerance and authoritarianism of its leading proponents.
Woke: a catch-all term for everything left-wing and politically correct that manages to be, at once, both an instruction and an insult. A monosyllable descriptor for the politically virtuous but morally insufferable. A new breed of activism, so imbued with confidence that nuance and subtlety and shades of grey can be done away with – indeed must be abandoned – and replaced by censorship, cancelling and the closing down of debate. A language, an ideology, a grand narrative that only some possess and whose ownership demarcates the elites from the masses.
Woke captures something in our political and cultural zeitgeist and, as such, its usage has become ubiquitous. But the word’s origins are easily lost amid rapidly shifting connotations. This may well be the point. After all, what counts as woke and what it means to be woke, change more frequently than the meaning of the word itself. With each new iteration, some fail to keep up and, written off as no longer pure of thought, are cast out of polite society. Here, I trace the ever changing meanings of woke and consider why woke’s leading proponents so readily become illiberal and even authoritarian.
What is ‘woke’?
To be ‘woke’ is to be awake; it is the state of not being asleep. The Old English roots of ‘awake’ lie in both ‘arise’ and ‘revive’, and this has long led to metaphorical as well as literal usage. Spring awakens nature; passion can be awakened and people become awake to new knowledge. Back in the early decades of the twentieth century, this figurative meaning of awake began to be used more specifically. As well as implying a general state of arousal or knowledge, it also came to mean politically awake and alert to racial discrimination and social injustice.
Vox magazine notes that a 1923 book by the Jamaican-born philosopher, black nationalist and political activist Marcus Garvey included the rallying cry: ‘Wake up Ethiopia! Wake up Africa!’ as a ‘call to global Black citizens to become more socially and politically conscious.’ It is this political definition of awake that moved from verb to adjective. The meaning of the descriptor ‘woke’, adopted by black communities in the US, was more specific and its usage more niche than simply ‘awakened’.
In 1938, the phrase ‘stay woke’ was used by Blues musician Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, in a spoken afterword to the song Scottsboro Boys. This was a protest song describing an incident from 1931 in which nine black teenagers from Scottsboro, Arkansas, were accused of raping two white women. Lead Belly says: ‘So I advise everybody, be a little careful when they go along through there – best stay woke, keep their eyes open.’ This usage speaks not just to the importance of being aware of racial injustice but a more specific need for black people to stay alert to threats and dangers from white people in general and the state in particular. ‘Stay woke’ reminded black people that they needed to stay vigilant and observant because of racial discrimination.
Hollowed out of any radical content, ‘woke’ readily morphed into a slur primarily used by those looking for a quick way to caricature their opponents as obsessively politically correct, hectoring and engaged in superficial acts of virtue signalling.
By the mid-20th century, ‘woke’ was still used almost exclusively by members of the African American population but two meanings ran in parallel: be vigilant for potential threats from powerful whites and also be ‘aware’ or ‘well informed’ about political injustices in general. Both meanings were used in black dialect and were brought to the attention of the wider public with a 1962 New York Times article by the African American novelist William Melvin Kelley. In ‘If you’re woke, you dig it,’ Kelley criticised white beatniks for appropriating black slang. His essay was ironically prescient. Decades later, ‘woke’ would not only come to be taken on board by white hipsters but, at the very same time, exposing and condemning appropriation – be it cultural or linguistic – would itself become a woke action.
Three years later, Martin Luther King, addressing crowds at the end of the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, recalled an older meaning of ‘woke’ when he described the origins of racial segregation as emerging from opposition to the burgeoning Populist Party of the 1890s. The white elite sought to challenge nascent populism because: ‘The leaders of this movement began awakening the poor white masses and the former Negro slaves to the fact that they were being fleeced by the emerging Bourbon interests.’
In 1972, a play by Barry Beckham, Garvey Lives!, features a character who says he’ll ‘stay woke’ thanks to the work of Marcus Garvey: ‘I been sleeping all my life. And now that Mr Garvey done woke me up, I’m gon stay woke. And I’m gon’ help him wake up other black folk.’ From this point in the early 1970s, ‘woke’ was still used almost exclusively within African American communities.
Twenty-first century woke
Several decades were to pass before ‘woke’ would explode into popular usage. In 2005, singer Georgia Anne Muldrow wrote and recorded a song called Master Teacher that featured the refrain ‘I’d stay woke,’ in homage to jazz musicians of the 1960s. This appeared on an album, Black Fuzz, although neither the song nor the album were ever actually released. However, Muldrow’s track was picked up by artist Erykah Badu who released an updated version in 2008 on her album New Amerykah Part One (4th World War).
In 2014, widespread protests broke out in Ferguson, Missouri following the police killing of Michael Brown. Activists rallied around the slogan Black Lives Matter (BLM) both on the street and online. The phrase, ‘stay woke’, popularised by Badu’s work, quickly became associated with the Black Lives Matter movement through the sharing of the hashtag #StayWoke online. Woke initially harked back to the 1930s warning to black people to stay alert to the threat of racist police brutality but, with widespread usage, rapidly expanded to encompass the broader sense of being aware of all forms of social injustice.
2016 was the year that being woke – and, importantly – letting people know that you were woke, became fashionable. Online magazines carried lists of the ‘young and woke’ featuring ‘celebrities who lead by example’. They profiled ‘15 Hot Celebs Who Are Also Woke AF’ and gave us ‘The Ultimate Guide to Woke Celebrity Bros.’ Praise was heaped upon public figures who made a display of being anti-racist, feminist, queer and gender-nonconforming. To be woke was cool and aspirational. Perhaps peak woke was reached in June of this year when Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey took to the stage at a major global conference wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with ‘#StayWoke’ and the Twitter logo.
By the following year, ‘woke’ had become so mainstream that the Oxford English Dictionary listed it as one of its ‘new words of note’. It was defined as: ‘originally: well-informed, up-to-date. Now chiefly: alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice’. The online Urban Dictionary of street slang had defined ‘woke’ two years earlier as, ‘being aware… knowing what’s going on in the community (related to racism and social injustice).’
In less than a decade, the word ‘woke’ has exploded into mainstream white culture, as predicted by Kelley back in 1962. This has led some to decry the fact that ‘like anything created by black people,’ the word has been ‘appropriated by the masses’. As Jack Dorsey demonstrates, ‘woke’ had been popularised, commercialised and even meme-ified. Perhaps unsurprisingly, by 2018, when woke entered mainstream vocabulary, the association of woke with superficial displays of moral superiority had also become firmly entrenched in the public imagination. Hollowed out of any radical content, ‘woke’ readily morphed into a slur primarily used by those looking for a quick way to caricature their opponents as obsessively politically correct, hectoring and engaged in superficial acts of virtue signalling.
In turn, this backlash against woke prompted its own response. First came denial. ‘Woke’ was hastily dropped by the very same celebrities and commentators who had rushed to self-identify with the word just months earlier. By 2018, the Urban Dictionary had a new definition: ‘the act of being very pretentious about how much you care about a social issue.’ Some went so far as to imply that woke had only ever been used by the right as an insult directed at all things progressive. Writing in the Guardian, Afua Hirsch claimed that anyone using the word was ‘likely to be a right-wing culture warrior angry at a phenomenon that lives mainly in their imagination’.
After denial came reinvention. Those who mocked woke were directed to the word’s more neutral definition of ‘awareness’ and accused of being insensitive to racist, sexist and transphobic discrimination. To add to the insult, those who criticise woke are further accused of seeking ‘victim status’ for themselves, ‘rather than acknowledging that more deserving others hold that status.’ As one Guardian journalist notes: ‘Rarely a week passes without a rightwing commentator warning about the rise of “cancel culture” or decrying the “woke agenda”.’
Attempts to reclaim the word ‘woke’ by so-called progressives have been largely unsuccessful and woke is today primarily used critically. Yet despite this, the goals associated with being woke not only still exist but have moved from the fringes of political life to mainstream thinking. Woke may no longer be the self-descriptor of choice, but its ideas underpin establishment decision making and corporate mission statements.
From radical to mainstream
It’s the elastic definition of woke that has allowed it to shift from aspirational, to insulting and (almost) back again, while its key assumptions quietly gain ground within cultural institutions. We can see one example of how this works if we look at Black Lives Matter. No right-minded person seriously doubts that black lives matter. However, many strenuously disagree with the goals of Black Lives Matter, the political movement and campaign group. Yet the success of Black Lives Matter hinges upon the meaning of the movement and the slogan being blurred. It plays upon people’s reluctance to dissent from the sentiment of the slogan. When criticising the BLM movement leads to accusations of racism, and the charge of racism may end careers and result in social ostracism, it is far better to shut up.
To be woke is less about identifying with a label and more about holding a particular ideological outlook.
Similarly, feminist activists are quick to declare that feminism simply means a belief that women and men are equal. Few will disagree with this sentiment. But feminist campaigns – to have adverts banned, workplace menopause policies introduced and misogyny made a hate crime – imply not just something beyond a belief in sexual equality but actually contradictory to this basic principle. Yet any attempt to challenge these specific campaigns will see one branded not just anti-feminist but, worse, suffering from internalised misogyny. With both BLM and feminism there is movement between a general sentiment everyone can support and a far more specific agenda. Any criticism of particular goals is deflected by outrage that anyone could possibly disagree with the general principles. This rhetorical sleight of hand is used to drive public displays of conformity.
The elastic meaning of the word ‘woke’ operates in much the same way. Activists may announce that to be woke simply means being alert to social injustice but, in practice, woke has come to mean far more than just awareness: it means adopting a particular position on any given issue. More than this, it means adopting a position that may be nuanced and rapidly changing, that must be expressed using only an approved vocabulary, and that may – as with feminism – end up being fundamentally at odds with the original principle.
In this respect, Black Lives Matter perfectly epitomises what it means to be woke. It is not enough for people to be aware of racial injustice: ‘silence is violence’ comes the retort. And neither is it enough for people not to be racist; they must, in the words of Ibram X. Kendi, be actively antiracist. Being antiracist nowadays means, in practice, conforming to a quite specific set of views that fall under the rough heading of critical race theory. It means seeing people as racialised beings who passively enact deeply rooted unconscious biases. It means viewing society as systemically and irredeemably racist, an inevitable product of the psychosis of whiteness, demonstrated through the continual micoaggressions white people inflict upon black folk. What’s more, it means expressing these sentiments using a specific vocabulary familiar only to true antiracists: ‘people of colour’, ‘Latinx’, ‘bipoc’.
Being woke buys entry to an exclusive club.
To be woke, then, is less about identifying with a label and more about holding a particular ideological outlook. As we have seen, to be woke requires far more than simply being aware of racism or being against racism. It is not woke to insist that people should be judged by their character rather than the colour of their skin. To be woke is to hold a very particular position, one that insists upon seeing both race and racism everywhere. Complaints that this view may rehabilitate racial thinking and racist practices such as segregation can be safely ignored: it’s far more important for the woke set that race is discussed using the correct language. To be woke is to police the language and behaviour of others, calling out not just those who are racist but those who hold the wrong form of opposition to racism and have not kept up with the latest vocabulary.
These same woke practices – the adoption of a particular stance that appears radically egalitarian but often runs entirely counter to previous movements that shared the same goals; the creation of new vocabulary; the policing of language and behaviour – are replicated across a range of issues. To be woke is to see gender as multiple and fluid and to employ a complex vocabulary that begins with trans- and cis-gender and branches out into nonbinary, agender, pangender, genderqueer, demigirl and so on. Yet to be woke is also to believe that demonstrating masculine behaviour makes someone a man (whatever their sex) while to be a woman is to look and act feminine. There is a woke stance on sexuality, feminism, race, disability, the environment, the police, what to eat and drink, where to shop and what to buy.
Being woke buys entry to an exclusive club. Demonstrating membership requires a social media profile complete with one or all of the following: your pronouns; an LGBTQ flag; an EU flag; and the acronyms FBPE (Follow Back Pro-EU), BLM (Black Lives Matter) and ACAB (All Cops Are Bastards); as well as clenched fists in an assortment of colours. In return, you can expect likes, retweets and – for those in the culture industry – opportunities for employment and promotion with possibly a book deal thrown in for good measure. Not being woke, on the other hand, can lead to a social media ‘pile-on’, followed by no-platforming and other forms of censoring or ‘cancelling’. Despite the instruction to #BeKind, advocates of woke can be ruthless in their treatment of those who fall short of total ideological purity.
Woke politics aims at social justice through the foregrounding of identity politics: at its core is an insistence on categorising people according to immutable characteristics such as race or sex, before dividing and ranking according to assumed hierarchies of oppression. Historically privileged groups, primarily white men, are expected to accede to those who have been historically oppressed. The sense of virtue that comes from acting on behalf of the disadvantaged and oppressed legitimises a refusal to countenance dissent and a ruthlessness at dealing with those seemingly in opposition to the woke mission. Those deemed ‘enemies’ are readily written off as racists, TERFs or even fascists. At the same time, woke overlaps with a therapeutic ethos that sees oppressed people as more in need of emotional safety than material change. In this way, woke censorship, cancelling and even violence are justified if they prevent vulnerable groups suffering psychological trauma. So powerful is the woke sense of virtue that seemingly nothing, up to and including physical violence, is off limits if it prevents those considered offensive from inflicting psychic harm on those deemed vulnerable.
Despite the instruction to #BeKind, advocates of woke can be ruthless in their treatment of those who fall short of total ideological purity.
Woke politics has extended far into established social and cultural institutions. This has happened not off the strength of woke ideology alone, but because such institutions have long since abandoned their founding principles. Schools and universities, museums and art galleries, even the media and legal system are no longer driven by an imperative to impart knowledge, to pursue truth, to preserve the past or to cultivate beauty. These important values were problematised and rejected first; then proponents of woke ideology saw an opportunity and readily filled the moral vacuum. Woke thinking provides those who run national institutions with a moral mission and a sense of purpose underpinned by a commitment to social justice. This shift in values represents a broader cultural change and not just a short term political fad.
The importance of language
Language plays an important role in demarcating the woke from the non-woke. Knowing to say people of colour rather than coloured people; transgender rather than transsexual; Latinx rather than Hispanic; and sex assigned at birth rather than simply ‘male’ or ‘female’ serves to differentiate people who are woke from those who are not. This acts much the same way as saying lavatory or toilet, napkin or serviette, sofa or settee signified social class in decades past. One important role for universities is to induct students into this woke language either through immersion or through formal training in mandatory antiracism workshops or consent classes. In turn, young graduates carry this vocabulary and its associated ideas with them into the workplace. The more woke language and principles are adopted by a social and cultural elite, the more they are assumed to be mainstream and the more those who use outdated terminology stand out.
The obsessive focus on language leaves advocates of woke politics open to the accusation that their project is superficial and performative rather than concerned with bringing about material changes to the quality of people’s lives. For example, rather than campaigning for all parents to have access to free childcare for young children, woke activists focus instead on encouraging teachers to use gender neutral language in nursery schools. It is easy to mock this as a bizarre attempt to bring political correctness to even the very youngest children but it is important to take seriously the fundamentally corrosive impact of woke ideology. Attempts at changing language that start with children risk setting the generations at odds with each other as parents, and especially grandparents, may be unfamiliar with the latest gender neutral terminology. Gender neutral child rearing can lead to a broader undermining of young children’s ability to identify with their sex: even if children later reject stereotypical expectations, identifying as male or female is an important psychological milestone.
Woke thinking provides those who run national institutions with a moral mission and a sense of purpose.
For the woke outlook to become normalised, select groups of outsiders need to be ‘let in’ on the language and key concepts. As noted, this is now a key role of universities. There are also more crude attempts to introduce older adults to woke, for example through online guides and, perhaps with a hint of knowing irony, newspaper supplements like The Woke Handbook for Boomers published in The Times. This attempted normalisation of woke, and the disingenuous slippage between the general and the particular, means that when Boris Johnson was asked by interviewers: ‘Is Joe Biden woke?’ he felt the need to state: ‘there is nothing wrong with being woke’.
Indeed, as far as woke is concerned, it pays to sit on the fence. Woke language and politics are now serious business. From Innocent Smoothies, to Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, to Gillette razors, companies parade woke credentials and sell products based not on anything so crass as quality or value for money but on holding the correct values. Potentially exploitative working practices do not matter, it seems, if you send corporate Tweets about the importance of open borders and the need to dismantle white supremacy. Such virtue signalling could be written off as just a new form of advertising but its growing use also speaks to a more fundamental troubling of the profit motive. Just as with cultural institutions, capitalism today lacks purpose. Businesses tick over and revenue is generated, some thrive and turn in eye-watering sums, but neither profit nor production seem to offer sufficient justification and money-making is hidden behind woke mission statements and values-laden corporate visions.
Critics of woke capitalism claim businesses that ‘get woke, go broke’ because attempts at virtue signalling often end up insulting customers who, unsurprisingly, shop elsewhere. However, woke can make good business sense. It not only serves as a preemptive strike to deflect criticism, it also allows unprecedented management reach into the lives of employees. Through unconscious bias training, anti-racism and diversity training, enculturating staff into woke values permits bosses unprecedented access to and control over not just their employees’ time, but their personal, political and emotional lives too. More generally, woke ideology overides social class, divides workers according to identity, and allows employers to act as a neutral arbitrer in workplace conflicts. Woke capitalism, perhaps more than anything else, reveals the elite beneficiaries of woke politics.
Woke ideology is fundamentally elitist. It privileges identity over social class, and superficial linguistic changes over material concerns. It allows those in the know to wallow in their own sense of moral superiority while being openly derogatory to those not up to speed with the latest woke signifiers. It assumes that some are too ignorant, and others too vulnerable, for people to be allowed to control their own lives and shape their nation. Woke politics soon becomes anti-democratic when policies aimed at curtailing debate are enacted either by private social media companies (banning users or content from Facebook and Twitter) or national governments (introducing hate speech legislation).
Some are slowly noticing the unpopularity of woke with the electorate. In a Vox interview, the US political strategist and commentator James Carville is critical of the language used by leading Democrats:
You ever get the sense that people in faculty lounges in fancy colleges use a different language than ordinary people? They come up with a word like “Latinx” that no one else uses. Or they use a phrase like “communities of color.” I don’t know anyone who speaks like that. I don’t know anyone who lives in a “community of color.” I know lots of white and Black and brown people and they all live in … neighborhoods. We should talk about racial injustice. What I’m saying is, we need to do it without using jargon-y language that’s unrecognizable to most people — including most Black people, by the way — because it signals that you’re trying to talk around them. We have to speak the way regular people speak, the way voters speak.
Carville makes an important point about woke language but it is a mistake to assume that the problems with woke lie simply in its performance. The performance, and its associated, convoluted, made-up language, reflect an engrained condescension grounded on the premise that (other) people are either oppressors or oppressed, victims or perpetrators.
With its moral righteousness and veneer of egalitarianism, woke ideology lends authority to the demands made by activists and those in positions of power.
Following the electoral collapse of the Labour Party, in the UK’s Hartlepool by-election, Labour MP Khalid Mahmood quit Keir Starmer’s frontbench, arguing that the party had lost touch with working class voters and become more concerned with the interests of ‘woke social media warriors’. Mahmood noted:
They mean well, of course, but their politics – obsessed with identity, division and even tech utopianism – have more in common with those of Californian high society than the kind of people who voted in Hartlepool yesterday. The loudest voices in the Labour movement over the past year in particular have focused more on pulling down Churchill’s statue than they have on helping people pull themselves up in the world.
Here, Mahmood goes beyond the usual criticism of woke as simply performative. Women leaders such as Jacinda Ardern, Kamala Harris and Nicola Sturgeon exemplify the woke authoritarian outlook Mahmood describes. They are celebrated by cultural elites around the world despite having previously overseen, or currently implementing, harshly illiberal policies. For example, in her role as State prosecutor, Kamala Harris oversaw the incarceration of African Americans at a rate that remains more than five times their share of California’s population. Meanwhile, in Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon’s Hate Crime legislation could open the door for people to be questioned by the police for expressing views in their own homes.
With its moral righteousness and veneer of egalitarianism, woke ideology lends authority to the demands made by activists and those in positions of power. When this authority is used to enforce some practices or prevent others it can become intolerant and authoritarian. Woke’s foundational claim to represent the interests of the oppressed enables those in positions of power to justify all measures deemed necessary to enforce their world view. What’s more, it allows those who wield this influence to deny the very power they possess. Woke ideology needs to be rigorously challenged for far more than its superficial performativity. Those interested in seeing genuine social change need to push back against the elitist, censorious, anti-democratic and authoritarian instincts enshrined within the woke outlook.
Joanna Williams is Director of Cieo.