A History (and misappropriation) of “Wokeness”

Stay woke: How a Black activist watchword got co-opted in the culture war.

Before 2014, the call to “stay woke” was, for many people, unheard of. The idea behind it was common within Black communities at that point — the notion that staying “woke” and alert to the deceptions of other people was a basic survival tactic. But in 2014, following the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, “stay woke” suddenly became the cautionary watchword of Black Lives Matter activists on the streets, used in a chilling and specific context: keeping watch for police brutality and unjust police tactics.

In the six years since Brown’s death, “woke” has evolved into a single-word summation of leftist political ideology, centered on social justice politics and critical race theory. This framing of “woke” is bipartisan: It’s used as a shorthand for political progressiveness by the left, and as a denigration of leftist culture by the right.

On the left, to be “woke” means to identify as a staunch social justice advocate who’s abreast of contemporary political concerns — or to be perceived that way, whether or not you ever claimed to be “woke” yourself. At times, the defensiveness surrounding wokeness invites ironic blowback. Consider the 2020 Hulu comedy series Woke, which attempted to deconstruct the identity politics behind ideas like “wokeness,” only to garner criticism for having an outdated and too-centrist political viewpoint — that is, for not being woke enough.

On the right, “woke” — like its cousin “canceled” — bespeaks “political correctness” gone awry, and the term itself is usually used sarcastically. At the Republican National Convention in August, right-wing Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) scolded “woketopians,” grouping them together with socialists and Biden supporters, as though the definition of a “woketopian” was self-evident.

But as use of the word spreads, what people actually mean by “woke” seems less clear than ever.

After all, none of these recent political concepts has anything to do with the idea of demanding that people “stay woke” against police brutality. Despite renewed activism against police brutality in 2020, the way that terms like “woke” and “wokeness” are used outside of the Black Lives Matter community seems to bear little connection to their original context, on either the right and the left.

Shifting a Black Lives Matter slogan away from its original meaning is arguably the least woke thing ever — yet that seems to be just what happened with, of all things, “woke” itself.

To understand how “woke” came to stand in for an entire political ideology, it’s helpful to trace how the term traveled so far and wide within the American mainstream — and what that journey reveals about a polarized society.

“Stay woke” began as a watchword for Black Americans

The first time many people heard “woke” in its current context was likely during the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement. In 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, Black citizens took to the streets nightly to protest the police shooting death of Michael Brown. As they did so, they urged each other to “stay woke” against police actions and other threats.

But “woke” and the phrase “stay woke” had already been a part of Black communities for years, long before Black Lives Matter gained prominence. “While renewed (inter)national outcry over anti-Black police violence certainly fueled widespread and mainstream usage of the word in the present, it has a much longer history,” deandre miles-hercules, a doctoral [ … ]

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