A brief history of 'wokeness'

For many Republicans, the term “woke” has become synonymous with all that is bad about liberal politics.

Speaking last week at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), former South Carolina Republican Gov. Nikki Haley declared that "wokeness" is a "virus more dangerous than any pandemic."

Also addressing the conference, Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., attacked “deeply weird, nauseously woke people who hate George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Dr. Seuss and Mr. Potato Head.”

Last month, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., argued that Sec. of Transportation Pete Buttigieg is too focused on "woke initiatives," presumably in reference to the Department of Transportation's new efforts to incorporate racial and economic equity into its programs.

But for Democrats, who have been on the receiving end of a seemingly never-ending stream of insults, the GOP use of “woke” is overly broad to carry much weight.

On Thursday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., complained that her Republican colleagues on the House Oversight Committee were attacking the U.S. Office of Personnel Management as "too woke," for initiatives allowing disabled employees to work remotely and for paying interns.

“There’s no definition of what ‘woke’ is,” Ocasio-Cortez said.

In the last few years, Heritage Foundation scholars have criticized as "woke" everything from the Federal Reserve factoring climate change into its assessments of risk to financial institutions to the Department of Defense opening all combat jobs to women.

"It is a quick way to signal to others that whatever those people over there are saying is not real, not substantial: This is something that's easily dismissed, you shouldn't pay attention to it," Meredith D. Clark, who is now a professor in the School of Journalism and the Department of Communication Studies at Northeastern University, told Colorlines in 2021.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the slang term's primary meaning as being "aware of and actively attentive to important societal facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice)," with a secondary definition being "politically liberal (as in matters of racial and social justice) especially in a way that is considered unreasonable or extreme."

So how did a term that originally circulated in left-wing circles as a compliment so quickly become an amorphous right-wing term with negative connotations? According to the Washington Post, "woke" originated in the 1930s among Black nationalists in groups such as the Nation of Islam, who urged African Americans to wake up, metaphorically, from having been "mentally conditioned into philosophical slumber by centuries of oppression, intimidation, miseducation and social frustration."

The first audio recording of someone using woke in this way dates back to 1938, when the legendary blues musician Lead Belly told an interviewer that Black people in the South "best stay woke, keep their eyes open," lest they fall victim to racist violence or police misconduct. The first known written use of "woke" in a newspaper was a 1962 New York Times article on Black slang titled "If You're Woke You Dig It."

"It was after 2010 that 'woke' jumped the fence into mainstream parlance," Columbia University linguistics professor John McWhorter wrote in a 2021 Times op-ed. In the wake of the killing of unarmed Black youths such as Trayvon Martin, Twitter users exhorted Americans to "stay woke," meaning vigilant, about racism and police brutality. By 2016, the term had been so widely adopted by young people that included it in a guide to new slang for readers, defining woke as "being aware — specifically in reference to current events and cultural issues."

Shortly thereafter, conservative thought leaders began criticizing “wokeness” as performative virtue-signaling that encourages social division, rather than pragmatic problem-solving.

"There is no measure or moderation to wokeness," wrote New York Times columnist David Brooks. "It's always good to be more woke. It's always good to see injustice in maximalist terms. … The problem with wokeness is that it doesn't inspire action; it freezes it. To be woke is first and foremost to put yourself on display."

Critics of wokeness, such as McWhorter, began to argue that hypervigilance towards racism and other forms of bigotry leads to overreactions that stifle debate. In recent years, "wokeness" has been co-opted by conservatives as a generic shorthand for overtly progressive ideas. As McWhorter has noted, "politically correct" underwent a similar evolution, starting in the 1980s as a compliment, to mean language that is most accurate and not offensive, but soon becoming mostly used as a sarcastic put-down of hyper-sensitivity.

"I think [woke is] an unusable word — although it is used all the time — because it doesn't actually mean anything," Tony Thorne, the author of "Dictionary of Contemporary Slang," recently told the New Yorker. "The references to 'woke' before 2016, 2017, 2018 were kind of straightforward. It means 'socially aware,' 'empathetic.' Then the right, the conservative right, seizes hold of this word."

Clark told Yahoo News that "woke" is used when conservatives want to avoid specifying exactly whom they're opposing. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a leading Republican prospective presidential contender, has proposed the "Stop WOKE" bill, which would limit some classroom discussion about race and gender. Clark said that DeSantis is able to avoid explicitly attacking Black parents for wanting Black history taught, because instead, "he can say that wokeness and the left are getting out of control"  — a more politically appealing framing.

Clark added that those on the left also sometimes use elliptical language to avoid directly referencing race. “When we talk about ‘at-risk kids’ or things happening in the ‘inner city,’ these are often coded phrases that are referring to Black and brown people,” she said.

Liberals have also used vague language to condemn their opponents. For example, President Biden started referring to the Trump wing of the GOP as "ultra-MAGA," after months of research by a liberal polling firm and political action committee determined that this was the term that most reduced the likelihood of voters supporting a Republican candidate. But the new phrase has no clear and universally accepted definition.

​​Some conservative intellectuals also take issue with the profligate use of “woke” because it dilutes public attention from the belief on the left — in their view, mistaken — that systemic racism is responsible for a wide array of social ills that must be redressed.

“'Woke', as used by GOP elites and normies, is just the catch-all 'socialist' or 'communist' label of yesteryear,” Zach Goldberg, a policy analyst at the right-leaning Manhattan Institute, said in an email forwarded by a spokesperson. “And most of the public likely just understand it as 'left-wing radicalism'. I think this is unfortunate, as it distracts from what I contend is the essence of wokeness: the belief that outcome disparities between groups — be they races, sexes, or 'genders' etc. — are largely if not entirely the product of oppressive social forces and structures. Everything else — such as the fixation on microaggressions and 'harmful' language — is downstream from this basic tenet.”

Despite the efforts to stigmatize the term, a USA Today/Ipsos poll released Wednesday found that 56% chose the definition of "woke" as "to be informed, educated on, and aware of social injustice," as opposed to 39% who chose a more negative definition, "to be overly politically correct and police others' words." A majority of Republicans chose the latter definition, however.

Comments on this article