How to Define Woke?
The debate rages on
If you’re a person who spends time online, you might have come across a recent round of debate and handwringing over how to define “woke.” The word itself is something of a hand grenade, and carries a variety of shifting meanings that depend on the context and the ideology of the user. The debate raged anew because Bethany Mandel, a conservative author, struggled to define “woke” and “wokeness” in an interview with Briahna Joy Gray, a leftist political commentator. Gray, an attorney and former Bernie Sanders press secretary, is very good at what she does, and she employed a rather underrated tactic for anyone conducting an interview: ask the subject straightforward, fact-based questions. Make them define a term or explain a policy. Mandel plainly failed.
So what is it, anyway? There is a way to describe woke before the 2010s and the more contested definition we’ve come to know today. Woke was a shorthand for “stay woke,” a phrase employed in various activist circles in earlier decades. It held particular appeal in the Black community. Jumaane Williams, the New York City public advocate, was known for wearing a “stay woke” button long before the term became fodder for the culture wars. “All woke really means — and it’s ever meant to me — was people who were aware of injustices that occur, aware of discrimination, aware of systems that exist that are exploitative by nature, that are based on privilege,” Williams recently told Politico. And he isn’t wrong—telling someone to “stay woke” merely meant ensuring they were alert to the grim realities of racism, discrimination, and exploitation in the United States. If a person was “woke,” they knew their history. They understood slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights Movement. They didn’t live in ignorance.
Woke has since evolved. The best primer for all of this, as usual, comes from Freddie DeBoer, who extensively defined “woke” in the 2010s and 2020s context in a recent piece on his Substack. I encourage you to read it. I don’t have a great amount to add and I agree with all of it. DeBoer prefers the phrase “social justice politics” and expresses his frustration with left-leaning activists and commentators who refuse to name their relatively new movement. In the absence of their ability to define fresh obsessions with DEI and white fragility, others have moved in to reappropriate woke.
Rather than merely copy and paste DeBoer, I am going to do my best to boil down what I think the newest itineration of woke really means. It’s informed, partly, by my own left perspective, and I’ve found it’s a rather simple way to think about it if, like Mandel, you’re forced to come up with a definition on the spot.
Woke is identity politics absent class politics.