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How the word ‘woke’ was hijacked to silence people of colour

The meaning of words is not static. What a word means or represents is fluid and can shift over time, that’s how languages evolve.

Think about some of the words that your parents or grandparents used to think were cool (or maybe still do). None of us would use ‘hip’ or ‘groovy’ anymore because their meanings have shifted and they have fallen out of fashion.

The evolution of language is perfectly natural, and often a positive process – but in this era of culture warring and pitting ideologies and identities against each other, the shift of words with racial meanings holds a greater significance, and can impact minority communities.

Which is exactly what has happened with the word ‘woke’.

The original meaning of ‘woke’ was to be awake to social injustice – particularly injustices about race. But its meaning has been hijacked and subverted in recent years.

If you follow Piers Morgan on Twitter or watch Good Morning Britain with any regularity, you won’t have missed his penchant for the word. He seems to find a way to shoehorn it into most debates, and it is always used as a criticism.

The presenter is so fond of using the word ‘woke’, he even argued with radio host James O’Brian about its true meaning.

For Piers, and his army of followers on social media, ‘woke’ is a negative attribute. It suggests a performative, insincere social consciousness, and inherent weakness. It’s a pejorative term used to make fun of socially liberal ideologies and position them as inferior or silly.

It has even been picked up by advertisers, with Burger King using the word in commercials for their new vegan burgers – inferring that being ‘woke’ is something frivolous, an ideology to be laughed at.

Telegraph columnist Celia Walden used the word earlier this week in a headline. ‘The self-pitying “woke” generation needed a war – and in coronavirus they’ve got one’, she wrote, proving that any situation – even a global pandemic which has already killed thousands – is fair game in the ‘woke’ debate.

But twisting the meaning of this word in this way is specifically damaging to people of colour because, although it is now used in relation to any seemingly liberal position, the origins of ‘woke’ are so inextricably tied up in recognising and fighting racism.

If being ‘woke’ is a bad thing, the subtext is that speaking out about racial inequalities is a bad thing. The use of this word is a convenient veil.

Earlier this year, former actor Laurence Fox caused a stir on Question Time by claiming to be ‘anti-woke’ and repeatedly slamming ‘wokeness’ on various media platforms. His comments won him hoards of followers on social media and he used his fleeting relevance to criticise Oscar-winning film 1917 for including Sikh soldiers.

And it’s no coincidence that so many of the negative references to ‘wokeness’ are directed towards Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

Remember when radio host Eammon Holmes ranted that Meghan was ‘awful, woke, weak, manipulative and spoilt’?

Where does the word ‘woke’ come from?
Despite the recent spike in its usage, ‘woke’ is not a new word. It was first used in the 1940s and was created as a political term by black Americans.

It means to be awake to issues of social justice and racial justice. And was often used as part of the expression ‘stay woke’ – suggesting a need to continually check in with your own awareness of these issues.

Wokeness was originally associated with black Americans fighting racism, which is why it was so prevalent in the civil rights era.

The word appeared in the headline of a 1962 New York Times article, ‘If You’re Woke You Dig It” by William Melvin Kelley, and slowly fed into more mainstream narratives over subsequent decades through its use by musicians including Erykah Badu, Earl Sweatshirt and Childish Gambino.

By the mid 2010s, the word had resurged after becoming attached to the Black Lives Matter movement in America, gaining traction with hashtags and tweets as protestors mobilised in the streets and online.

How did the meaning of ‘woke’ change?
In just a few short years, the meaning and connotations of the word have significantly shifted.

Now, rather than signifying an awareness of social injustice, it is used to suggest that someone is being pretentious and insincere about how much they care about an issue.

It is often followed by the similarly negative term ‘snowflake’ – a word that has divisive connotations in the UK – and is frequently used in arguments online and debates in the media to belittle people with left leaning viewpoints. Frequently people of colour.

So, how did this happen?

We asked linguistics professor Jonathan Charteris-Black, from UWE Bristol, to explain the phenomenon that has caused such a fundamental shift to the meaning the impact of using this word.

He said it could be, in part, down to what is lost in transatlantic translation. In other words, this American word just doesn’t sit right with British mindsets.

‘It could be to do with the different cultural attitudes,’ Jonathan tells us.

‘In California, saying that you’re “woke” and proudly putting yourself out there as a socially enlightened person might be an OK thing to do. Whereas in Britain, we tend not to like the peg that sticks out. So our way of pushing it back down again is through irony.

‘You see that in the way “woke” is written, almost always with the speech marks, often with a capital letter – and that brings out the clear irony.’

Of course, words and phrases change their meaning all the time. Jonathan points to ‘right on’ as an example that followed a similar trajectory to ‘woke’.

In the 1960s, ‘right on’ was a positive thing, a compliment. But over time it changed and things became ‘too right on’, or people would use the phrase with a roll of the eyes.

Jonathan explains that these kinds of shifts can happen from over-use. That once a word slips into the mainstream it can fall out of favour with the marginalised groups who originally created it, as it is co-opted and misused by other groups.

Jonathan adds that what has happened with the meaning of ‘woke’ comes down to the original intention of the word itself.

‘The intention of this word was for it to have a positive outcome for a minority group,’ he explains. ‘But when other groups feel threatened or challenged by it, they might want to subvert it in some way. And by using the enemy’s weapons, that makes it an even more powerful tool for them.’

How does this impact people of colour?
The subversion of ‘woke’ is political and means the word can now be used to perpetuate the very injustices it sought to eradicate in the first place.

This word has power, and the people who use it as a weapon are all too aware of the underlying connotations of racial and social ideologies. It is used to undermine and disparage the voices committed to fighting for social justice and the rights of minorities – and to silence these views without engaging with them.

When the word ‘woke’ is adopted as a pejorative in this way, used to poke fun in advertising, commercialised on slogan t-shirts until it loses all meaning, the significance of the racialised origins of the word is eroded and rubbed away to nothing.

It may be that the word ‘woke’ is irrecoverable, that it has fallen too far into the hands of people who want to use it to stoke division, rather than illuminate injustice.

But this fight is much bigger than than the lexicon used to describe it. There will be a new word, but the effort to achieve social equality remains the same.