The A“woke”ning

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Words: Alycia Marquis (She/Her)

The word “woke” was first defined in print by the Black novelist William Melvin Kelley, to describe someone who is ‘well informed, or up-to-date’. Today, we understand “woke” to mean being aware of societal injustice. Being “woke” involves recognising systemic oppression, discrimination, privilege, and actively seeking to challenge these structures. 

However, language is alive. It is malleable and transforms over time. As society’s hunger for sensationalism grows, social media and its temptation to exaggerate have led to a distortion of language. “Woke”, consequently, has been recently redefined as a conservative critique. “Woke” and all its “-isms” are not empirically established concepts, thus they can be used flexibly to allow “anti-woke” campaigners to police the speech and behaviours of social justice campaigners, climate activists, or frankly anyone who dares to suggest that there may be cause for concern regarding the current state of the world.

Right-wing parties have caught on to the idea that stoking a backlash against “wokeness” is an effective way to win support, both in the US and the UK. The war on “woke” was used by UKIP in the 2010s to stoke fear about rising levels of immigration and diversity as a threat to British culture, with their ‘take back control of British borders’ rhetoric. “Wokeness” is increasingly being mocked by the Conservative government. Not two weeks ago in PMQs, Rishi Sunak attempted to ridicule Keir Starmer by saying that the Labour party had U-turned on ‘defining a woman’. Using gender identity as a punching bag in Parliament caused uproar and the PM faced intense appeals to apologise. This is just one way the Tory government is trying to sensationalise gender politics to deflect from criticism of their incompetence. 

The ‘pseudo-religious’ “anti-woke” community have attempted to spread moral panic about a perceived ‘left-wing cultural hegemony’. The term “woke” was reinvigorated by the Black Lives Matter Movement in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis 2020. Its viral usage concerned social justice activists as the word was increasingly popularised, but misunderstood. It became a farcical phrase, used as a marketing strategy to bestow performative empowerment upon Black communities during waves of repercussion from global BLM protests. Parallel to this was a growing antipathy to the BLM movement from the conservative media, who painted it as a threat to civility and Britain’s peace-washed history. The media twisted “wokeness” to discredit the rising anger and awareness surrounding institutionalised racism and police brutality.                                           

A fear of progressive speech can be traced back to the 1980s when the ‘rising hegemony of the politically correct’ caused British conservatives to furrow their brows. In 1983, panic struck after the publication of Susanne Bösche’s picture book Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin, portraying a girl living with two gay men. Such naughty content sparked outrage among polite society, eventually making its way to Parliament where the Local Government Act 1988 banned the education of homosexual behaviour in schools. Much like the current “woke” endemic, the idea of mere toleration of homosexuality was an affront. 

In the last decade, “woke” has become a weapon wielded by the British right-wing press. The target? Progressive politicians and public figures. For instance, the Daily Mail parodied “wokeism”, by framing it as ‘something performative, inauthentic, self-righteous, and practised by privileged individuals’. A rich statement coming from the tabloid that headlined Meghan Markle’s love of avocados as ‘fuelling human rights abuses, drought and murder’.

Another dimension to this multifaceted word (that also requires the shelter of inverted commas to present it as nothing more than a harmless abstraction) is the “culture war”. Alongside Britain’s rapidly rising racial and ethnic diversity, we have seen a mobilisation of typically older, White, working class voters. Reassuringly dubbed the ‘left-behind’, this section of the electorate feel they are marginalised by multiculturalism (in the same vein as ‘all lives matter’) and silenced by “political correctness”. They worry that immigration is polluting British culture, and colonial history is making children ashamed of their whiteness and country. The emergence of a White ethnic identity, pushed by English nationalism, culminated in the ultimate rejection of international integration: Brexit. Subsequently, political decisions are increasingly driven along racial lines, as a “culture war” encroaches on Britain’s expanding multicultural society. 

The tide of political backlash has reached across the Atlantic to where Trump has orchestrated a chorus of high-profile Republicans and journalists to harp onto the “anti-woke” agenda. Florida’s notorious Governor and failed Presidential candidate Ron DeSantis likened himself to Winston Churchill in his ludicrous fight against the ‘woke mind virus’. His ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill (which bans any education about sexual orientation or gender identity in primary schools), and his ‘Stop Woke Act’ (which limits race education across curriculums and workplace training), are just the first of many hostile and disheartening legislations across conservative states. DeSantis and other senior Republicans have attacked any and all Diversity Equity and Inclusion programs they can get their hands on. These Acts are a clear attempt to create moral panic about “wokeness” ‘indoctrinating children, and creating prejudice against White people’. Culture warmongering has exposed a vicious streak in the Republican party and arguably puts America on a path towards destructive polarisation.

“Wokeness” encompasses the need to broaden awareness of inequalities facing a variety of minority social groups. The “anti-woke” communities’ central justification for the war on “wokeness” is that it overlooks the interests of the working class. The hypocrisy is blatant: instead of arguing that the effects of climate change disproportionately affect the world’s poorest and working classes, they confuse science with activism and climate activists with ‘brain-washed extremists’. The “anti-woke” agenda is more concerned with discrediting their ‘political enemies’ than actually advocating on behalf of those who they are trying to emancipate. 

The word “woke” has become nonsensical. With no direct definition, the unbounded term is thoughtlessly used to escalate a conspiracy against a diverse society of individuals who advocate for social justice. “Woke” has been mutilated by politics to fuel divisions, and to mask falling popularity scores. However, attempts to stifle societal progress is not sustainable in an era of consciousness. While the definition may wane, efforts to expand civil rights, to make noise about the climate crisis, and to foster a prosperous, inclusive society will not. 


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