What Does 'Woke' Actually Mean?
A word with a dark history
We spend a lot of time these days talking across each other. Presumably, humans have always done this, but it seems especially bad right now. It’s so bad that our language - by which I mean English, as spoken in the western world - appears to be splitting into two distinct dialects. The two sides in politics - to which we typically assign the fairly meaningless labels of Left and Right - barely listen to each other, and even when they do, they often tend to assign different meanings to the same words.
Words that used to have commonly agreed meanings - for example, racism, misogyny, equality or violence - have now subtly changed in meaning. Other new words have come into existence, and seem to mean different things to each side. One of those words is woke. I use the word often, and I have a clear idea of what I mean by it. The problem is that the word is used to mean various different things by different people - so I’m writing this article to explain what woke actually means, and why I (an anti-racist of the Left) see wokeism as a threat to racial equality and other core liberal values.
The communication problem was highlighted recently when I was talking to a friend, who was puzzled that I use the word pejoratively, and asked me “But aren’t woke people the good ones?” This comment was initially difficult to answer, and led to me writing this article. We seem to have at least three separate ideas of what wokeness is: the woke themselves, as well as many casual bystanders, claim that it’s about standing up for good things against bad things; Daily Mail types seem to believe it’s mostly about forcing boys to wear dresses; and the rest of us (composed of a broad alliance of socialists, liberals, conservatives and other groups) regard it as an authoritarian and irrational new form of politics. Some of us (me included) regard it as a political movement forged in the image of classical fascism, which also was (in 1919) an offshoot from the socialist movement. Hence the confusion: putting aside the Daily Mail’s viewpoint, wokeness is either about being a kind person, or being a member of a modern-day fascist cult. Which one is it?
My friend’s comment provided an insight: the idea that one side is simply ‘good’ (i.e. morally superior), and the other side therefore, presumably, evil (morally inferior), is itself a red flag. To see the world through a moral lens is not really about normal politics at all - it’s religion. Cults are not in the business of pragmatically finding solutions to problems. Rather, they begin with a set of beliefs and a hatred for people that don’t share their beliefs, and then find ways to justify hating and attacking their enemies.
The word woke itself actually means awake. The grammar appears incorrect because the term originates in African American Vernacular English (AAVE), rather than standard English. ‘Woke’ originated not on the Left, but among American black nationalists. To be woke or to stay woke was to be aware of the hidden power structures that (allegedly) are designed to keep black people from succeeding. Coming from a political tradition which is often riddled with anti-white and antisemitic sentiments (as well as, more subtly, anti-Asian ones), the word also came laden with racist connotations. To tell someone to stay woke was, subtly, a warning to be aware of those other people that hate you and want to keep you down. Those other people might be politicians, capitalists, whites or Jews, depending on context - the vagueness is deliberate because it allows people to make openly racist remarks with deniability. ‘Stay woke’ is a dog-whistle.
Woke itself replaced an earlier term with the same broad meaning: conscious (or if you were very conscious, you might spell it konscious, apparently because spelling things differently from white people was a konscious thing to do). Woke has clear religious connotations: declaring oneself woke/awake is a similar statement to “I have seen the light” of born-again Christians. All cults have some concept of being in possession of some special truth, which makes believers superior to those that have not yet seen the light.
But the etymology of woke does not begin in America. In the 1930s, the German masses were urged by the Nazis to erwache (awake) to their hidden truth - that Jewish capitalists and financiers were controlling the world.
The jump from the Nazi erwache to the black American woke was not as big as it may seem. Many American black nationalist groups have racist and fascist belief systems, some of which are rooted in European fascism. Even the esteemed black nationalist thinker W.E.B. du Bois was an early admirer of Hitler. More recent groups including the influential Nation of Islam, as well as more fringe ones like the Black Hebrew Israelites and the Not Fucking Around Coalition (an armed militia group) all espouse racist conspiracy theories, with a special hatred for Jews.
So this terminology does not have a liberal history. A few years ago, the word was appropriated from black nationalism by the academic Left, but retained its original, conspiratorial meaning: that the masses were oppressed by invisible power structures. The woke now believe in several overlapping power structures, including patriarchy (derived from feminist theory) and white supremacy (which comes from Critical Race Theory). Like a religion with too many gods, the woke cult has spent some years trying to merge and rationalise these competing power structures. The whole mess is bewildering, incoherent and often downright nonsensical, but is wrapped up in so much terminology that it takes a brave person to point out that the Emperor is wearing no clothes.
It is important to note that the woke definition of racism is quite different to the meaning assumed by most people, who will tend to define it as prejudice or hatred by a person towards another person based on their race, ethnicity or skin colour. On the other hand, woke antiracism (spelt the American way) has another meaning: it is a belief in a revolutionary dismantling of a conspiracy known as white supremacy (which, confusingly, is the assignment of a new meaning to an old term). When used politically, white supremacy refers to people seen (by the woke) as privileged, which includes whites, and also (less explicitly) Jews, Indians, Chinese and other groups, who have become successful in America, so must therefore be complicit in systemic racism. The woke concept of white supremacy is, therefore, very similar to the old antisemitic conspiracy theory that Jews secretly control the world.
One of the most important differences between wokeism and liberalism is a rejection of equal rights by the woke. Their ideology demands equity in place of equality. The two words sound similar enough that casual observers may believe they mean the same thing; but they don’t. Equality refers to equal rights and opportunities, and was the driving force of the Civil Rights movement. Equity (on the other hand) is an explicit rejection of equal rights, and a demand for unequal treatment of people based on their race, sex or other indicator of ‘oppression’. Such demands are like social grit: they create friction and division between groups of people based on attributes of birth. Few observers can have failed to notice the decline in both race and sex relations over the past decade as the cult has increased its cultural reach.
So it is not so surprising that the rise of Black Lives Matter since 2014 - one of the street movements spawned by woke ideology - has correlated with a sharp rise in violent attacks on groups said to be privileged - especially Jews and Asians. To underscore the irrationality of the cult, woke-leaning publications - where they acknowledge the rise of anti-Asian violence at all - blame ‘white supremacy’, (which, remember, often refers to white people as well as Jews and Asians) even when the perpetrators are disproportionately black.
In America, the Black Lives Matter movement has also led to a huge increase in violence against black people, especially since the murder of George Floyd last year. The key driver for this trend appears to be the defunding and withdrawal of police working in poor neighbourhoods - the primary demand of BLM activists. The fact that the woke are generally affluent people, who tend not to be directly affected by events in the inner-cities, compounds the gap between their ideology and the reality of their victims. While BLM has demanded police withdrawal from black neighbourhoods, most black Americans (when asked) want more police. A tragic consequence of the rise of American wokeness is that almost 5,000 more people were murdered in 2020 than 2019 - the biggest increase on record. These people were disproportionately black: a shocking 60% of American murder victims in 2020 were black, an increase on an already high baseline. For comparison, 6,500 people were lynched during the entire 85 year period between 1865 and 1950. The idea that woke ‘antiracism’ might have been more deadly to black people than the Ku Klux Klan seems so outrageous as to be a work of fantasy. But still, it appears to be true. The woke are not anti-racist in the traditional sense - they simply use accusations of racism (and misogyny, homophobia, transphobia) as a tool of censorship and political control.
Putting political theory aside, all this is a tragedy for the progressive, liberal Left, which has (on both sides of the Atlantic) collapsed into the hands of a mostly white, middle-class clique with an unshakeable belief in its own moral superiority and in the irredeemable evil of the other side. The coming political era will be a power struggle between the illiberal, woke Left and the illiberal, nationalist Right. There is little space at the moment for the liberal values of liberty, equality and solidarity.