What the hell does it mean to be woke? If you’ve seen Tracey Ullman’s new skit on this very topic, you’ll know it means to be a confused millennial type questioning everything from whether water might be racist, or if Hob Nobs (a British biscuit) are, in fact, far too phalo-centric. Snubbed now as something entering into the realms of the ridiculous, we should note that its origins come from a place of beauty and dignity, a place of being alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice. In other words, “woke” means to be consciously awake.
Interestingly, unlike most slang, ‘woke’ can trace its roots back hundreds of years. The word first came into circulation in the 1800s when it simply meant the state of not being asleep. It wasn’t until 1962 that a New York Times Magazine glossary of ‘phrases and words you might hear in Harlem today’ defined “woke” in its current politically conscious state. By 1972, a character in the Barry Beckham play Garvey Lives! says he’ll ‘stay woke’ via the work of pan-Africanist, Marcus Garvey, with the line: ‘I been sleeping all my life. And now that Mr Garvey done woke me up, I’m gon stay woke. And I’m gon’ help him wake up other black folk’.
Though the term has been widely used among Black Americans, #staywoke only came about in 2009. It’s since become a kind of watchword for the Black Lives Matter Movement – a call to arms against the various racial injustices still occurring across the globe. Erykah Badu is said to have brought the term alive in popular culture by singing ‘I stay woke’ in the 2008 track, Master Teacher.
“Woke” in everyday vernacular, like most things, has now become a watered-down phrase ascribed to any vaguely enlightened act. I learnt a new one recently: “Woke bae”. Which essentially means a white man who believes that other people are equal to him. With this in mind, can you unpick race from “wokeness”? Well, it’s a term which has originated with a racially political end and the butt of many “woke” jokes seem to be the white people who care – or seem to care – about ethnic minority issues. There is too often a lack of understanding from white men, with regards to their privileged position in society. When white people aspire to get points for consciousness, they walk right into the crosshairs between allyship and appropriation. These two concepts seem at odds with each other, but they’re inextricable. Being an ally means speaking up on behalf of others — but it often means amplifying the ally’s own voice or centring a white person in a movement created by black activists or celebrating a man who supports women’s rights when feminists themselves are attacked as man-haters. Wokeness has currency, but it’s all too easy to spend it. As a white man I myself need to check my privilege as it has been far too easy to just write this article. How woke am I? So, be woke but maybe not too wokeeasy. That’s all from this week’s Thursday Thoughts. Good night and good luck.