What does 'woke' mean?

·7 min read

'What does woke mean?' was one of the most-asked questions last year on Yahoo - and the term continues to be central to cultural conversations in 2022.

More high-profile figures - from Piers Morgan to Elon Musk - have recently given their takes on 'woke culture' and streaming giant Netflix was accused of being 'unwatchable' by Musk just last month due to 'the woke mind virus'.

As a recent analysis of society revealed that the majority of Britons hold the “woke” belief that it is important to be alive to issues of race and social justice, here are the origins and meaning of the term.

Where does the term 'woke' come from?

The phrase "stay woke" was used in a 1938 protest song Scottsboro Boys by blues musician Huddie Ledbetter.

In the song, Ledbetter – also known as Lead Belly – tells a story about nine black teenagers who were falsely accused of raping two white women on a train in Scottsboro, Alabama, in 1931.

Ledbetter warns black people that they “best stay woke, keep their eyes open", when travelling through Alabama.

Three decades later in 1962, African American novelist William Melvin Kelley wrote an article in the New York Times titled If You're Woke, You Dig It, in which he describes a 'woke' person as someone who's aware of the experiences of black people in the United States.

The term gained popularity on social media in 2014 following the killing of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old who was fatally shot by a white police officer in Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri.

Protesters marching in New York in 2019 to commemorate the 5 year anniversary of Mike Brown's death by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson. (Getty Images)
Protesters marching in New York in 2019 to commemorate the five-year anniversary of Mike Brown's death by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. (Getty Images)

After prosecutors said that they did not have enough evidence to bring charges of murder or manslaughter against the officer, protests took place nationwide, with the slogan "stay woke" being used to shed light on instances of police brutality against Black people.

How has its meaning changed?

While it originally meant “becoming woken up or sensitised to issues of justice”, its meaning has changed over time into a political slur, according to linguist Tony Thorne.

The labels 'woke warrior', 'wokerati' and 'woke worthies' are often used to insult people on the left, who are seen by conservatives as a threat to freedom of speech.

When leaving office in January 2021, former secretary of state Mike Pompeo tweeted: "Censorship, wokeness, political correctness, it all points on one direction — authoritarianism, cloaked as moral righteousness."

'Woke' gained popularity in the UK following the Black Lives Matter protests in June 2020.

After the statue of 17th century slave trader Edward Colston was pulled down in Bristol, government ministers promised to protect statues of other British figures in what many political analysts called a 'war on woke.'

At the beginning of 2021, then communities secretary Robert Jenrick promised to defend other statues from being pulled down by “woke worthies”.

Watch: Four face trial over toppling of Edward Colston statue

So, the term has developed a new meaning in recent years which is similar to other political jibes like 'snowflake' and 'social justice warrior.'

Consequently, some of those who are sensitised to issues of injustice chose to define themselves as 'empaths' instead.

How has 'woke' been used most recently?

On 7 March, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex sat down for an interview with Oprah Winfrey, during which they claimed that a member of the Royal Family had questioned the skin colour of their future baby while Meghan Markle was pregnant with Archie.

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex's interview with Oprah Winfrey was watched by 11.1 million people when it was broadcast on ITV on 7 March. (CBS)
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex's interview with Oprah Winfrey was watched by 11.1 million people when it was broadcast on ITV on 7 March. (CBS)

Prince Harry also criticised his family for not addressing the "colonial undertones" in certain articles written about Meghan.

The interview was met with criticism by some who thought that the Sussexes were promoting a 'woke agenda.'

The front page of the Daily Telegraph said that: "Harry and Meghan embody the woke generation."

"Harry and Meghan are the perfect leaders of the new international woke elite," wrote the Telegraph's Nick Timothy.

Meanwhile, Loose Women's Janet Street-Porter wrote a column in the Daily Mail referring to Meghan as the "Duchess of woke" and, in the Spectator, writer Joanna Williams accused the pair of using "woke lingo" to convince viewers that they were victims of bullying by the press and the rest of the Royal Family.

Twitter was filled with similar criticisms.

Actor and Reclaim Party leader Laurence Fox tweeted: "The woke duchess of victim hood has smeared the whole royal family with a charge of racism."

Others said that Meghan and Harry had joined the "woke creed" and that there were too many "woke people on Twitter jumping on the bandwagon".

Piers Morgan, an outspoken critic of Meghan Markle and presenter dubbed an 'anti-woke warrior' by his employers The Sun, regularly uses the term on his Talk TV channel and in columns.

Last weekend, Morgan dubbed Ellen Degeneres 'The Queen of Woke' as she prepared to record the final episode of her US chat show.

The negative connotations of the word have meant that most British politicians do not want to be identified as "being woke".

In May, Tony Blair launched an attacked on what he called the "woke left" in the Labour Party, who were damaging the party's electability.

Writing in the New Statesman on 12 May, the former prime minister claimed that Keir Starmer had to complete “total deconstruction and reconstruction" is he was to win the next general election.

He added: "He [Keir] lacks a compelling economic message. And the cultural message, because he is not clarifying it, is being defined by the ‘woke’ left, whose every statement gets cut-through courtesy of the right.”

Former prime minister Tony Blair had a lot to say about the Labour Party under Starmer. (Getty Images)
As the only living Labour leader to win a general election, Tony Blair had a lot to say about the Labour Party under Keir Starmer. (Getty Images)

Though the word has become extremely popular in British politics in recent years, studies show that many voters are not sure what 'woke' means.

A YouGov survey published on 18 May found that 59% Britons did not know what "woke" means, 30% had never heard of the term and just 12% would describe themselves as such.

It also revealed that 74% of 2019 Conservative voters saw wokeness as a bad thing, while 42% of Labour voters saw it as good, and another 43% viewed it as neither good nor bad.

The results led to a surge in the number of people asking "what does woke mean?".

Neither Boris Johnson or Starmer have given a clear answer on their views on the term.

The prime minister was caught off guard when asked by a journalist whether US president Joe Biden was woke following his inauguration in January.

Johnson said: "I can't comment on that. What I know is that he's a fervent believer in the Transatlantic Alliance and that's a great thing and a believer in a lot of the things we want to achieve together and in so far as there's nothing wrong with being woke.

"But what I can tell you is that it's very, very important for everybody and I would put myself in the category of people who believe it's important to stand up for your history and your traditions and your values and things you believe it."

Watch: David Cameron says Boris Johnson 'gets away with things mere mortals can't

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