In a recent conference at work, we were spitballing ideas for stories and an intern brought up the latest LGBTQ+ news. This lead to a long discussion about the ins and outs of the acronym, a lengthy explanation of what it means to be pansexual (someone that is not limited in sexual choice with regard to gender, biological sex or gender identity FYI), followed by the revelation that the correct term is now LGBTTQQIAAP+.
It can be difficult to stay on top of these things. And for a generation of Buzzfeed obsessives, the desire to stay ‘woke’ can feel extremely important. The word epitomizes what it means to be a politically and socially aware young person today. You might have heard the term bandied across a slamming sesh on Twitter or even used to describe beauty brands that are becoming ever more inclusive. But what does the term actually mean? And what does its usage say about our generation?
What does 'woke' mean anyway?
The word has blown up in popular culture over the last few years and in 2017 it was even added to the Oxford English Dictionary, but it’s really nothing new. ‘Woke’ has been used in African American culture since the 1800s and while it’s sliding its way into the mainstream, it originally derives from African American Vernacular English (AAVE). When the word was first used it meant only the act of not being asleep. A few centuries later, in 1962, it appeared in the NYT Magazine’s glossary of ‘phrases and words you might hear today in Harlem’ and was defined as meaning ‘well-informed, up to date’. Today, the definition is much more nuanced. The Oxford English Dictionary says it is chiefly defined as being ‘alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice.’
'#StayWoke' is intrinsically linked to the Black Lives Matter movement and was used following the death of Trayvon Martin (an unarmed 17-year-old shot dead by a neighbourhood watch volunteer). But while the word stems from the racial injustices of African American people in the US it has come to embody much more. To be ‘woke’ now is to understand the many intersections of social injustice, be they race, gender, ability, sexuality or anything else. Even new Marvel film Black Panther, that has a largely black cast, has been bashed for not being ‘woke enough’ as it misses the opportunity to include a lesbian character.
Whiteness and wokeness
The bog standard dictionary isn’t the only place we can look to for a definition of the word. The millennial gospel, aka Urban Dictionary, also sheds some light on the way that the word is more popularly used and perceived in 2018. UD defines the word as ‘A state of perceived intellectual superiority one gains by reading The Huffington Post’ and provides an example - ‘Ali is so woke. At brunch she explained how wearing anything other than Chuck Taylor's or Tom's is really a microaggression. Hey, did you get your Amy Schumer tickets yet?’
This humorous portrayal sums up part of the bigger problem, the word has crossed the divide. What once was a black activists call to arms has become a fashion statement. Now, #woke is often used by white people to declare their social awareness to the Twittersphere. Be it out of the desire for a pat-on-the-back or a genuine will to let others around them know that they are checking their privilege, the evolution of the word has turned it into a parody.
The capitalisation of woke
Terms like #WokeBae have transformed the word into a sixteen year old’s Instagram slang. You can now buy a sparkly pink badge screaming ‘woke af’ on Etsy or do a Buzzfeed quiz that asks ‘how woke are you?’ The Evening Standard even published a woke-o-meter of celebrities that measured how ‘woke’ they each were (of course, all of these celebrities were white).
Capitalising on the word woke and on the desperate desire of young people to be socially aware says something about the culture of today’s younger generations. As celebs go vegan, march for women and speak out against right wing governments, it has become tremendously trendy to be political. But using the word ‘woke’ as a catchall way to latch onto the trend of being left-leaning or using it to make money off teenagers, renders it somewhat useless.
Why is woke so trendy right now?
Being socially conscious is trending heavily right now. Just look at Beyonce’s transformation from pop princess catering to the desires of men in her content to black, feminist icon. But does this cultural shift demonstrate disenchantment with government, society and injustice or is it just cool to care? It’s hard to say.
Social media and call-out culture make it more difficult than ever for people expressing their views to hide – perhaps this has helped fuel the movement. It’s no bad thing that people are taking more care to be socially aware, hell it beats the oftentimes racist, homophobic, anti-feminist lyrics and atmosphere that have dominated previous decades but lets hope that this is a trend that lasts. And more importantly let’s not let the true meaning of this word disappear behind a hashtag.