Wide Angle

White People Are Using “Woke” Wrong—on Both Sides of the Aisle

“Stay woke” started as a call to action, but social media and SNL have made the term increasingly meaningless.

A bearded Childish Gambino looking snazzy in a purple floral blazer and a white V-neck dress shirt. Erykah Badu in a hazmat suit—but make it fashion. Around them, a thinking-face emoji and a heart.
Childish Gambino and Erykah Badu both helped bring the phrase “stay woke” to the mainstream, but it’s much older, and it’s come to mean something much different. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for LACMA and Gary Miller/Getty Images. 

The word woke is all over our phones, our TV screens, and even the campaign trail, but do people actually know what it means? On Saturday’s episode of ICYMI, Slate’s podcast about internet culture, co-hosts Rachelle Hampton and Madison Malone Kircher—building on the work of journalists like Vox’s Aja Romano—explained how the earliest usages of woke date back to the early 20th century and the idea of Black people “keeping their eyes open” to the realities of white supremacist violence. “Stay woke” continued as a warning call to other Black Americans through the music of people like Erykah Badu and Childish Gambino, and as a rallying cry through the Ferguson protests, until it started to enter mainstream and lose its original meaning. In this transcript, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, they discuss how white people on both the left and the right developed a misunderstanding of the word woke and spread that version online—and how the same thing is now happening with “critical race theory.”

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Rachelle Hampton: How do we get from the way Lead Belly was using “stay woke” in 1931––which is this call to action––to woke as this incoherent political ideology? None other than Saturday Night Live. SNL did a skit in 2017, which was just a year after Childish Gambino’s “Redbone” came out, and a few years post-Ferguson. SNL decides to lampoon the idea of woke with this sketch called “Levi’s Wokes.”

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This sketch very accurately sums up what mainstream white society thinks of people who use woke. It’s a superficial focus on speaking the right language, and that’s it. No connection at all to the actual “work.” It’s this way to hold the moral high ground just by speaking the right words and saying the right words. To be clear, there is a way social media has accelerated what’s happened to woke, and I think the “Levi’s Woke” sketch is trying to get at this very real dynamic playing out online. Some people might refer to it as “virtue signaling,” and that’s because social media is inherently performative.

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But social media is also the place where most white people interact with Black cultural production. Since most white people don’t have Black friends (there was a 2014 study that said that three-fourths of white people have zero Black friends), if the only place you’re seeing Black vernacular is online, you’re going to miss most of it because a lot of language in general is contextual and non-verbal. If the only way you’re seeing “woke” is online, you’re going to see it as describing a set of easily repeated behaviors rather than as a way of moving through the world.

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Madison Malone Kircher: Right, and if you’re only seeing it online as a white person on the internet, it’ll be contextualized by the spaces that you frequent, so you’re getting the usage of the word woke twice, three-times, four-times removed.

Hampton: Exactly. Once content filters up to the top level of popularity, it’s generally about six-degrees-removed from its actual creators. And so, you might be seeing something that you may not have otherwise had access to because you don’t have any Black people in your life, but that doesn’t mean you know what the fuck you’re talking about. And it doesn’t mean that seeing Buzzfeed calling Hasan Piker or Matt McGorry “woke bae,” is the way that we should be using the word woke. What you get from this constant divorcing and decontextualizing of the word woke is this idea that wokeness is a thing that you can aspire towards. Not only aspire towards, but achieve.

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You get this kind of gross performance of racial consciousness that’s all posture. In this way, woke basically becomes empty on both sides of the white people aisle: You get white Liberals who think by doing a Pepsi commercial that appropriates protest imagery that they are “woke,” and that there’s this way to acquire woke points. This side is annoying and actively harmful in a few different ways, but the other side smells a little bit like fascism. Around 2017 or 2018, this is when we start to get white people turning against the word. And not just turning against it, but turning against the idea of it. Because, again, there is no coherent political ideology behind the word woke and there never has been.

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But also, the people who are using “wokeness” to capture all these disparate political things happening are mostly writers who should have the ability to tease out what exactly they’re talking about. But 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. Then, there’s also just the disingenuousness of it all. 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.

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Kircher: I get hung up on the idea that the people lobbing this around in bad faith are also basically being willfully obtuse to the fact that it’s an unattainable state of being. No one is asking anyone to be perfect—to espouse flawless ideology on everything, to have a working understanding of gender, and race, and sex theory at all times. You could still be “woke” if you ascribe to how that word works on Twitter in 2021. You could still be woke and say the wrong thing sometimes.

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Hampton: In fact, you probably will. That is how learning and being in the world works. You’re going to fuck up at some point. But obviously the cancel culture cabal has fully glommed on to woke and turned it into this catch-all phrase that gives people a hazy understanding of what you’re gesturing at. It is bad for language, perhaps bad for democracy, and definitely bad for the culture wars—the new frontier of which is critical race theory, which is going through the same turn that woke already went through.

Kircher: And when you say going through the same turn, you mean being reinterpreted and diluted into a toothless, meaningless set of phonemes?

Hampton: Yeah. I mean, no one knows what the fuck they’re talking about when they’re talking about critical race theory, besides the fact that someone is talking about race. Every kind of discourse about race is now being termed “critical race theory,” and critical race theory is unequivocally bad in the modern conservative imagination, as is anything that is termed “woke.” Now, we’re stuck talking about what the fuck “wokeness” means in 2021, when we should have never been here.

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