Unless you’ve been asleep, you’ve run into and been confused by the term “Woke.” This is understandable since some use it as a synonym for “enlightened” and others as an accusation of pretentious oversensitivity. Thus, the meaning of woke is as blurry as our vision when rubbing the sleep from our slowly waking eyes.
The original meaning was clear. It was to be awake to the suffering of others—particularly of minorities. It meant not covering our eyes to the pain and injustice of historic persecution and also seeing and feeling our current inequities. It meant being sensitive to all the ways we still ignore, hurt, and oppress people who are not exactly like us.
For example, if you thought that the term “post-civil rights era” meant that we had solved the race issue and that the election of Obama proved that racial equality had been achieved, you were asleep on a wave of denial. You were not woke, not cognizant of the painful reality of so many of our fellow citizens. You were blind to what was actually going on.
The original intent of Woke was clear: Wake up! Wake up to injustice, hate, and the pain that White (mostly male) privilege purposely and unconsciously inflicts on people of color, women, LGBTQA+ people, foreigners, and the poor.
How did this well-intentioned call to consciousness become an epithet to be derided, mocked, and satirized? Part of the answer is its origin in the African American civil rights community. A cry to “Wake up” to the injustice in our midst would also have been resisted, but to use “Woke” linguistically betrayed its origin. It remains true in this so-called “post-civil rights” era that many White people don’t tolerate thinking that People of Color are being condescending. To use an old racist epithet, they see any negative judgment as being “uppity.”
To many in the ruling class, woke was an accusation of being willfully ignorant. It seemed an indictment of White male privilege. It conveyed a moral superiority on the part of women and People of Color. Since no ruling class has ever surrendered its privileges willingly, there was the inevitable pushback. And when the powerful push back, attention must be paid.
Their weapons of choice were satire, mockery, and caricature. The woke, they charged, were oversensitive snowflakes, smug and judgmental. They weren’t really for justice but just hated White men of privilege. These “wokesters” didn’t have to be minorities anymore. They could be college students looking for “safe spaces” and demanding “trigger warnings” for anything that might offend them or remind them of past trauma. They were accused of concentrating on “microaggressions,” small slights, whether conscious or unconscious, whose accumulated damage was devastating.
Part of this counter-revolution (The Empire Strikes Back) was compiling lists of the woke’s sins. Chief among them was to accuse them of caring more about language than the actual problems. Examples were easy to find because, in any movement, there will be people who go too far and push a legitimate concern past its balance point and into absurdity.
The San Francisco School Board was understandably mocked for spending too much time changing the names of schools dedicated to problematic historical figures (Abraham Lincoln!) rather than trying to get schools that had been closed by Covid to re-open.
Even many liberals who supported removing statues of Confederate military and political figures (I won’t use the word “heroes”) balked. Revisionists, seeking to erase history in the name of perfection, can never stop. Moral standards and morés change. “Out with Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, and all our slaveholding historic figures.” This is a doomed enterprise. We would then have to go after biblical slaveholders, misogynists, homophobes, and lepers.
Turning the tables on their woke accusers, the establishment charged them with race, class, and gender hatred. The establishment hypocritically mocked them for caring more about the micro issues of language than the real problems of sexism, racism, homophobia, and the marginalization of the handicapped. They accused the woke of being on a linguistic virtue-signaling rampage. The handicapped became, for a while, the “otherly abled.” A brouhaha was raised over the use of a “Lame duck” congressional session because of the pejorative tinge of lame. Moral “blindness” also had to go, along with Dutch treat and gyp (Egypt might be in trouble). Before the Civil War, we now know there were no slaves, only “enslaved people.” Ridding Spanish of gender nouns and inventing the gender-neutral Latinex was followed by “Womxn,” getting the men out of women—both figuratively and, for some, literally.
The movement to change language, however, didn’t begin with the woke. Long ago, we started getting sensitive to how hurtful words could be. We learned not to call someone a “spaz.” The N-word became forbidden to White people. During my lifetime, I’ve used the words Negro, Colored, Afro-American, Black, and African American. Today Colored is wrong, but People of Color is fine. Too woke? No! Call people what they want to be called.
Various terms for LGBTQA+ people have come and gone. Today, many struggle with pronouns. It’s ok to struggle. And yes, keeping up with changing usage takes time and work. So what? If it avoids hurting people, it’s worth it. Women rightly argued against the idea that the word “man” included women. It didn’t.
When I was in elementary school, a form asked for my “Christian name.” Not yet a wise guy, I innocently told the teacher that I was Jewish and didn’t have a Christian name. She said that “Christian meant everyone.” Knowing that was offensive nonsense, I instantly became a wise guy and wrote my Hebrew name Yahonatan Bar Naftali. For the first but not the last time, I was sent to the principal’s office.
Some, but not all, linguistic controversies are worth having. We can have our disputes in good faith and with kindness. We can judge the intent of those who make mistakes and are learning. We can get angry or choose to try to build a bridge or burn a bridge. Let’s try to build and listen with open minds and open hearts. Let’s be awake to the pain and the progress.