Woke Has Been Added To The Dictionary, But What Does It Really Mean?
The Debrief: From woke baes to woke-o-meters, the meaning of woke has shifted greatly.
How woke are you? Added to the Oxford English Dictionary this year, it’s clear that the word ‘woke’ has both meaning and history. The question, perhaps, is more what, exactly, that meaning is?
What does woke mean?
In its modern-day, politicised context, ‘woke’ is defined by the OED as ‘originally: well-informed, up-to-date. Now chiefly: alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice’. The Urban Dictionary, meanwhile, explains that ‘being woke means being aware… knowing what’s going on in the community (related to racism and social injustice)’.
The history of the word 'Woke'
‘Woke’ follows a long history of words and phrases that relate the gaining of knowledge to sleep and/or sight. Everyone from angry politicians to conspiracy theorists has told the world they’re ‘blind to the truth’ or that they need to ‘open their eyes’, and rap music with a political message is widely known as ‘conscious’ hip-hop. ‘Woke’ is a natural successor to these, but its grammatical quirk is a product of AAVE (African-American Vernacular English) which through the ambiguity of its tense, implies being woke is a state of mind rooted in the past. The implication is that once someone has become woke, they can’t easily go back to sleep. For instance, people describe themselves as ‘being woke’ as opposed to ‘being awake’ or having ‘woke up’.
Like most words, the history of woke is a surprisingly long one. The word was first used in the 1800s but back then, it only meant the act of not being asleep. Fast forward a few centuries and the first recorded use of ‘woke’ in its politically conscious incarnation was via a N.Y. Times Magazine glossary of ‘phrases and words you might hear today in Harlem’ in 1962. The glossary was alongside an article on African-American street slang by black novelist William Melvin Kelley, and his explanation of ‘woke’ was the ‘well-informed, up-to-date’ definition the OED uses today. In 1972, Barry Beckham’s play Garvey Lives! includes a character claiming he’ll ‘stay woke’ using the work of Jamaican activist leader Marcus Garvey: ‘I been sleeping all my life. And now that Mr. Garvey done woke me up, I’m gon stay woke. And I’m gon' help him wake up other black folk’.
For years ‘woke’ was widely used as slang by African-American communities. Then, in 2008, singer Erykah Badu brought it back into mainstream public consciousness when she used ‘I stay woke’ in her song Master Teacher. The #staywoke hashtag was first used on Twitter in 2009, although it took two more years before anyone used ‘stay woke’ to mean something beyond not being asleep. In the years since, both the word and the phrase ‘stay woke’ have taken on a life of their own. Coinciding with high profile deaths of African-Americans at the hands of the police, the rise of Black Lives Matter, and a growing sense of racial injustice across the US, ‘woke’ became a proclamation of awareness—a word that recognised that the political system isn’t fair. Staying woke was a way for people of all races to use shorthand in calling out society’s racial ills, but also served as a one-word way of encouraging people to pay political attention. Erykah herself used ‘stay woke’ in a tweet supporting Russian feminist dissidents Pussy Riot.
Woke in popular culture
There’s something galling about well-meaning white people and (mosty-white) media organisations using ‘woke’ as a catch-all term to refer to fellow white people, and the word’s widespread use has consequently led to it feeling fairly meaningless. Middle class white people around the world call themselves ‘woke’ because they send out the occasional tweet calling for peace and love, not because they’re trying to make any concrete effort to change the racist status quo. Calling yourself woke simply isn’t enough—you need to act. But a word that’s been diluted to the extent this one has is not necessarily going to get you there.
On the other hand, ‘woke’ has also veered into joke territory—primarily by people of colour—as a way of mocking people and ideas that over-analyse relatively benign things and topics. The chorus of Donald Glover’s ‘Redbone’ uses ‘stay woke’ as a reference to being aware you’re being cheated on, while ’stay woke’ jokes and memes run riot online. The most famous of these must be comedian Desus Nice’s long-running series of tweets where the #staywoke hashtag is added to various pop-culture related hyperbolic conspiracies, e.g. ‘the Halloween whopper is fastfood blackface’. These jokes are flippant, by virtue of being good, clever jokes, they are also acknowledge ‘wokeness’ as a concept. They are still pointing out that something is wrong, and that one must remain aware. The thing is, people also want to make fun of how aware they actually are. Being ‘switched on’ all the time can be exhausting, and making light of the way we think about racial inequality or political unrest is often what enables many activists to keep on going.
In the UK, there are questions around the validity of using African-American slang for both white people and amongst Black British communities. Can ‘their’ slang also be our slang? Racism is distinct and distinctive on both sides of the Atlantic, and you could argue that appropriation of slang by people outside of a specific culture is appropriation, regardless of whether you share the same skin colour or not.
Then again, there’s a case to be made that the African diaspora is linked by more than skin and cultural heritage, but also through the ongoing sharing of culture, customs, music, media, and of course, language. Slang is a constantly evolving way of speaking and if black people use the word ‘woke’ worldwide then perhaps it can foster a global community and, by extension, a global approach to combating racial injustice. Being truly woke is thinking beyond yourself and being aware of how you fit into a global eco system that is bigger than you.
One of the first steps in combating racism is acknowledging how widespread the problem is. If a four letter word like ‘woke’ has the potential to help do that, then perhaps it’s worth us all trying to #staywoke after all.
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