What Does The Term ‘Woke’ Actually Mean?

The meaning of 'woke' has shifted greatly over the years. Allow us to explain.

What does woke mean?

by Daisy Hall |
Updated on

How woke are you? It's clear that in 2024, that question holds a lot of weight. The word ‘woke’ is significant - so significant in fact that 'woke' was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2017.

Just like 2023's entry to the dictionary which was 'Rizz', the word 'woke' has left a lot of people wondering what it means and, of course, whether the term applies to them. In turns out though, that the definition of the word woke is pretty nuanced.

Indeed the conservative redefinition of 'woke' has made the term more popular than ever. Just recently, a BBC-backed initiative to help working-class comedians break into TV was accused of 'pursuing a heavily woke agenda'.

So, the real question is what, exactly, is the meaning of woke? That's what many have been Googling, with 'woke meaning' and 'what does woke mean?' regularly trending search terms throughout every year.

Woke definition: what does woke mean?

In its modern-day, politicised context, ‘woke’ is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘originally: well-informed, up-to-date. Now chiefly: alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice’. The Urban Dictionary, meanwhile, explains that ‘being woke means being aware… knowing what’s going on in the community (related to racism and social injustice)’.

Today, 'woke' is now best known as a negative political buzzword used to describe anything deemed too liberal or progressive.

According to whatever ideologies you embrace, the word 'woke' can have either negative or positive connotations making it an incredibly difficult word to define.

What does woke stand for?

The word 'woke' is not an acronym, so the letters do not stand for separate words.

Again, in simple terms, woke means you are 'alert to racial prejudice and discrimination'. In today's world, it embodies a broader awareness of social inequalities.

What does woke mean in slang?

Woke is not always used in a slang setting, but some of the offered definitions lack formality.

One example deriving from Urban Dictionary reads, 'An oxymoron term used to describe the many indoctrinated and radically left-wing people of today's world who are obsessed with jumping on whatever mainstream bandwagon is necessary to feel included.'

Another writes how it is most commonly used as an 'insult aimed towards people with progressive ideals'.

The Urban Dictionary definition of 'woke'

According to Urban Dictionary, 'When this term became popularised, initially the meaning of this term was when an individual become more aware of the social injustice. Or basically, any current affairs related like biased, discrimination, or double-standards.

'However, as time passed by, people started using this term recklessly, assigning this term to themselves or someone they know to boost their confidence and reassure them that they have the moral high grounds and are fighting for the better world.'

Another definition on the website points out that it 'depends who you ask' but 'generally speaking it is a pejorative and an umbrella term for a constellation of ideas relating to identity and social justice. More broadly it has to do with progressive ideas or ideology.'

What is another term for woke?

If 'woke' feels like a loaded term, then other similar terms include 'politically correct', 'right on', 'enlightened', 'culturally sensitive' and 'conscious'. However, if you have any Piers Morgan-esque relatives, other synonyms for 'woke' might include 'snowflake' or 'tofu-eating wokerati'.

The history of the word 'woke'

‘Woke’ follows a long history of words and phrases that liken the gaining of knowledge to sleep and/or sight. Everyone from angry politicians to conspiracy theorists have told the world they’re ‘blind to the truth’ or that they need to ‘open their eyes’, and rap music with a political message is widely known as ‘conscious’ hip-hop. ‘Woke’ is a natural successor to these, but its grammatical quirk is a product of AAVE (African-American Vernacular English) which through the ambiguity of its tense, implies being woke is a state of mind rooted in the past. The implication is that once someone has become woke, they can’t easily go back to sleep. For instance, people describe themselves as ‘being woke’ as opposed to ‘being awake’ or having ‘woke up’.

Like most words, the history of woke is a surprisingly long one. The word was first used in the 1800s but back then, it only meant the act of not being asleep. Fast forward a few centuries and the first recorded use of ‘woke’ in its politically conscious incarnation was via a N.Y. Times Magazine glossary of ‘phrases and words you might hear today in Harlem’ in 1962. The glossary was alongside an article on African-American street slang by black novelist William Melvin Kelley, and his explanation of ‘woke’ was the ‘well-informed, up-to-date’ definition the OED uses today. In 1972, Barry Beckham’s play Garvey Lives! includes a character claiming he’ll ‘stay woke’ using the work of Jamaican activist leader Marcus Garvey: ‘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’.

For years ‘woke’ was widely used as slang by African-American communities. Then, in 2008, singer Erykah Badu brought it back into mainstream public consciousness when she used ‘I stay woke’ in her song Master Teacher. The #staywoke hashtag was first used on Twitter in 2009, although it took two more years before anyone used ‘stay woke’ to mean something beyond not being asleep. In the years since, both the word and the phrase ‘stay woke’ have taken on a life of their own. Coinciding with high profile deaths of African-Americans at the hands of the police, the rise of Black Lives Matter, and a growing sense of racial injustice across the US, ‘woke’ became a proclamation of awareness—a word that recognised that the political system isn’t fair. Staying woke was a way for people of all races to use shorthand in calling out society’s racial ills, but also served as a one-word way of encouraging people to pay political attention. Erykah herself used ‘stay woke’ in a tweet supporting Russian feminist dissidents Pussy Riot.

Over time however, the usage of ‘woke’ has shifted. On the one hand, the word has been appropriated and subsequently watered down by people who aren’t the politicised African American communities who originated the term. You can find ‘How Woke Are You?’ quizzes, famous white men christened ‘woke baes’ for speaking up against sexism or racism, and ‘woke-o-meter’ rankings of those celebrities deemed particularly woke (all of whom, of course, are white).

There’s something galling about well-meaning white people and (mosty-white) media organisations using ‘woke’ as a catch-all term to refer to fellow white people, and the word’s widespread use has consequently led to it feeling fairly meaningless. Middle class white people around the world call themselves ‘woke’ because they send out the occasional tweet calling for peace and love, not because they’re trying to make any concrete effort to change the racist status quo. Calling yourself woke simply isn’t enough - you need to act. But a word that’s been diluted to the extent this one has, is not necessarily going to get you there.

On the other hand, ‘woke’ has also veered into joke territory—primarily by people of colour—as a way of mocking people and ideas that over-analyse relatively benign things and topics. The chorus of Donald Glover’s ‘Redbone’ uses ‘stay woke’ as a reference to being aware you’re being cheated on, while ’stay woke’ jokes and memes run riot online. The most famous of these must be comedian Desus Nice’s long-running series of tweets where the #staywoke hashtag is added to various pop-culture related hyperbolic conspiracies, e.g. ‘the Halloween whopper is fastfood blackface’. These jokes are flippant, by virtue of being good, clever jokes, they are also acknowledge ‘wokeness’ as a concept. They are still pointing out that something is wrong, and that one must remain aware. The thing is, people also want to make fun of how aware they actually are. Being ‘switched on’ all the time can be exhausting, and making light of the way we think about racial inequality or political unrest is often what enables many activists to keep on going.

In US Politics, the word 'woke' has taken centre stage on the 2024 campaign trail as Republican candidates use the term as a pejorative to describe everything from LGBTQ-friendly businesses to teaching about race in schools.

What does ‘woke police’ mean?

The term 'woke police' has been adopted mainly by critics of the movement, as a way to negatively describe those who identify as woke and fight for social justice issues. The term is used to claim that woke people are policing others actions and words, generally in response to backlash someone else has received for their words or actions. It has become more visible in recent years.

For example, if a public figure has been found to have used racist or sexist language and is being held accountable for their actions, defenders of said person may say that the 'woke police' have been offended, as a way of undermining the backlash.

Writer, broadcaster, former barrister and Guardian columnist Afua Hirsch says,'The truth is, there are no woke police.' Hirsch explains, 'In reality, the only thing that unites the woke is an intellectual curiosity about identity and how complex, how nuanced, how rooted in disparate histories it can be. The real groupthink, the genuinely cohesive crowd, it’s increasingly clear, is that of the anti-woke, the most weaponised identity of all.'

Hirsch also points out the irony of 'the rightwing culture warriors [who] claim to support free speech' but 'they seem to want minorities to shut up and stop complaining.'

Do we use the word 'woke' in the UK?

In the UK, there are questions around the validity of using African-American slang for both white people and amongst Black British communities. Can ‘their’ slang also be our slang? Racism is distinct and distinctive on both sides of the Atlantic, and you could argue that appropriation of slang by people outside of a specific culture is appropriation, regardless of whether you share the same skin colour or not.

Then again, there’s a case to be made that the African diaspora is linked by more than skin and cultural heritage, but also through the ongoing sharing of culture, customs, music, media, and of course, language. Slang is a constantly evolving way of speaking and if black people use the word ‘woke’ worldwide then perhaps it can foster a global community and, by extension, a global approach to combating racial injustice. Being truly woke is thinking beyond yourself and being aware of how you fit into a global eco system that is bigger than you.

One of the first steps in combating racism is acknowledging how widespread the problem is. If a four letter word like ‘woke’ has the potential to help do that, then perhaps it’s worth us all trying to #staywoke after all.

Who are the 'woke generation'?

The 'woke generation' has become a term used to describe the first generation that has grown up entirely in the digital age, meaning that they've never known a world without easy access to the internet. As a result to their constant, effortless exposure to the world using technology, that generation (essentially Gen Z onwards) are described as being able to quickly adapt to changes in their lives.

On the flip side however, there also seems to be a movement within Generation Z away from the term 'woke' and towards more conservative ideologies. Take the rise of someone like Andrew Tate for example, a man who positively despises the term and characteristics of wokeness.

What does 'anti-woke' mean?

According to a LinkedIn article, the anti-woke movement argue that certain merits, including affirmative action, multiculturalism and diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging efforts are an 'infringement on freedom of speech' and 'jeopardise the focus on merit and excellence in hiring, and exposes school age children to inappropriate materials.'

Elsewhere, those affiliated with the anti-woke movement are said to 'emphasise that they want to protect freedom of speech and expression'.

Additional web pages have offered the definition of an 'anti-woke' person as the following: 'A person whose principles of justice, self sovereignty, and natural law do not waiver despite social pressure, gimmicks or other manipulation tactics.'

The Guardian refer to anti-woke as an ideology in itself i.e. ' an attempt for the right to rebrand bigotry as a resistance movement'.

Daisy Hall is a News and Entertainment writer on Grazia.

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