The use of the term ‘Woke’ has become a hot topic, coming to mean something different to those on the left and right of the political spectrum.
ECHO community reporter Patrick Graham discusses his opinion on what the meaning of Woke is to him, confronting what he sees as attempts to corrupt its true meaning.
What does it mean to be Woke, that is the question? In short I would say it’s better to be Woke (and awake) than to be asleep, that is the answer. However it runs much deeper than that.
Over the past two to three years the term Woke has been used more and more by many public figures via social commentary, online, in various news media and radio. This usage increased after the murder of George Floyd in the USA, which was the catalyst for much more debate and discussion around the Black Lives Matter movement, race equity and equality.
Whenever I turn on my TV, radio or read the various news media I’ve noticed the word Woke has almost lost its true meaning. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) added the term in 2017.
The Oxford Learners Dictionary (2017 addition) cites woke as being used in an ‘informal, often disapproving’ context and its definition to be: ‘aware of social and political issues, especially racism’. They also state: ‘This word is often used in a disapproving way by people who think that some other people are too easily upset about these issues, or talk too much about them in a way that does not change anything.’
I disagree due to how I have always understood the term and say to be Woke is to be aware of the social and political issues that manifest racism. Although the dictionary says “especially” racism, I say to be Woke is to know racism, be aware of its many forms and how to challenge it.
For me it’s not for a dictionary to define what Woke means and water down its meaning in some way. It means what it means to those who created the term.
The Learners Dictionary should have stated its first and foremost meaning as I understand it, which is to know racism, be aware of its many forms and how to challenge them. Then it should have stated how others have adopted the term to serve their political and social grievances with the rulers of society and the governments that carry out their will.
Although the OED added Woke in 2017, the term is far from new, and to me their varied explanations of the term are questionable. For me and the Black community I grew up in, and what I understand from the music I listened to, it was expressed to mean that you “Know what time it is”, to be aware about things that impact Black people from history and through their lived experiences.
There have been countless attacks on the term Woke from all quarters on both sides of the Atlantic. It was widely reported that Rishi Sunak condemned the term Woke and many politicians, mainly Conservatives, continue to do so.
Over the last few years there have been many articles discussing the meaning of being Woke in the UK and the USA by popular publications.
An article in the Independent by Sophie Wingate in July 2022 states: “Rishi Sunak has vowed to review the Equalities Act to stop the ‘woke nonsense’ it has allowed to ‘permeate public life’.”
Donald Trump, as reported in the Washington Post by Paul Waldman in June 2023 said: “I don’t like the term ‘Woke’. Because I hear woke, woke, woke — it’s just a term they use. Half the people can’t define it; they don’t know what it is.”
In response to Trump for me, in short it means to be aware of the institutionalised and systemic racism Black people have been a victim of over the centuries in the USA, where the term Woke was coined. Around the world Black people live and face patterns of systemic racism ranging from denial of fair and equitable rights such as in the legal system, economics, employment, housing and various other opportunities.
Today I see the term being used to slander and challenge people as if to say they are over-sensitive, and ultimately wrong to say what they say. I’m concentrating on its original and what I would call its purest meaning, to be aware of and to challenge racism, which is why it was first used.
The Rap and Hip Hop vernacular that came out of the USA make the term popular, speaking about awareness of racial oppression, to know the times that we live in now and why we’re living in them based on the history of racism and the hatred that has been passed down from generation to generation. Woke means to be knowledgeable on these issues and to not be asleep or unaware, and therefore unable to challenge these inequalities that make up systemic racism.
I use the term systemic because racism is not just about calling names, making racist slurs, assaults and hate crimes. Systemic racism is on a much more sinister level, as it is where policies and practices are put in place to undermine, disadvantage and exclude people who happen to be Black.
Policies that lead to lower standards of education, housing, employment opportunities which will in turn mean Black people are less likely to pass on generational wealth to their children, own their own home and much more. These issues also affect many people from the White community too, but the single most significant difference is these policies and practices were not put in place to harm and disadvantage them simply because of the colour of their skin.
That is a class issue and another debate for another day, but in short class divisions are exploited by the powers that be who then make racism and culture a weapon to divide. They tell poorer White people they don’t have this or have less of that, due to “them”, the others, the migrants, the immigrants, the Blacks.
Racist by upbringing or racist by political propaganda, either way the results are the same. Black and other minority groups become the victims, are held back in society and are too often, as a result, blamed for the failures of government policies that impact the wider society.
Don’t take Woke as a slur. In its everyday meaning, to not be awake means to be asleep and when you’re asleep you do not know what is going on with those who are awake.
Jamaican Pan African activist Marcus Mosiah Garvey used a similar term in the 1920s when he spoke of calling on Ethiopia and Africa to wake up. A Black union leader during a 1940s strike in West Virginia, USA, speaking against discriminatory pay said: “But we will stay woke from now on.”
Many musicians have used the term over the years from Blues player Huddie Ledbetter (known as Lead Belly) in the 1930s, to a glossary of Black slang compiled in the early 1960s in a New York Times article and Erykah Badu in 2008 and beyond. Flava Flav from Public Enemy is famous for wearing a clock from the 1980s onwards, which represents knowing what time it is and being Woke, although he may have worn it originally for a more novel reason.
Don’t let those who disagree, not only with your beliefs, and oppose diversity and inclusion by using divisive language and policies of exclusion stop you from being Woke. It’s not a slur and it’s far from wrong, so for those who know, I say: “Stay Woke”.