How ‘woke’ went from a black justice term to a pejorative term favored by some conservatives
The new season of « United Shades of America with W. Kamau Bell » kicks off in Arizona with an investigation into the origins of « woke » and the debate over critical race theory in schools. The series begins Sunday at 10 p.m. ET.
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Once upon a time, decades ago, “woke” was a term used primarily in black spaces to emphasize the importance of keeping a close eye on patterns of racism and oppression.
The language is changing, however, and sometimes in sinister ways.
Over the years, “woke” has had other lives: as a rallying cry against police brutality, as a tongue-in-cheek meme, and now as a loose term used to denounce progressive action.
Consider that, just this month, Republican Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ Stop WOKE Act went into effect. Among other things, the legislation is designed to nullify teaching about race in schools and in the workplace.
To chart « woke’s » transformation ahead of Sunday’s return of CNN’s original series, « United Shades of America with W. Kamau Bell, » which in the season premiere explores what happens with « woke, » I talked to deandre one. miles-hercules, linguistics researcher at the University of California at Santa Barbara. During our conversation, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity, we also looked at how powerful words can be twisted and twisted.
What are some of the earliest instances of people using the word « awakened »?
One of the earliest uses of « woke » in the adjectival form with which many people are familiar was in William Melvin Kelley’s 1962 New York Times op-ed, « If You’re Woke You Dig It. »
“Woke” is linked to the idea of a specific awareness of the mechanisms of anti-Blackness. It’s more about the directive to be awake. In the Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey published in 1923, we see the phrase « Awake Ethiopia! » Wake up Africa! And work for the one glorious end of a free, redeemed, and mighty nation.
I don’t know if you’ve seen the Spike Lee movie « School Daze, » from 1988. It ends with Dap, played by Laurence Fishburne, sort of breaking the fourth wall and directly telling the audience to wake up.
In linguistic terms, the idea of »stay awake » actually simply uses the African American English aspect marker « stay », which can be used in any context to signal an event that usually occurs. For example, the greeting, « Stand up ». And then « woke » being the past tense of « wake ». The term draws from a broader conceptual model of awakening as awareness of anti-black oppression.
The Ferguson uprisings in 2014 seemed to mark a significant change in the lives of the “awakened,” specifically “staying awake.” I remember reading the writer Kara Brown piece of Jezebel in motion in which she encourages people to « stay mad and stay woke ». The term really seemed to be everywhere.
I would say I saw the change start around 2016. A lot of people associate it a bit earlier, with the Ferguson uprisings in 2014 and when Black Lives Matter really took off. It was a very important event.
But like others, I would associate the change with the release of Childish Gambino’s « Redbone. » I say that because of the lines, « Stay awake / Niggas crawl / They gon’ find you / They gon’ catch you sleeping. » It was the first time « stay woke » was released and consumed by a overall spectators. You had white people who had never heard the phrase before hearing it all over pop culture.
They’re starting to use it in a context where they don’t understand the long history of anti-black oppression. They do not understand how we have used linguistic mechanisms to name our realities. They use it in weird ways to talk about things like diversity and inclusion efforts. Meaning changes and shifts, but it still has a positive valence in people’s minds.
But in recent years, “woke” has been co-opted in nefarious ways. Could you tell me a bit about how the term is used as a weapon today?
I think this is one of the most important and least discussed elements of the linguistic life of “woke”. The co-option of « woke » – and other terms broadly associated with progressivism – is part of a powerful, low-key weaponization of meaning called semantic pejoration, which is a process by which a word acquires negative meaning or connotation over time.
By using the term “woke” as they see fit, conservatives have muddled its meaning, obfuscated it to refer to anything to do with progressivism that they don’t like. The same goes for “critical race theory”. They did it with so many terms. “Identity politics” is another. One of the earliest uses of “identity politics” is found in the Combahee River Collective Declaration of 1977. It was a way of describing the work to end the oppression of black women – it was a movement politics based on identity. Really simple. Now, however, “identity politics” is often seen as that negative thing that people don’t want to participate in.
One of the things associated with semantic pejoration is what is called semantic bleaching. Semantic whitening is another linguistic process by which the denotative content of a word is removed. I think « critical race theory » is a good example, along with « woke ». Once a word is semantically cleared, it can mean anything. « Woke » has come to mean anything to do with race or, more broadly, progressivism.
It is not only used by curators. Barack Obama, in 2019, used it in a rather pejorative and dismissive way. (The former president criticized the “call culture” and the “wake-up call” during an interview) so pejoratively thinks they’re doing it in a way that’s politically neutral. They don’t see themselves as re-expressing a conservative talking point.