For me, existing in 2023 means having lived through a life of political fluctuations. As soon as I reached university, I noticed my peers had a sudden change in mindset. Maybe it was just the Humanities students, or it was just the energy of a campus filled with thousands of kids with unspoken ideas brewing. Still, either way, there was a definite difference in how people spoke about social justice. Following the Black Lives Matter movement and countless other attacks on people of colour in America, the idea of wokeness became increasingly apparent among students and friends. There was this renewed fixation with political correctness that I hadn’t seen before. And on social media, and especially Twitter, I saw people everywhere calling others out for being narrow-minded, conservative, or racist. And each of these attacks was always underscored with, “Stay Woke”. 

But where does ‘wokeness’ actually come from? How did the internet pick up so quickly on this political ideal, and why was it suddenly being used as ammunition to counteract conservative ideologies? Listen, don’t get me wrong, at the time, I was overjoyed to hear so many more people taking a stand against racism or injustice. I even used the word many times to describe a person who was clued up on political occurrences in the country, someone who could easily point out prejudice or biases against people of colour or other marginalised groups. But after a while, I noticed a weird use of the term that made me think twice about how I spoke. Even weirder was that the people who used the word most were often white people with their own strong views about politics and morality. 

Something about the tension and friction around the term reminded me a lot of the anxiety of ‘cancel culture’, a culture where certain people accused of wrongdoing, harassment, or injustice would be ‘cancelled’ on social media. This always left a sour taste in my mouth. On the one hand, shaming someone on social media is a quick way to wreck their publicity and can even lead them to lose work, network connections or reputation. Cancelling someone could be a great tool to take down known perpetrators who were never punished by law enforcement because of foul play, unfair advantages or wealth/race privileges. On the other hand, it could also be a dangerous tool used recklessly by self-acclaimed social justice advocates to prove that they supported progressive politics. In that sense, proclaiming to be a social justice activist was just a way to achieve the acceptance of left-leaning folk and maybe some moral popularity.

Like cancel culture, woke culture seemed to use political ammunition to bring people down. People would have keyboard wars behind screens, arguing about who understood current affairs better. And yet, ironically, the social justice warriors never seemed to do much for the cause outside of social media platforms. So was it all an act? And what did it mean for the cause? 

Well, it turns out that ‘wokeness’, as so many of us understood it is quite a gross deviation from the term’s true origins. The history of ‘Stay woke’ has its origins amongst African Americans. It became particularly popular in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, following protests against police brutality towards Black Americans following the shooting of Michael Brown. The term originates in other Black literature, such as Marcus Garvey’s ‘Wake up, Ethiopia! Wake up, Africa!” and the ‘Scottsboro boys’ protest song by Lead Belly. Each of these instances uses the term ‘Stay Woke’ to warn black people of the dangers of racial discrimination and systemic racism from state entities like the police. So why had it been reworked into ammunition for political popularity?

Wokeness became a badge or bio for someone who claims to be an ally to people of colour. It’s an expression that originated from liberation struggles and race wars, yet so often, it is co-opted to suit individual agendas, just like how every year at pride, corporate companies that are notoriously unethical add rainbows to their branding just to signal political consciousness in the hopes of gaining new Gen Z customers. Sure, it seems informed and progressive on the surface, but we should always ask how much these people follow up on their social justice claims.  

Although there are seemingly good intentions, we should all be careful not to adopt appropriate political ideas to prove a point or position ourselves on the moral high ground. Morality is not black or white, nor should it be preached if it is not actualised. For example, preaching for a cause online doesn’t mean much if you can’t even be bothered to do something for the cause IRL. So, if you’re going to scream for the cause, you should at least know the history before spitting out the jargon. Because if you really want to be an ally to marginalised groups, the best thing you can do is inform yourself – not for the sake of your clout, but for the good of the cause. 

Tell us: what does the word ‘woke’ mean to you?

If you enjoyed this article, read this article about language used to describe women here