A brief history on a hot-button word

You’ve probably heard the term “woke” quite a bit in the news recently. And if mentioned in a video soundbite or a quote from a politician, it’s probably been used in a derogatory manner to mock or insult their opponents. But interestingly, being described as “woke” was originally a compliment. It meant that a person had taken the time to educate him or herself on racism (and other forms of social injustice) occurring throughout U.S. history and understood their impact on present generations. So, let’s take a closer look at the evolution of this very topical term.

“Woke’s” original use can be traced back to the early 20th century, when it was used in jazz circles to describe a performer who was on top of their game and fully engaged with the music. The term experienced a resurgence and shift in meaning in the 1960s during the civil rights movement, when activists used it to describe a state of heightened awareness about issues of racial inequality and social justice. It was used in speeches, protests, and literature of the time, and became associated with the broader counterculture movement of the era.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the term “woke” began to be used more widely in Black communities to describe a state of awareness about the impact of racism and discrimination on everyday life. The term was also used as an adjective to describe those who felt a sense of responsibility to fight for social justice and equality. It began to gain broader cultural currency in the early 2010s, as social media platforms like Twitter and Tumblr provided a forum for discussions of social justice and activism, which encouraged people to stay informed and engaged with broader social justice issues. In 2014, the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO sparked widespread protests and renewed discussions about police brutality and racial inequality. The term “woke” then became more widely used in mainstream media to describe a new generation of American citizens who were committed to addressing social justice issues.

Not surprisingly, progress on social justice issues is not at the top of everyone’s agenda. To some, any efforts to acknowledge, discuss or address ongoing racism (or sexism, homophobia, antisemitism, etc.) in America are downright threating. Their response? Push back. So most recently, “woke” has been hijacked by far-right media commentators and politicians to mock and dismiss the need for social justice activism at all. At its worst, this strategy tries to portray anyone involved with the pursuit of social justice (including DE&I training) as being overly sensitive, politically correct, and ideologically extreme, thereby delegitimizing their work. In one particular case, a Republican governor proudly proclaimed that, “Florida is where ‘woke’ goes to die!” and is using that sentiment as the justification for starting to attack and dismantle broader state, national and even corporate efforts focusing on more inclusive cultures.

Politics aside, I believe that we each have a sacred obligation as Americans to try to leave our country a bit better for all our kids and grandkids than when we found it. This requires acknowledging, studying, and trying to improve lingering social disparities…not ignoring them. And certainly not demonizing those actually working to make a difference! If we forget the unflattering, ugly chapters from our country’s past, then we risk setting our future generations up to repeat them.

Wherever you live and call home, don’t let it be a place where “woke comes to die.” Being woke is being patriotic. Being woke is being compassionate. Being woke is being responsible. If “woke” ever does die, so does care and concern for our fellow man, love for thy neighbor, and a civil society in general. Given a choice, why would anyone want to live in a place like that?