15 November 2019

CULTURAL LEXICON

‘Wokeness’ nods off

Once a signifier of a person’s awareness of racial and social discrimination, the power of the word ‘woke’ has been eroded by over-use

By Harriet Marsden

The BBC’s identity correspondent Megha Mohan recently tweeted: “Note to editor; no-one in diverse circles uses the word “woke” anymore. In fact, it’s the clearest indication of the insular nature of their world if they file copy using it in 2019.” Or as an ABC foreign affairs reporter, pithily responded: “That word is whiter than frightened milk.”

That was almost two years to the day since the modern usage of ‘woke’ was added to the Oxford English Dictionary, with an updated meaning of “alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice.”

Has a concept so seemingly global become an indication of insularity? Has a term derived from African American vernacular, disseminated by Black Twitter and popularised by the Black Lives Matter movement become “whiter than frightened milk”? In our current political landscape, the rise of far-right rhetoric and the backlash against progressive social values, is it even desirable to be woke?

Wounded prisoners in an army truck during martial law which was declared by the governor of Oklahoma due to the race riots, 1921

The OED dates the term back to 1962, from a glossary of Harlem colloquialisms in a NY Times Magazine article by William Melvin Kelley: ‘If you’re woke, you dig it.’ The next entry is from a 1972 play Garvey Lives! by Barry Beckham: “I been sleeping all my life. And now that Mr. Garvey done woke me up, I’m gon stay woke.”

What is the word’s deeper etymology? Kabria Baumgartner, assistant professor at the University of New Hampshire and specialist in 19th-century African American literature, says that it reminds her of early black abolitionists who “may well be the progenitors of a version of the idea of wokeness”. She cites David Walker’s 1829 Appeal to the Coloured Citizens and Elizabeth Jennings Sr’s 1837 speech urging her audience of black women to ‘awake, and slumber no more”.

Civil Rights activists are blocked by National Guardsmen during a protest in Memphis, March 29, 1968

Often accused of being grammatically incorrect, the term is drawn from “signifyin’ discourse” – the phenomenon of African American vernacular English (AAVE) speakers playfully reworking words. In this case, the concept “don’t sleep” – i.e. don’t miss the point – acquires a quirk of ambiguous tense to become “stay woke”.

André Brock, a professor of black digital studies at Georgia Institute of Technology, remembers first hearing the term in the early Noughties, ‘thanks to a cultural touchstone of black online culture: the OkayPlayer (OKP) website’, which featured many neo-soul artists: a contemporary soul revival that built on Seventies soul stars (Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Chaka Khan) to emerge alongside Nineties hip hop and R’n’B. One of the pioneers of the musical sound was the songwriter, Erykah Badu.

Erykah Badu performs at the North Sea Jazz Festival in 2001 in the Hague

Dr Brock, 51, explains that there were a number of social injustice moments in the 2000s when OKP was at its height, but that the site’s format didn’t lend itself to a larger community of activists. Instead, he says, blogs were instrumental for responding to injustices. In 2006, six black teenagers were convicted of battery for beating up a white student after months of racial tension at Jena High School, Louisiana, where they all studied. The following year, a 14-year-old black freshman named Shaquanda Cotton pushed a hall monitor at her Texas high school, and was sentenced to seven years in prison for “assault on a public servant”. The outcry over the harsh – and, many believed, discriminatory – convictions for these black children spread across the blogosphere. This, says Dr Brock, “left impressions on a new generation of activists who became aware of the power of black online spaces to mobilise movements”.

The foundations were laid for a new network of black identity – and a viral moment. In 2008, Erykah Badu released her song Master Teacher, describing a racially equal utopia, with the refrain: “I stay woke” – in other words, that is nothing but a dream. The track would provide the spark, while Twitter was the kindling for newly ‘woke’. ‘Stay woke’ soon became shorthand for paying attention to wider structural social injustice. Badu tweeted the phrase in support of Pussy Riot, the Russian punk feminist rebels who were facing jail time for their protest performance.

By 2012, blogs had largely been replaced by Facebook while Twitter had become a space for black digital practitioners to share culture and information – known as Black Twitter.

Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, is interviewed alongside BLM activist DeRay McKesson by Recode Media

“The concentration of black identity on a network like Twitter, which afforded a type of ritual catharsis about everyday pleasures and problems, powered a phase shift of the network from entertainment to social activism,” Dr Brock explains. “Woke is a terse, powerful term to symbolise this shift, which means it worked quite well for Twitter’s limited 140 character content format.”

One enthusiast for the new medium was a black 17-year-old named Trayvon Martin. He tweeted thousands of times about rap music and street culture, interspersed with teenage jokes and complaints about school.

In February 2012, Martin was walking home from the 7-11, where he’d bought sweets and juice. He was spotted by a volunteer Neighbourhood Watchman George Zimmerman, who called the police to report Martin for seeming “suspicious”. The police told Zimmerman not to follow Martin, as they were on their way. But Zimmerman and Martin ended up in a fight, and Zimmerman shot Martin dead. That month, the name Trayvon was tweeted more than two million times. And the next summer, when Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter, a tsunami of fury and frustration cascaded outwards from its Florida epicentre. The BlackLivesMatter movement was born.

A crowd of protesters chant from the steps of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC, November 25, 2014

The hashtag ‘“stay woke’” became its rallying cry: a promise to be vigilant of racial oppression, and a warning to keep safe from police brutality. BLM activists started a recruitment website called StayWoke.org. By the time Michael Brown was shot by Darren Wilson in 2014, ‘woke’ was firmly embedded.

“But like all black discourse terms,” Dr Brock explains, “it was time limited. The mainstream picked up on ‘woke’ right about the time when Black Twitter was done with it and twisted it to their own ends.”

Woke became part of a long history of words derived from African American slang to be adopted, or appropriated, by ‘“non-black folk, organisations and corporations intent on virtue-signalling their allegiance to movements like Black Lives Matter’”, says Michael Arceneaux, a writer and essayist on race. As with other AAVE words – such as ‘bred‘, ‘bae‘, ‘on fleek’, and later ‘lit‘ and ‘shade‘ – many used the term without acknowledgement, or even awareness, of its origins.

Demonstrating students wave a Confederate flag as they chant outside West End High School in 1963

Arceneaux, 35, points out that the word became inextricably linked with millennials even though it was popularised by Badu, a Gen X-er. By the end of 2015, Buzzfeed had published an article extolling the “woke bae” actor Matt McGorry (John Bennett in Orange is the New Black), because he was a “vocal feminist” who “weighed in on the Black Lives Matter movement frequently”. Because he had posted topless pictures protesting Instagram’s female nipple ban, and a photo holding a Jim Crow laws book and wearing a BLM bracelet.

In May 2016, woke was enshrined in cringeworthy ‘youth’ culture when MTV included it in a listicle of ten slang words to know. The same month the BlackLivesMatter TV docu-film, Stay Woke had its debut, the term had been diluted to the point where it became a pseudonym for white liberal trendiness.

It was June 2016 when woke jumped its own shark. Jack Dorsey, the CEO of self-described neutral platform Twitter, was interviewed alongside BLM activist DeRay McKesson, wearing a Twitter-branded #StayWoke T-shirt. A marriage of appropriation and proto-corporate ‘woke-washing’: the CEO of a platform so integral to the term’s activist development told the crowd that they would all receive the branded garment for free. Twitter as a company, it must be said, was anything but diverse.

Black cultural critics began to call out competitive, self-congratulatory wokeness, and white ‘awareness’ of inequality in place of any real action – Maya Binyam even coined the “Woke Olympics”, while Charles Pulliam-Moore wrote that the term had become a derogatory jab at the very idea of staying woke. Desus Nice’s tweets used #staywoke in relation to over-the-top conspiracy theories. Donald Glover’s alter-ego Childish Gambino released the song ‘Redbone’ in November 2016, ironically employing “stay woke” to call out infidelity. That song, also ironically, coincided with a massive spike in Google searches for the phrase.

Neo-Nazis and white supremacists on the march in Charlottesville, Virginia, August 11, 2017

Many on the right began to use ‘woke’ to disparage white liberals expressing sympathy with issues facing non-white people, and to bolster their own claims of grievance. Fraser Myers wrote admiringly for Spiked of the ‘anti-woke brigade’. Woke had become the new ‘politically correct’ – a term used lazily and pejoratively by anti-progressives.

Arwa Mahdawi, a Guardian US columnist, compares the trajectory with the word “triggered”.

So-called ‘trigger warnings’, she says, were diluted by excessive and often unnecessary usage on the left, and so weaponised by the right, used to mock ‘snowflake millennials’ and ‘lib tards’.

Mahdawi, who has a background in advertising and brand strategy, says that she would now only use the term when describing ‘woke-washing’: companies transparently allying themselves with social justice issues to court a younger demographic. Pepsi or Gillette adverts spring to mind.

By the time the word was added to the OED in 2017, then, it had already lived a full lifespan of meaning. But in fact, this was necessary for it to be chosen at all. Fiona McPherson, a senior editor on the OED new words team, explains a new word must have demonstrated “a little bit more staying power”, ideally about ten years.

“That’s because we’re telling the story of the word, so that’s usually enough to show that a word has made an impact, that it isn’t just one of those words that everybody’s using for five minutes and then nobody’s ever heard of again.”

Woke is a key example, she says, that encapsulates the most interesting part of her job: a word which seems very “now” has often come into play far earlier than you might think. But it needed something like Erykah Badu to popularise it, Twitter to disseminate it and an ensuing decade of appropriation to have demonstrated staying power.

A demonstrator stares down police during protests in Charlotte after the fatal shooting of 43-year-old Keith Lamont Scott, September 21, 2016

In the context of our mayfly modern vernacular – the increasing burn rate of hip words as we communicate so much faster and frequently – it is theoretically possible for a word to have lived and died before it makes it to the dictionary at all, McPherson says. But it is simply too early to say whether the word ‘woke’ has reached the end of its lifespan.

Dr Baumgartner says that, while the term has lost some of its cachet, she is hesitant to retire a term that “speaks to the necessity of deep social and political consciousness”. If we historicise the term properly, she insists, we don’t have to stop using it.

“Yes, the term has been co-opted, misused, and parodied … but it can be reclaimed or our language can evolve. Either way, being active and conscious of oppression, inequality, and injustice are as important now, globally, as ever.

“If we retire or even shelve the term ‘woke’, the core remains.”

All photographs Getty Images

Further reading

The authentic spirit of what was originally called wokeness is alive and well: see, for instance, Toni Morrison’s newly-published (posthumous) collection of non-fiction, Mouth Full of Blood: Essays, Speeches, Meditations, or gal-dem, the acclaimed magazine for women and non-binary people of colour.

This 2016 New Yorker profile of Erykah Badu is excellent.

Woke: A Guide to Social Justice (2019) by Titania McGrath (a spoof character created by the comedian Andrew Doyle) is a barbed parody of white, middle-class appropriation of ‘wokeness’.

Cultural Appropriation (2019), edited by M M Eboch is a good introduction to the subject; see also White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogueand Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation (2019) by Lauren Michele Jackson.