You’re Using “Woke” Wrong

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S1: Let’s play. First question.

S2: Are you doing the work?

S1: I’m going to go with Mike, probably not.

S3: Hi, I’m Rachel Hampton.

S2: And I’m Madison Malone Kirchherr. You’re listening to ISY. Why am I,

S3: in case you missed it,

S2: Slate’s podcast about Internet culture. So what are we starting with today, Rachel?

S3: We’re starting with this video that I saw in Tick-Tock the other day that has brought me so much joy and very few things bring me this much joy. And so I simply must share it with you. And with that, I see why

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S2: I see why my guys

S3: were so working on that.

S2: But the jury’s still out.

S3: We’re not working on is this video of this baby. This baby is like the platonic ideal of a baby, like the most beautiful cheeks, a baby of color, which we love, and just their mom whenever she sings watermelon sugar from the iconic Harry style song Watermelon, Watermelon, Sugar. Just says the next line, which is watermelon sugar high, but maybe just something like this, saying hi to you like hi.

S2: And it’s just so cute. Watermelon, the watermelon, sugar, watermelon, sugar. Why was she doing here? This video is perfect. I was very glad you sent it to me, even though you sent it to me well after my bedtime of 10, 30 p.m.

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S3: Well, I was like, if my son is asleep, this will be a perfect thing to wake up to. And if she’s not asleep, that’s her fault.

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S2: Both valid points for our loyal. I see why my listeners. Here is the pivot. Here’s where we we take you away from a little bit of candy. We sprinkle in at the top and we hit you with the real meat of the episode.

S3: On today’s show, we’re going to be talking about the word that’s on the tip of everyone’s tongue these days. Even our listener, Nora, who wrote in asking about this. Thanks for writing in. That’s right. We’re finally talking about welcomeness. We’ll give them the will Gherardi, Coca Cola,

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S2: Coca Cola

S3: and even come up with the. Oh, and I swear.

S2: Well, I’ll tell you this, guys, we have finally done it. We have reached a peak Lochness.

S1: It’s infecting our schools. It’s infecting our culture. WOAK recruitment, propaganda. Most people aren’t ready to sign up for WOAK politics integrated into every aspect of their lives.

S3: We are going to today, as Caitlyn Jenner recently tweeted, wake the WOAK. I’m just fucking kidding because that’s a nonsensical fucking sentence. Shouldn’t we be putting the book back to sleep?

S2: Some very bad metaphors aside, the word woak and the disparate sociopolitical trends that it captures have become perhaps the clearest fault line in the American culture wars. And we’re going to talk about how we got here,

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S3: how a word that originated in black American slang. How did this word turn into a rallying cry for the right? And what do we do now that we hear in Internet parlance should now be cancelled? Oh, I’m so sorry. Is that bad or can we and by we I mean the people who invented the word salvage any of Wolk’s original meaning. So, Madisen, we have to start off by asking, as the token white woman of this podcast, where did you first hear the word woak?

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S2: So absolutely earlier than this, because in my mind, the time stamp on this is certainly too late for Wolk’s growth and digression in cultural vernacular. But the thing that immediately comes to mind is Matt McGaughey. The Orange is the new black actor again, like rebranded himself as Woak Bey Internet boyfriend. Oh my God. Proto feminist dude.

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S3: The phrase book page is unlocked. So many like BuzzFeed

S2: listicle like

S3: Hussan from like the Young Turks like, oh my God,

S2: I look there. I’m not saying that. I just Googled. And the first thing that comes up is can we talk about how welcome at Magary was in 2015? Thank you. BuzzFeed, Dotcom. That’s the last we’re going to talk about it. I assume you’re going to walk me a little bit further back than where my broken brain stopped in 2015?

S3: Yeah, yeah, yeah. We’re going to take a long APR’s century long tour, even though most people and by most people, most white people’s introductions, the word woak was post Furguson in 2014 and the uprising that sprang out of the murder of Michael Brown stable then became a rallying cry as protesters were tear gassed in the street and it became this rallying cry. But it’s a phrase that had been used in black communities for years before the emergence of Black Lives Matter. And so before we really kind of get into all that, I really want to give a shout out to Aja Romano at Vox. They wrote this incredibly detailed essay on the origins and history of WOAK in 2020. And I will be citing that extremely heavily here, because it’s just like you ever just read a piece and you’re like, wow, the research, the effort that went into this, I can see it just on the page. And so thank you so much. The pieces that

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S2: let you sleep better at night because you know, you’ll never have to take up the mantle because it’s already been nailed. Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

S3: But according to Romano, the earliest known examples of brokenness as a concept kind of revolved around the idea of black consciousness, quote unquote, waking up to a new reality. And this dates back to the early 20th century. And here in monocytes twenty 1923 call from none other than Marcus Garvey, who I’m not going to tell you that is, you can look it up. And in this kind of collection of aphorisms, Marcus says, wake up Ethiopia, wake up Africa. And it’s this call to his listeners and to his readers to wake up to the kind of reality of what black life is in 1920s America and in 1920s global politics writ large.

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S2: So there’s a real disconnect between the these original, very literal waking up roots of the word whelk you’re describing. What is like the next turn of the

S3: screw, so the next kind of usage of WOAK is in nineteen thirty one. It’s used in a song by blues musician Hooty Ledbetter, better known as Leadbelly. He uses it while he’s kind of explaining the origins of a protest song he wrote about the Scottsboro Boys. And The Scottsboro Boys are nine black teenagers who are accused of raping two white women. The song is appropriately called The Scottsboro Boys Alabama.

S1: And you better watch out if you’re going to jump and shout God, because they tell us all about life long enough to get your boy to go back to Alabama and you better watch out God for.

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S3: So while doing this interview about this song, he says the phrase Stay Woke, which is maybe one of the earliest instances of the phrasing that we are now seeing in 2021, kind of being bastardise across the Internet.

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S1: And he showed me the scars of all that shit gangland. So I made a song about that. So I about it to be careful when to go through that, but stay low key.

S3: Dies of Leadbelly’s warning here is like extremely vital to understanding the kind of origins of the word woak. It is not this kind of state of constant political perfection, which I think is how a lot of people think of it these days. Staying in

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S2: our dotcom

S3: Twitter, not just Twitter dot com, like the highest places of like cultural production, The New York Times, like Bracciano, Caitlyn Jenner, like people fully believe that this is a political ideology. When if you look at what Leadbelly’s kind of speaking to right now, it’s a means of protection. It’s a call to black Americans to be aware of the many dangers of white America and extrajudicial racial violence, which were just rampant in nineteen thirty one and continue to be rampant in many ways. And so it’s a warning. It’s a call. It’s not stay woke as in you will know everything about any given topic at any given time. It is in fact saying you constantly need to be looking for new information and processing new information so that you can stay alive.

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S2: What you’re describing is the mainstreaming of work, but it seems like the word hasn’t totally broken through yet. When would you say, like, it really becomes a mainstream term?

S3: So really, really mainstream, probably around like 2014, as I kind of said at the beginning. But the first kind of glimpse of it going mainstream is in 1962 with a New York Times piece by a black novelist named William Melvin Kelly. And the piece is titled If You Woke, You Dig It, No. Mickey Mouse can be expected to follow today’s Negro idiom without a hip assist, which I love. How long that title is. Let’s bring back 27 word lives. And so, as Ramano notes, this piece is ironically about how white America appropriates and bastardizes black vernacular.

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S2: The call is coming from inside the House like

S3: very prescient, but also just really indicative of how not new any of this shit is. And sometimes it’s funny, but sometimes it’s deeply insidious, including the way people use WOAK, which is now a way to kind of gesture at the community the word comes out of without explicitly saying so. Kelly, the writer who wrote that piece in The New York Times, also kind of makes an interesting point about the kind of subterfuge that’s inherent in a lot of black vernacular. And Kelly writes, The language was used primarily for secrecy, exclusion and protection. If your master did not know what you were talking about, he cannot punish you and you can maintain your ignorance or innocence. And that may be one of the reasons why WOAK kind of flew under the radar for so long between these usages in 1920 and 1962 and where we are now in twenty, twenty one.

S2: So that’s the 60s. Feels like we have a lot of ground to cover. What’s next? What gets us into the next century.

S3: So next stop, 2008, which yeah, we’re going about forty years into the future. But Erykah Badu releases a song called Master Teacher and the refrain of that song is

S4: I stay, woke up, say. It was no match for. Stay. What is it

S3: in master teacher, the phrase that is used to signal three different things, there’s one which is the very literal meaning, did just like actually just stay awake. And then there’s the one which was what was kind of primarily being used on Twitter pre Ferguson, which is being suspicious of a cheating partner. And then there is the original political meaning of it, which is to stay aware of the ways in which racism and inequality plays out in daily life in America. So before Ferguson, this is kind of the three primary ways that black people are using the phrase stay woke. But as we turn from like the late 20th to early 21st century into like the 2010s, the kind of last point before we arrive at where we currently are is Ferguson in 2014, which in so many ways was this mass political awakening and radicalization for a generation. I count myself among the people who kind of experienced political awakening. And it’s not like I hadn’t been aware, like I had gotten the talk growing up from my parents, like my parents kind of actively instilled in me a kind of wariness of America writ large. The phrase You have to work twice as hard for half as much was kind of a constant refrain in my household. And Trayvon Martin had been killed a few years earlier. And that’s what I think is kind of frustrating about the way people talk about WOAK. It wasn’t as if people were just in. We’re going to if we’re going to carry this metaphor like a sleep before then, it’s that this is kind of a moment in which a lot of things become clear, including the way Ferguson was preying on black citizens to like fill its coffers and giving them like a shit ton of tickets, like the Department of Justice finally came in and investigated and found that the way that black people were pulled over and ticketed in Ferguson was deeply discriminatory and violated their civil rights. And so, like stay woke in a way, it’s kind of like the confirmation of the things that you are suspicious of. And so in 2014, as people are like spilling out into the street and like tanks are rolling through Ferguson, Missouri, the stable hashtag on Twitter kind of stays active for years. I think the moment in which it kind of fully, fully goes mainstream is around 2016, when Childish Gambino uses stay woke as a refrain in Redbone, which Bangar of a song that song is then used in Jordan Peel’s Get Out. And Jordan Peele says in interviews that he use that purposefully because the kind of point of get out is like staying aware of your surroundings that are actively trying to kill you. That’s enough history. When we come back, we’re going to dive into the deeply exhausting, very contradictory way that WOAK is now used,

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S2: something you look forward to.

S3: And we’re back we are going to play a clip from the new Showtime show hosted by Zooey Fooldom. The show’s appropriately called Zooey and the sketch is called WOAK Wars. Let’s play

S2: applause. First question, are you doing the work? Um, I’m

S1: going to go with, like, probably not. I love someone who can say, hey, I’m not doing the work you are. I would say minimally, my fiancee is of Latino descent, just kind of opened up my eyes to a lot of issues that I wasn’t aware of prior to dating her. Hey, shout out to Latino love.

S3: So the kind of premise of both wars is a kind of Jeopardy family feud style game wherein which Zwai ask these hapless white people to know who Shirley Chisholm is. And WBB Dubois, they don’t is the general gist of what’s happening here, the way that she is using WOAK here, which is kind of as a way to gesture at having a specific subset of knowledge that will kind of mark you as WOAK is kind of a really pretty accurate representation of where we are right now and how the word is now being used. And I can only assume that it’s it’s clearly satirical since none of this arbitrary knowledge does anything to further equity in real life. Like guess you should know who Shirley Chisholm is. You should know who WBB Dubois is. You should know there is indeed a Negro national anthem, not least because Beyonce, they played it at Coachella. But it’s kind of ultimately arbitrary knowledge in the way that most American history is arbitrary knowledge. And it’s it doesn’t really pertain to how you are, quote unquote, doing the work in twenty twenty one.

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S2: Wait, you mean being able to recognize Colin Powell on sight does not satisfy him.

S3: But how do you get from the way Leadbelly was kind of using stay woke, which is this call to action to woak as this incoherent political ideology and kind of virtue signalling way of moving to the world? None other than SNL,

S2: your least favorite television production?

S3: You might think I’m joking, but I’m not. And neither is SNL because it’s not funny. SNL did a skit in 2017, which was just a year after Redbone came out and a few years post Furguson, SNL decides to kind of lampoon the idea of WOAK with this sketch called Levi’s Wolk’s. I’m me, I’m unique.

S1: I’m whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa.

S2: So why aren’t my jeans now? They are introducing Levi whelps size Lisk style neutral gender nonconforming denim for a generation that defies labels. Levi’s heard that if you’re not WOAK, it’s bad. So we made these

S3: this sketch very accurately sums up what mainstream society think of people who use WOAK. And this is again, 2017. It’s just kind of superficial, focused on speaking the right language and that’s it. Like no connection at all to the actual quote unquote work. It’s his way to kind of hold the moral high ground just by speaking the right words and saying the right words, which to be clear, there is a way in which social media has kind of accelerated what’s happened to WOAK. And I think that what the Levi’s WOAK ad is trying to add whatever sketch, whatever is trying to get at is this very real dynamic that’s playing out online. Some people might refer to it as quote unquote, virtue signalling, and that’s because social media is inherently performative. 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. This is not just me spouting shit off. There was like a 2014 study that said that most, like three fourths of white people have zero black friends. The thing is, though, if the only place you’re seeing black vernacular is online, you’re going to miss most of it. Because the thing about avy and most black vernacular and like most language in general, is that a lot of it is nonverbal and it’s contextual. And so if the only way you’re seeing WOAK is online, you’re going to see it as describing a set of easily like repeated behaviors rather than as a kind of way of moving through the world.

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S2: Right. And if you’re only seeing it online as a white person on the Internet, like, it’ll be contextualized by this. Places that you frequent and by the people that you write, so like you’re getting the usage of the word woak like twice, three times, four times removed.

S3: Exactly. People think that the Internet is inherently democratic and like, yes, sometimes shit filter, like once shit filters up to the top level of popularity, like it’s generally about like six degrees removed from like 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 that are not like in service positions and being asked like you have to, you’re telling them what to do. But that doesn’t mean you’re, you know, what the fuck you’re talking about. And it doesn’t mean that seeing BuzzFeed calling like Hassan Parker or Matt McGaughey, quote unquote, Woak Bay is the way that we should be using the word woak. And so what you get from this constant, like divorcing and decontextualized of the word woak is this idea that weakness is the thing that you can aspire towards, not only aspire towards, but achieve.

S2: Attain, right?

S3: Yeah, exactly. And so you get this really kind of gross performance of racial consciousness. That’s just like all posture in this way. WOAK basically becomes empty on both sides by both sides. I mean, I’m only talking about white people here, like both white people sides. So you get white liberals

S2: thinking you’re the song of my people.

S3: Is it sweet Alabama?

S2: Yeah, right. Whatever. The opposite of lift every voice and sing Sweet Caroline.

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S3: That’s the song I was thinking.

S2: That’s why I felt like people fucking I. It is sweet. Caroline, you are absolutely correct in the Neil Diamond and we just floc.

S3: But so anyway woak basically becomes empty. I’m kind of like both sides of the white people. I’ll you get white liberals who think by doing a Pepsi commercial that appropriates protest imagery that they are quote unquote woak. Yeah, I brought that back up

S2: Akehurst Bridge too far.

S3: And they think this is a way to acquire WellPoint’s points. But so this is the white liberal side. The other side is much worse than the wild besides annoying and actively harmful in a few different ways. The other side is smells a little bit like fascism. So around 2017, 2018, I think this is actually kind of where I would assume. Madison, you’re kind of getting. I am assuming you’re seeing this happening online as well, is when we’re starting to get white people who again had just heard this term like maybe four years earlier, they start turning against it and not just turning against it, but turning against the idea of it, because, again, there is no coherent political ideology behind the word woak and there never has been. But also use your words like the people who are using weakness to capture all these fucking disparate political things happening are mostly writers who should have an ability to be able to tease out what exactly they’re talking about. But it is, in fact extremely convenient from a culture war perspective to be able to use a word like WOAK to signal at approximately seven different things. And then there’s also just the disingenuous of it all where in which you say that weakness is a political ideology. You’re not talking about anything. You’re talking about people who talk about race. And that just immediately brands you as a local party, a member of the local party. I don’t actually know like how people use these words and grammatical sentences.

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S2: I don’t think they do. Right. 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 like an unattainable state of being, like no one is asking of anyone to be perfect to a spouse like flawless ideology on everything, to have a working understanding of gender and race and sex theory at all times. You could still be, quote unquote woak if you if you ascribe to how that word works on Twitter in twenty twenty one, you could still be woak and say the wrong thing sometimes.

S3: 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 kind of Kinsel culture cabal has fully glommed on to WOAK and turning woak into this catchall phrase that people can look at and have a kind of hazy understanding of what you’re gesturing at is bad for language, perhaps bad for democracy, definitely bad for the culture wars, the new frontier of which is critical race theory, which is going through the same turn that WOAK already went through.

S2: And when you say going through the same turn, you mean sort of being just reinterpreted and deluded into a toothless, meaningless set of phonemes?

S3: 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 and every kind of discourse about race is now being termed critical race theory and critical race theory is unequivocally bad in the modern conservative kind of imagination, as is anything that is termed WOAK. And so now we’re stuck talking about what the fuck welcomeness means in 2021 when we should have never been here because it’s stupid.

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S2: I do really apologize for stepping into the good white person role of like, please give me homework, give me an action item, tell me something I can do.

S3: I mean, let’s. Do you think this is all just an online discourse between quote unquote young folks and everybody else? This shit is spilling into state legislatures across the country who are actively trying to ban critical race theory, whatever the fuck that means. In my home state of Texas, that means that teaching the Texas War of independence was not about slavery when it, in fact was. That falls under the heading of critical race theory. This is something really important and it’s going to affect what children are learning for the next few decades at the very least. And so kind of figuring out like the clarity of language in what Category three is referring to is very important. So, you know, call your state senators

S2: and also maybe call your U.S. senators and let them know that making Juneteenth a federal holiday can’t be where the the quote unquote work stops.

S3: And that is the end of Icymi, the education podcast,

S2: Reading Rainbow logo. No, but really that is the show. I see. Why am I would not be possible without support from our listeners. Slate plus helps us keep our show going. It means you get to listen to our episodes with no ads and it costs just a dollar for your first month. We’ll be back in your feed on Wednesday, so please subscribe. It’s the best way to make sure you hear every episode. And please consider leaving us a rating and review and Apple podcasts and tell your friends about us. They can follow us on Twitter. So can you at. I see. Why am I underscore pod? Our doors are open for now. Don’t make us regret that you do really love what we do. Really love hearing from listeners. And of course you can also always drop us a note at Icymi at Slate Dotcom. Who knows, you might hear yourself on the show.

S3: I see why Miles, produced by Daniel Schroeder and Jasmine Ellis, our supervising producer John for Alegra Franker, Slate’s culture editor, Gay Brothers, editorial director

S2: of Audio See Online or not. What does fascism smell like? I don’t know. All right, I thought for a later time.