November 29, 2020

How ‘woke’ became the word of our era

An alertness to racial injustice, a weaponised word in the culture wars, a reflection of our times ... Kenya Hunt explores how the world woke up

As I write this, I’m staring at a fashion magazine with the coverline “Woke bespoke”. Next to it, a newspaper supplement features a dating diary of the search for “Mr Woke”. On my desktop is a guide to a “woke Christmas”, and in the adjacent tab is an internet rant in response to said guide demanding people and publishers leave all writing about wokeness to black writers. In another tab, an article bemoaning the “great awokening” of American politics. Meanwhile, on British television, a debate rages between royal correspondents and pundits about whether the royal family’s most polarising members, Meghan and Harry, have in fact become too woke for their own good.

But what is “woke”? Most online dictionaries define it as a perceived awareness of inequality and other forms of injustice that are normally racial in nature. A few describe the term as characterising people who are merely “with it” – as in, every cool kid you knew at uni. And increasingly, these days, many use it as a pejorative term to describe someone who is a slave to identity politics. How can all three possibly be the same? It’s a sensibility, a quality, a state of being, a feeling backed up by a set of actions, sometimes all these things at once.

I can’t think of a word that reflects the era as well as “woke” does. There is its relative newness (it was born and grew up alongside social media), its popularity as a hashtag and its political implications and activist leanings. There’s also its journey from black culture to the internet and mainstream news. All theses qualities are extremely particular to this moment.

Confession: I dislike the word (especially since 2016, when MTV declared the term the new “on fleek”.) Ironic, considering I am textbook woke. I identified with what it was but cringe at what it has come to mean, and bristle at the way the word is now weaponised. The disparity compels me to interrogate the term and its evolution. As Susan Sontag writes in “Notes on ‘Camp’, which inspired this essay, “no one who wholeheartedly shares in a given sensibility can analyse it; he can only, whatever his intention, exhibit it. To name a sensibility, to draw its contours and to recount its history, requires a deep sympathy modified by revulsion.” So let’s consider what woke is, and what it isn’t.

1. Woke extends to conversations around art, politics, economic and social class, gender inequality, trans rights and environmentalism. But woke in its original incarnation rests on activism and blackness.

2. The essence of woke is awareness. What you are newly aware of (a pay gap, systemic racism, unchecked privilege, etc) and what to do with that newfound knowledge is the question. And the answer keeps changing depending on who you talk to. But regardless, you’ve answered the wakeup call, pushed your way out of bed and are now listening.

3. To be woke, in the original sense, is to understand James Baldwin’s declaration: “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” It is to understand the unique kind of exhaustion that comes from being perpetually attuned to discrimination. It is to be weary and wary. To be woke is to long for a day when one doesn’t have to stay woke.

4. Most date woke’s origins back to the American singer songwriter Erykah Badu’s anthemic political medley “Master Teacher” from her album New Amerykah, which she released in 2008. Badu sings over a psychedelic collage of samples about a quest for a new plane of enlightenment: “I am known to stay awake / (A beautiful world I’m trying to find)”. The word recalls Spike Lee’s famous cry to “Wake uuuuuuuuup!” in his seminal film School Daze, as his character, a student at a fictitious, historically black university, demands his light-skin-worshipping, good-hair-seeking, sex-addicted peers wake up from self-hatred and materialism and become aware of the injustices in their community and, ideally, do something about it.

5. You can find a pocket guide to the essence of woke in the chorus of Childish Gambino’s single “Redbone”, a funkadelic-esque R&B song released in 2016 that warns: “You better believe in something.” Equal parts lustful slow jam and cautionary social commentary, it implores listeners to resist the comfort of complacency and ignorance or pay the price: “Now don’t you close your eyes.”

It’s an idea that Jordan Peele expanded on in his horror film Get Out, which uses the song in its opening scene. Because as the movie makes clear – its protagonist slowly becoming aware of an elaborate plot to co-opt his body and trap his mind in an abyss called the sunken place – the consequences of sleeping are indeed horrific. These examples solidified woke as the mood of a new era, rising in the aftermath of the modern-day horror story that was the EU referendum and election of Donald Trump, a time when our freedoms can feel like they are on the line. Stay woke. Don’t get caught. Don’t get hypnotised. Don’t close your eyes.

6. The goal is to wake up and then stay that way. As in, be on guard, ready to recognise, call out and actively resist the biases, fake news and inequalities as they come, as members of the Black Lives Matter movement do, posting smartphone footage of unlawful killings, assaults and arrests, sometimes with the hashtag #StayWoke, and campaigning for legislative change. Woke is serious business. Often said aloud with a raised closed fist reminiscent of the famous black power salute at the 1968 Mexico City Games.

7. Despite its changeable nature and twistable journey, woke is inextricably linked with the rise of black consciousness, which has never ever really gone away but rather has had surges and swells.But can you be woke and not black?

8. If you believe BuzzFeed, woke is also the much needed awakening of the privileged to all manner of societal ills and the willingness to call them out – usually in the form of a white, cisgender, heteronormative man recognising that others who are not white, cisgender, heteronormative and male are often denied equal rights, treatment and pay. See the website’s love letter to Orange Is the New Black star Matt McGorry, a self-proclaimed feminist and BLM supporter: “Can We Talk About How Woke Matt McGorry Was in 2015?

9. Woke is also actor Anne Hathaway speaking out against the killing of black teenager Nia Wilson and challenging white people to check their privilege and recognise: “Black people fear for their lives daily in America.”

10. Woke is also Tarana Burke making the hashtag #MeToo go viral and inspiring hundreds of thousands of women to recognise and voice their experiences of sexual assault.

11. Woke is also a punchline. The wink of an ending to an online joke making fun of the perceived worthy righteousness of woke culture. The stuff of satire, usually said aloud with accompanying gestured air quotes.

12. Woke is often the result of cultural appropriation – which is tragically ironic, given this is one of the very things the act of staying woke would be on high alert against. See woke’s journey from black political circles to white internet slang via headlines in mainstream media. Also see the Evening Standard’s “woke-ometer”, which measured people on a scale of “asleep” (Theresa May) to “woke” (JK Rowling) … and included no people of colour.

13. Not only is woke a political state of mind – it has been commodified. When Nike featured Colin Kaepernick, the NFL star who protested against police brutality by refusing to stand for the national anthem during his nationally televised games, many accused the brand of woke-washing, the act of cashing in on social justice.

14. But woke is at its most powerful, and valuable, when it is lived and not mentioned. When it’s not viewed as a quality to be smug about. Martin Luther King Jr, Steve Biko and Angela Davis didn’t declare themselves activists – they didn’t have to, their actions defined them. Woke people know not to, and need not, describe themselves as woke.

15. Woke has been weaponised, used in conservative media circles as an insult, often placed within quotation marks, to mean rigid, uptight and socially and politically puritanical. When the Duke and Duchess of Sussex decided to step away from their roles, the Daily Mail complained that Harry went from “fun loving bloke to the Prince of Woke”.

16. One must always distinguish between woke as an earnest state of mind and woke as satire. The latter almost always pokes fun at the former. The latter is also the most grating due to its smugness. Example: “Maroon is just navy red. #staywoke.”

17. Dropping the word “woke” into conversation among strangers in a social setting is a pretty easy way to determine where someone sits on the political spectrum without having to invest too much time in uncomfortable debates. Just watch for the nods, stiffened smiles or eye rolls.

18. Some have attempted to reclaim woke away from internet misuse, punchlines and clickbait in the spirit of black consciousness.

19. Wokeness is often twinned with youthful indignation and optimism. See the scores of students who took part in the People’s Vote march against Brexit in the UK last year, or the March for Our Lives against gun violence in the US the year before. Also witness the record number of young people who have entered politics in recent years, from Mhairi Black to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

20. Ultimately, wokeness is rooted in love – of self, family, humanity – just as injustice is rooted in hate.

21. Despite its inherently pessimistic nature, woke is hopeful. To search for Badu’s beautiful world requires the belief that one is out there – or at least, capable of being made.

Girl: Essays on Black Womanhood by Kenya Hunt will be published by HarperCollins on 26 November.