Currently in America, there is a trend amongst many conservatives to use the term “woke” as a pejorative to disparage statements and legislative proposals made by individuals and political representatives who would be classified as liberal or progressive in most political circles. Interestingly enough, for many years, the term was used in Black American vernacular to warn of potential dangers within and outside of the community. Today, the term seems to be most often used to attack and disparage any views, activities, or potential legislature that many conservatives simply don’t agree with. While the current governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, and recently deposed king of Fox News, Tucker Carlson, seem to be the primary proponents of the “anti-woke” establishment, one can easily conduct a Google search to discover a long list of current conservative leaders and pundits using the term in the same manner as DeSantis and Carlson.
What Does Woke Mean?
Before we continue with an analysis of the current trend, let’s first, begin with an official definition of “woke.” According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary’s definition of the word, “woke” means to be aware of and actively attentive to important societal facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice). That is the official definition, but what does it really mean in present day American society and where did the current connotation of the word originate?
Of course, any American Kindergarten student is aware of “woke” as the past tense of wake, as in, “She woke up this morning.” But, if one conducts a cursory exploration of recent comments about the word, the search would reveal a disturbing trend that is leading Black activists, pundits and politicians to express concerns that “woke” is the new “n” word in America.
If being woke essentially means being actively aware of facts and issues with reference to racial and social justice, why is the word suddenly so contentious? Being aware of dangers, whether physical or political, should be commendable and desirable for many reasons, but in some circles, that is not the case.
Presently, one can scarcely watch a discussion, speech or interview featuring any conservative commentator or politician without one of them making mention of something related to woke, woke-speech or woke policies; and as the weaponization of the word continues to spread, it is noticeable that the statements from many conservatives are more often than not, snide, demeaning or sardonic and meant to be critical of Black Americans, members of the LGBTQ+ community, immigrants and anyone else that doesn’t not fit into their myopic view of what America should look like.
"Wokeness is a virus more dangerous than any pandemic," Claims Republican Presidential Candidate, Nikki Haley © 2023 Provided by BuzzLoving
Ron DeSantis, the Governor of Florida, recently signed legislation commonly known as the “Stop Woke Act”, which, among other things “…bans classroom instruction that could make some parties feel they bear “personal responsibility” for historic wrongdoings because of their race, sex or national origin. The legislative action also forbids instruction based on the Pulitzer Prize winning essay, the 1619 Project, and “build[s] on prior efforts to ban the New York Times’ piece, which he called “state-sanctioned racism.”
But how did this come to be? The connotation of what “woke” is in this current context originates in Black American vernacular and culture. The statement, “Stay woke” and any related actions associated with it were used to encourage one to remain alert and/or aware in the face of potential threats in the form of racism or white supremacy. One of the earliest known references of its use in Black culture comes from Blues icon Lead Belly, and his song the “Scottsboro Boys" published in 1938.” At the end of the song Ledbetter mentioned the need for Black people living or traveling in Alabama to “stay woke.” The song was written as a protest of the mistreatment and illegal incarceration of a group of nine young Black men and boys who were wrongfully accused of raping two White women in Alabama in 1931.
Over time, the statement became popular as a warning among Black Americans throughout the nation. The use of the term evolved as the meaning was more nuanced in the idea of being “woke” by knowing and understanding Black and African history and having the initiative to use that knowledge to empower oneself, family, and friends.
Jones, O. (2021). A mural with portraits of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin and Ahmaud Arbery in Tampa [Photograph]. Washington Post https://www.concordmonitor.com/My-Turn-Teaching-history-45212159
Black community leaders and activists often used the term as a rallying cry to unite and encourage their followers. They enticed them to see and research what was happening in their communities and use that knowledge to persuade them and others to join the cause, whatever the cause may be, to include the Black Lives Matter movement. Between 2012, after the death of Trayvon Martin and 2020, after the murder of George Floyd, Black Americans and their allies consistently encouraged one another to “stay woke” in reference to any racial or discriminative threat to the community.
Today, the term has been co-opted by conservatives and has become a rallying cry and weapon against issues or elements that are considered progressive. The issue with the term “woke” is not in its use, but how it is being used. There is not a particular group, or subject, that is being targeted; but a variety of groups and a plethora of subjects.
Discussions advocating for LGBTQ rights are attacked and deemed woke. Legislation that was passed in the 1960s to protect voter’s constitutional rights to vote, are now under attack and lumped in with other so-called “woke-policies.” Advocates for pro-choice policies or Woman’s Rights are accused of being a part of the “woke-mob.” Recommendations for an increase in the enforcement of “gun-control” legislation that is already in place and known to decrease potential gun violence and mass shootings, are also targeted as recommendations initiated by woke-mobsters.
Why would anyone refuse opportunities to pass legislation that will improve the standing and protections for U.S. citizens? Why are legislators, who were elected by their constituents to advocate on their behalf proposing legislation that will diminish their standard of living and quality of life?
The Main Idea on Woke
The idea that “woke” is the new “n” word is a slightly exaggerated concept. The stigma and angst caused by the actual “n” word will likely never be surpassed in American society, but the fact that the word is consistently being used as a weapon to insult and degrade those with whom many conservatives don’t agree is apparent. The concept of “woke” today and how it is being used is tied to the longstanding strategy in the history of American politics to use fear and fearmongering to invoke a response from their constituents, with the most desired response being a vote against GOP opponents or any candidate on the wrong side of what they believe in.
Scapegoating specific demographic groups to garner votes in the game of U.S. politics is a tried-and-true formula. There are numerous examples of those who have been targeted for scapegoating to include Native Indigenous people, Chinese immigrants, Irish immigrants, and even American women who were advocating for their own voting rights. While scapegoating is as old as America, there is a well-documented history of the tactics being focused upon and used throughout American history against Black people as the catalyst to stir the pot in the political arena and induce fear and worry within conservative constituents.
Statements that include terms like the “woke-mob” or “woke-speech” are made to invoke images of individuals doing things that frighten or anger “Patriotic” Americans. In that regard, “woke” has become an extremely popular buzzword to identify certain groups, without the fear of reprisal when used in public. Perhaps, comparing “woke” to the “n” word is more than a little premature. More specifically, it is probably a very gross exaggeration!
The thesis of this op-ed is that “woke” is actively being utilized as an insult and weapon. It provides an easy way for some to scapegoat politicians, legislation, specific demographic groups and ideals that they don’t like. All of which is eerily similar to what was described in Lee Atwaters’ infamous interview on the Southern Strategy in 1981. Yes, you cannot use the “n” word anymore, but there are ways to substitute it with something else and still get the desired result.