What does it mean to be 'woke,' and why does Florida Governor Ron DeSantis want to stop it?

C. A. Bridges
Palm Beach Post

Are you woke? Have you been accused of being woke? Are you anti-woke? Just what is wokeness, anyway?

Black Americans and allies fighting to bring attention to racial injustice and police brutality urge others to get and stay woke. Some companies and politicians try to embody the concept, others hope to capitalize on the perception of it. Some conservatives fight against wokeness because they see it as performative and liberal indoctrination.

Gov. Ron DeSantis is driving much of the focus by Republican lawmakers on schools.

The Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees (Stop WOKE) Act proposed by Gov. Ron DeSantis this year empowers citizens to go after “woke indoctrination.” The bill blunts what he has warned is liberal ideology influencing the teaching of history in schools and coursing through corporate diversity training. Stop WOKE prohibits any teaching that could make students feel they bear personal responsibility for historic wrongs because of their race, color, sex or national origin, and blocks businesses from using diversity practices or training that could make employees feel guilty for similar reasons.

“We’re going to teach honest history,” said Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland. “But we’re not going to influence it with personal opinion.”

Democratic critics called it a way to whitewash history and diminish the abuse and inequities faced by minorities in the country, as well as a way for Republicans to satisfy their voting base.

“This is the red meat they want,” Sen. Annette Taddeo, D-Miami said. “But this is not what our state needs.”

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After Bob Chapek, the CEO of Disney World criticized Gov. DeSantis over the "Parental Rights in Education" legislation critics dubbed the "Don't Say Gay" bill, the governor lashed out against the company's wokeness.

Recently, after Bob Chapek, the CEO of Disney World criticized Gov. DeSantis over the "Parental Rights in Education" legislation critics dubbed the "Don't Say Gay" bill, the governor lashed out against the company's wokeness while accusing Disney of interfering with parents' rights and taking money from China.

"In Florida our policy's going to be based on the best interest of Florida citizens, not on the musing of woke corporations," DeSantis said.

Are we all talking about the same thing?

For a long time "woke" just meant "not sleeping."But recognizing its changing common usage, Meriam-Webster added a new meaning in 2017:

U.S. slang meaning "aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice)."

They took their time. "Woke" has been around for much, much longer than that in Black communities.

Where did 'woke' come from?

"It can be hard to trace slang back to its origins since slang’s origins are usually spoken," Merriam-Webster's update says, "and it can be particularly difficult to trace a slang word that has its origins in a dialect."

The earliest recorded usage of wokeness that can be interpreted to mean stay aware, rather than wake up, is in a collection by Jamaican philosopher and Harlem activist leader Marcus Garvey in 1923 which included the call, "Wake up Ethiopia! Wake up Africa" in a plea for Black people across the world to open their eyes to racial subjugation and get involved in politics.

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A few years later, in a recorded spoken afterword to the 1938 song "Scottsboro Boys" by blues musician Lead Belly (Huddie Ledbetter) about nine Black teenagers accused of raping two white women, he says, "I advise everybody, be a little careful when they go along through there – best stay woke, keep their eyes open." 

In Black communities in the early to mid-20th Century as the Ku Klux Klan re-emerged, mob justice and lynchings were not uncommon, and segregation and Jim Crow laws were often harshly — or fatally — enforced, "stay woke" came to mean to stay vigilant in a world stacked against you.

The word eventually spread outside the Black community along with other African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) slang. In 1962 Black novelist William Melon Kelley wrote about white beatniks appropriating African American slang in an article for the New York Times Magazine titled, "If You're Woke You Dig It." 

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. touched on the feeling in 1965 during a commencement address at Oberlin College: “There is nothing more tragic than to sleep through a revolution. … The great challenge facing every individual graduating today is to remain awake.”

In a 1972 play "Garvey Lives!" playwright Barry Beckham wrote: “I been sleeping all my life. And now that Mr. Garvey done woke me up, I’m gon’ stay woke.”

The word reached a wider audience in 2008 when Grammy-award-winning singer Erykah Badu covered Georgia Anne Muldrow's song "Master Teacher" for her album New Amerykah Part One (4th World War), changing the chorus from "I stay awake" to "I'd stay woke." In 2012 Badu used "stay woke" in a tweet supporting the imprisoned Russian feminist rock group Pussy Riot.

Black social media users began using "stay woke" more often to point out racial issues, but it also was still used to mean "watch out for a cheating partner," to not fall asleep or to jump on a rising hashtag bandwagon to get attention.

Also in 2012, neighborhood watch coordinator George Zimmerman shot and killed an unarmed 17-year-old student, Trayvon Martin. The hashtag #staywoke was used to spread awareness of the shooting, and of the outrage of Zimmerman's acquittal the next year. With the public outcry, #blacklivesmatter became a hashtag and a movement that only increased as more reports and videos of the shootings of unarmed Black people spread rapidly across social media. #staywoke once again became an urgent warning.

Then, a police shooting brought wokeness into the mainstream.

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How did 'woke' become popular?

Two years later when police officers shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists used #staywoke as a rallying cry to raise awareness about police shootings of Black Americans, along with hashtags for each new incidence of an unarmed Black person killed by law enforcement.

Protests and marches grew nationwide, rising up again with every new name: Eric Garner (who died after being put in an illegal chokehold by police), 12-year-old Tamir Rice (shot immediately and killed by police after officers mistook his toy gun for a real weapon), George Floyd (died in custody after a police officer kneeled on his neck for more than eight minutes), Sandra Bland (found dead in a Texas jailhouse after a confrontational jail stop), Daunte Wright (killed during a traffic stop). Breonna Taylor (shot while sleeping during a no-knock raid) and many more.

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"The word woke became entwined with the Black Lives Matter movement; instead of just being a word that signaled awareness of injustice or racial tension, it became a word of action," according to Merriam-Webster. "Activists were woke and called on others to stay woke." The 2016 BET documentary on the BLM movement was called "Stay Woke."

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As BLM protests rose up across America "stay woke" rapidly became extremely popular on Twitter and became an internet meme. In May 2016, MTV News included it in 10 words teenagers should know. In 2017, it was added to Merriam-Webster and the Oxford English Dictionary. Essence magazine named its Woke 100 in 2020 and Hulu premiered the TV series "Woke" with Lamorne Harris as a cartoonist who always avoided heavy issues awakening to racial inequality (and getting talks from inanimate objects) after getting slammed to the ground by aggressive police officers.

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What is woke culture or the woke police? Why is woke used as an insult?

"Woke" continued to evolve. White allies of the BLM movement also used the term to signal their support but many gradually began using it to call attention to other progressive issues as well as race such as the #MeToo and #NoBanNoWall movements, which brought accusations from Black commentators of co-opting the term or using it merely to gain activist credibility.

“Most people who are woke ain’t calling themselves woke. Most people who are woke are agonizing inside,” Muldrow told Okayplayer news and culture editor Elijah Watson. “They’re too busy being depressed to call themselves woke.”

Conservative commentators who saw the rising BLM protests as violent or anti-police and opposed the movements "woke" was being associated with began using it sarcastically, the newest replacement for previous derogatory terms about what they called hypersensitive identity politics like "social justice warriors," "snowflake," "race card,"  "virtue signaling" or the earlier "political correctness."

Progressive arguments or legislation were dismissed as woke and therefore defined and dismissed by conservatives as either insincere plays for attention or overzealous efforts to undermine American values with liberal indoctrination. Many complained of "woke mobs," "woke culture," the "woke police," the "woke brigade," and referred to people with conservative views as "anti-woke."

Sen. Rick Scott warned Woke Corporate America that a backlash was coming. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said there would be serious consequences if businesses kept acting like “a woke parallel government.” Former President Donald Trump mocked "woke" military generals for being weak and ineffective. Rep. Matt Gaetz kicked off his re-election campaign promising to fight against woke-ism.                  

"Woke" also was tied in conservative media to the phrase "cancel culture," as public figures who said insensitive or racial things (not woke, in other words) faced a backlash and occasionally loss of income or influence because of it, something conservative commentators considered a violation of First Amendment rights and an infringement of their personal freedoms.

"So in addition to meaning aware and progressive, many people now interpret woke to be a way to describe people who would rather silence their critics than listen to them," according to Michael Ruiz of Fox News.

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What is woke capitalism or woke-washing?

Both terms refer to companies that showcase their public support for progressive causes but fail to actually do any genuine reform.

How is 'woke' used now?

That really depends on who's saying it. By 2021 woke seemed to mostly come from conservative commentators and as part of Republican Party campaign talking points, along with "cancel culture" and "critical race theory."

CNN called "wokeness" the biggest threat to Democrats in the 2022 election.

It didn't help that "woke" was quickly pulled into pop culture to be further watered down and sanitized. Saturday Night Live presented "Levi's Wokes" in 2017. There were How Woke Are You? quizzes on Facebook. The New Yorker asked, "What's in a Woke McRib?" BuzzFeed named Hasan Piker the "woke bae on your Facebook Feed."

Some Black thought leaders consider "woke" to be problematic, weaponized against them, and largely meaningless now.

"As is disturbingly often the case, White people (or any racial group outside the term’s origin) will sometimes begin using a term that originated in a community of color often as a term of pride, endearment, or self-empowerment years or decades later," said Dana Brownlee in an article for Forbes, "while either willfully or inadvertently distorting the original meaning of the term." 

"It is extremely convenient from a culture-war perspective, to be able to use a word like woke to signal at approximately seven different things," said Slate's Rachelle Hampton. "When you say that “wokeness” is a political ideology, you’re not talking about anything. You’re talking about people who talk about race. And that just immediately brands them as a member of the wokerati."

Many still use "woke" in its original meaning, though, despite the changes. 

Contributor: John Kennedy, Capitol Bureau, USA TODAY - FLORIDA NETWORK

C. A. Bridges is a Digital Producer for the USA TODAY Network, working with multiple newsrooms across Florida. Local journalists work hard to keep you informed about the things you care about, and you can support them by subscribing to your local news organizationRead more articles by Chris here and follow him on Twitter at @cabridges