The Problem with Woke
It was my 16-year-old stepson who initially introduced me to “woke.” I remember the moment quite distinctly because it was the first time I felt like an uncool parent. “Bruh,” he said, “you don’t know what woke means?”
I said that unless it was followed by “up” and used as the past tense of “wake” to describe the process of arising from slumber, then no, I wasn’t familiar with the term. And while we were at it, I added, why was he calling me “bruh?”
Of course, in the intervening eight years, “woke” has seeped into our national lexicon, used recklessly by people who are decidedly older and, by teenage standards, even less cool than I am. When first adopted by the broader public, “woke” was a badge proudly worn by progressives. Now, it’s more commonly an insult slung by radicals on the other end of the political spectrum.
As someone committed to social justice, I appreciate the sentiment of “woke.” It’s also important to note that the term was coined by Black communities to connote vigilance or awareness around racial injustice, as in, “Stay woke.”
In fact, considering its origins, Forbes contributor Dana Brownlee makes two compelling arguments for why white people shouldn’t use the term at all. Number one: cultural appropriation. Number two: weaponization. My issue with the word has more to do with Brownlee’s second reason, though cultural appropriation is an important piece of the conversation that shouldn’t be swept under the rug.
The particular bone I want to pick today starts with grammar. Not because I’m a grammar snob that scorns vernacular terms, but because when we look at the ways that the word has been distorted and weaponized — across the political spectrum — its past tense implications are inherently problematic.
In strictly grammatical terms, “woke” is the past tense of a verb — more accurately, one half of a compound verb — that has been repurposed as an adjective.
When “woke” was co-opted by the broader public, a past-tense verb became a descriptor for what we believed to be a superior state of being. Or an inferior state of being, depending on your point of view.