••• The International Writers Magazine - 24 Years on-line - Reality Check USA
"WOKE" - A Study in Definition
'Truth requires no belief. Stay woke ...'
Recently, a woman who’d written an entire book on the concept of “Woke” was hawking her wares on some podcast. The host asked a simple question that one assumes a person having taken the time to pen a tome on one topic would be able to define it: “What does ‘Woke’ mean to you?” The author stammered through a weak aside before falling silent, looking as if she had lost her puppy. Of course, this is 2023, so she was summarily lambasted on social media. And she knew it was coming, remarking moments after her flummoxed response that it would likely “go viral.” But to be fair to scribes unfamiliar with their subjects, quite a few of us appear to know next to nothing about a term that has come to define the political and cultural divisions in America.
I’ll give it a shot.
Since Republicans are woefully bereft in having anything approaching policy or ideology, the entire purpose of the party’s existence seems to now be about using “Woke” to attack societal progress, or what Brandon Tensley couched recently on cnn.com as “an imprecise term used to decry progressive action.” This strategy to stem the tide of cultural evolution worked out great for the Whigs. That was sarcastic. They went bye-bye like most movements based on stopping progress. Ask Southern Democrats or the Catholic Church. Still, “Woke” has become the #1 priority for the modern Republican Party, a term they abhor and often cite with the pejorative suffixes, Woke Mob, Woke Mania, and the neatly designed “Wokism.” Ascribing an “ism” to something brings Reality Check into the fray, as both a cultural/political movement and sheer linguistic fun.
First off, “Woke” has been attached to things it has nothing to do with; for instance this past week when those Silicon Valley banks went belly up due to banking regulations being stripped by the former president, a Republican, GOP voices attempted to cover their asses by blaming the banks’ failures on being “Woke,” which I assume means that their kowtowing to diversity and cultural understanding of minorities distracted them from making money. Determining the implosion of financial institutions due to a misunderstood cultural phenomenon may seem odd to you, but, again, no policies or concrete ideology will get you here.
It is also important to note that “Woke” is not liberal agenda per se, like taxing the rich, comprehending climate change, or government-funded social safety nets. Yet its most vehement opponent, who may well be the Republican nominee for president, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, has based his entire purpose for political existence on fighting it. Another “conservative” politician with nothing to offer society beyond suppressing free speech, demonizing gender and sexual diversity and other scary things to the imbecilic among us, DeSantis has made a good living propping up “Woke” as a cheaply cobbled enemy to which only he “has the balls to fight.”
However, the origin of the term did not speak to political agenda but a very real response to the mistreatment of persons of color, specifically African Americans.
Insert racist reasoning for DeSantis’ opposition here if you like. I’m moving on.
Since it is now in the dictionary, a book that the woman who wrote the fancy “Woke” book might be familiar with, we can start there. Merriam-Webster defines “Woke” as: “Aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice).” More to the point, it is a term that recognizes marginalized communities, which is only half of the idea currently ascribed to it. The other half would be respecting those communities, which “Woke” does not address. Its cultural origins are derived directly from the Black community attempting to rise above the stereotypes perpetuated on them, to become aware of their plight, as must every societal minority – which, by the way represents everyone’s family history. It could not have less to do with other cultures, mainly the White race, which has now taken up a knee-jerk defense to “Woke” or the idea that anyone can rise to their “status.” So much so, it has fed to unfounded fears that their “culture” is being usurped by its very uttering.
I have zero time to discuss white supremacy and systemic racism, which is essentially the entirety of American history in this space. If you wish to do so, I suggest expending more research energy than Ms. Woke Book did on her project.
But I digress…
For our succinct purposes here, the term was first used in a 1962 New York Times op-ed by Black novelist, William Melvin Kelley titled “If You're Woke, You Dig It.” You can’t read that piece today online without paying the publisher, but since I read it in a college journalism class in the early 1980s, I can tell you it is a revolutionary and revelatory depiction of how the Black community might define itself while faced with the absurdly ubiquitous levels of oppression and discrimination mentioned above. But since most cultural movements after the nineteenth century begin with artforms other than that of the written word, it was singer-songwriter Erykah Badu’s 2008 song, “Master Teacher” and the empowering phrase “I stay woke” that did the trick.
Similarly, I was reminded of “Woke” during my activism in support of Russian feminist group Pussy Riot, who you might remember were imprisoned for protesting Vladmir Putin’s oppression of women. It was then Badu lent her support to their cause by tweeting: “Truth requires no belief. Stay woke. Watch closely. #FreePussyRiot.” Two years later, Michael Brown’s murder at the hands of cops in Ferguson, Missouri triggered the phrase “Black Lives Matter” wherein “Woke” was used to express much-needed systemic change. And so, it became a police thing, and for those who think the police can do no wrong, a belief mostly held by Republicans, it became political.
Of course, “Woke” has been used as a convenient get-out-of-dutch free card when personal fuck ups go painfully public, like when NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers lied to the league about being vaccinated against Covid-19, was busted, and then blamed his travails on a “Woke mob.” This example having absolutely nothing to do with the term “Woke” has appeared in defense of fuck ups as much as the phrase, “Cancel Culture” perpetuated by the book-banning Right and safe-zoning Left of our political spectrum.
It’s a semantic free-for-all out there, folks.
In conclusion, the slow transfer of “Woke” to the ensuing “Me Too” movement, which crystalized the general fears of White people to the alienating of specifically White men being threatened by sexually abused women, was then applied to any form of diversity and inclusion efforts. But, most interestingly of all, this application of “Woke” was not by its proponents but its opponents. Of course, demonizing a term or a culture is as old as civilization itself, yet unlike the wicked labels of “Foreigner” or “Communist,” “Woke” is quasi-defined by both those who use it in protest and to silence protest.
In the very weird way that culture often creeps up on us, “Woke” has become yet another indefinable word like “love,” “music” or “god” that can never inarguably be applied to the very thing it supports or attacks.
I might even say you might be more “Woke” after reading this.
But that is not the correct use.
And you’re probably not anyway.
© James Campion 3.18.23
email: realitycheck at jamescampion.com
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James Campion is the Managing Editor of The Reality Check News & Information Desk and the author of “Deep Tank Jersey”, “Fear No Art”, “Trailing Jesus”, "Midnight For Cinderella" and “Y”. +, “Shout It Out Loud – The Story of KISS’s Destroyer and the Making of an American Icon” + “Accidently Like a Martyr – The Tortured Art of Warren Zevon” and published on June 1st, 2022, “Take a Sad Song…The Emotional Currency of “Hey Jude".
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