Let’s talk about it: What does 'woke' actually mean?
Over the past two years, conversations about race, gender and equity have become more mainstream and in some cases more contentious. We need a shared vocabulary to talk about these differences, but that’s not easy in such a polarized environment.
It’s why KPBS is launching a new series called “Let’s talk about it.”
The premise is simple: San Diegans ask us the questions they have about race and other equity issues and we try to answer it by talking with a local expert. We don’t pretend to have all the answers, but we think this is a good first step and a way to keep the conversation going.
Our first question comes from Mike Milton. He’s recently retired from the U.S. Navy and is now studying historic preservation. He identifies as white and politically liberal or center-left.
His question: “What is it about woke or wokeness? What’s the definition of that?”
Milton says he mostly hears the word being used on conservative media outlets like Fox News, but he’s not really sure what it means.
To answer Milton’s question, we reached out to Damariyé L. Smith, Ph.D. He’s an Assistant Professor of Contemporary Black/African American Rhetoric and Media Studies at San Diego State University who studies the power of words and persuasive speaking.
In other words, he’s the person to talk to when it comes to understanding how a word like “woke,” which originated in Black American vernacular, has changed over the years. He says “woke” is just another way to say critical thinking. It means having consciousness about the systems we live in and how they can produce unequal outcomes.
The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
KPBS: What’s the origin of the word “woke?” When did it first start getting used?
Damariyé L. Smith: So there's a lot of things in language that have the same meaning, but just have a different terminology. I would argue that woke really starts around the early 1960s and '70s with the Black Power movement and civil rights issues of the time. It wasn't just called woke, it was called consciousness. And so consciousness or this idea of staying woke was about Black people, in particular, thinking about and questioning what are the ways in which our government is not necessarily protecting us as citizens, not just in the South, but everywhere.
How does the term “woke” go from being a term that really refers to consciousness and systemic thinking in Black activist circles in the 1960s, when do we start to hear the term more again in the 21st century?
Somewhere around 2012 and 2014 we started seeing stuff about “staying woke” because again, at this time, you have cell phone videos of people capturing police brutality. I would say around 2013 is when you kind of really start seeing that term being used more especially under the umbrella of Black Lives Matter. When social media becomes bigger and bigger and bigger, people start to pay more attention to it.
When does the word “woke” become more mainstream with more white people using it? And does that change the significance?
I would argue that a lot of white people started catching on after 2014 or 2015. Now at this time, we are getting near the end of this artificial post-racial idea, Obama is headed out of office and I think people are starting to come to grips that this President who a lot of people favored is no longer going to be there. And you also have the rise of somebody like Donald Trump. And so I know for sure in the academic community, this whole idea of woke starts to manifest. And then at that point, I'm not saying it starts in the academic community, but because people trust a lot of the leaders and thinkers there, and not just the people who write the papers, but also even public intellectuals. From there, you start having a lot of other white folks that's coming on the "everyday white folks," as I would say, and they start using the terminology like, “I'm woke, I'm white, but I'm woke.” You know what I mean?
There's a lot of things in language that have the same meaning, but just have a different terminology. I would argue that woke really starts around the early 1960s and '70s with the Black Power movement and civil rights issues of the time. It wasn't just called woke, it was called consciousness.Damariyé L. Smith, assistant professor at San Diego State University
Does using it that way change the meaning of woke?
It definitely changes the significance because those folks who will say, "I'm woke,” particularly in public situations, are still the kind of people that will walk by Black people and not speak to them or say hello or anything like that. And so it starts to change its meaning because you see that in order for you to really understand what being woke is, you have to give up something. And for a lot of people, that's where it becomes hard. It's easy to put a hashtag. It's easy to post something on social media. But when you actually have to do something in actual practice, like, for example, changing your whole course content as a teacher because you want to be more inclusive. That's a very hard and risky place to be. I would argue that's definitely when it has again changed format because people can look at George Floyd, but they won't look at the everyday Black person and understand that they may not have been killed, but the harassment and all that kind of stuff continues to exist.
Mike Milton, our question asker, said he hears the word “woke” a lot on Fox News and other conservative media outlets. How did “woke” become something used to remind people to think critically about the way it’s being used now?
All words can be weaponized. The problem when you hear “woke” today, at least on Fox News, they see it as some kind of socialist agenda, at least that’s their perspective. And so, anything they deem incorrect is considered woke. When you say somebody is “woke” and you are just using it as a weapon, you’re not really taking into consideration this person’s expertise and knowledge of a particular issue.
Do you think people should stop using “woke?” Does it matter?
I don’t think it matters anymore. I think the best thing we can always do is take people to task on whatever their political positions. I understand that words change meaning over time, because all words are created from a particular cultural context. You can keep using the word, but whatever your political position that’s attached to this idea of “woke” or this woke ideology, are you able to sufficiently articulate about whatever your political stances are? Because that’s what matters. Demonstrate that you have some understanding because in my world, you can’t just put anything out there without actually going through deductive and inductive reasoning to really articulate and prove a point.
To join the conversation or to ask a question, use the form below or contact KPBS Racial Justice and Social Equity Reporter Cristina Kim at (619) 630-8516 or firstname.lastname@example.org.