A plea to stop using ‘woke’

Ripped from its original meaning, ‘woke’ has become an idiotic, utterly meaningless dog whistle

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Parker Peters / Daily Collegian.

By Luke Halpern, Assistant Op/Ed Editor

American politics has never been known for its cordiality and civility. I’d go as far to say that the United States has perhaps the most divisive political system in the world, especially in recent times. No matter how you feel about him, it’s obvious that since the election of Donald Trump the U.S. has become more politically polarized than ever before, with both sides of the aisle devolving to hurling insults and catchy slogans towards each other.

The newest trend, mainly used on the right-wing side, is to call progressives or left-wingers ‘woke.’ Wokeness, woke-ism, wokeology — I’ve seen it all. In general, conservatives use this word and its offshoots to insult liberals and left-wingers about their social justice politics and color conscious ideology; imbedded in these insults are conservatives’ deep-seated resentment towards the wave of political correctness —what they would call ‘cancel culture’— that has overtaken the country.

A conservative would love nothing more than to think, after unleashing a well-timed “woke snowflake liberal” barb towards an unassuming Twitter user, that the same user will log off, cry snowflake tears and think deeply about their supposedly false and un-patriotic ideology. The conservative rejoices — finally, someone has stuck it to those stupid liberals!

In reality, I think most people think that person is truly, deeply stupid.

‘Woke’ never used to mean something as meaningless and vague as this. In their piece for Vox, Aja Romano explains how its origins reach back to the early and mid-1900s, where the word was used mainly in African-American Vernacular English to describe waking up or gaining consciousness to the injustices faced by Black people across America. The phrase ‘stay woke,’ as was made popular during the 2014 Ferguson protests, was used by and directed towards African-Americans to stay aware of police brutality and, as Romano puts, “staying aware…to the inequities of the American justice system.”

The phrase began to grow in popularity across the country. It still had the political context of increased awareness towards injustices, and was being popularized via Childish Gambino centering his song “Redbone” over the phrase, as well as filmmaker Jordan Peele including this song —and the “stay woke” lyrics specifically— in the beginning of his hit film “Get Out.” In 2017, Saturday Night Live parodied the word in a skit in what was perhaps a death knell for the word as it was first meant — a similar fate as many viral sensations that find their way onto SNL.

Since the original increase in popularity, ‘woke’ has taken a turn to mean something completely different. Right-wingers began to use the term to decry leftist policies, which curiously center common-sense ideas like not being racist and not being homophobic. Yet right-wingers continue to use the phrase as a dog whistle to show support for their preferred social policies, which seem to center around Christian nationalism and taking away basic rights of Americans. Sounds like a winning campaign strategy.

Republican politicians have not been afraid to toss their hat into the woke sweepstakes. All your favorites, like Sen. Ted Cruz, Rep. Jim Jordan and, of course, Donald Trump have used the word to deride liberals over specific events, whether these are real, made-up or otherwise greatly exaggerated. Even Elon Musk has stepped into the fray, endorsing yet another branch of ‘woke’ — this time “Woke War III.” This is where the word loses all its meaning; conservatives are attaching the word to anything and everything that goes against their philosophies.

Hearing phrases like “the leftists’ woke policies” or “Woke Americans” irritates me strongly. Not because I support the policies they decry, because the word has become yet another instrument in the perpetual culture war that has encapsulated our lives. Everyone must pick a side: you’re either woke and on the side of cancel culture or a brave patriot fighting for conservative values and against “the establishment,” whatever that means. Politics in this country has become a war of words, except the words are all devoid of meaning.

If being woke means supporting racial justice, expanding LGBTQ+ rights, holding the police accountable and generally wanting to progress the country past archaic systems of governing, then I guess I’m woke. I don’t really care, though. Call me woke if you’d like — I’ll take it with open arms. But let that be the last time you use the word. It’s time we bury ‘woke’ once and for all, or at least give it back to the people who created it in the first place.

Luke Halpern can be reached at [email protected].