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Let’s Talk About the Word ‘Woke’

The word woke has had a curious life. Like so much slang, it was introduced by Black people, co-opted by youngish white people, and then ruined by oldish white people.

Its meaning has changed over time. The expression goes back as far as May 20, 1962, when William Melvin Kelley used it in the New York Times, “If You’re Woke You Dig It.” This predated the Civil Rights Act (1964), Voting Rights Act (1965), and Equal Rights Amendment (1972). Martin Luther King, Jr. had not given his dream speech (August 28, 1963). The American public was much closer to a world without Black major league baseball players (1947) than a world with a Black president (2008).

The word’s meaning has expanded since 1962. It originally referred to racial justice, yet now includes gender, sexuality, disability, and Marxist economics. And even postcolonial foreign policy, performative activism, abortion, Covid restrictions, and mental health, to name a few. As the meaning expanded, it pivoted from a rally cry used by supporters to a pejorative issued by detractors.


“It originally referred to racial justice, yet now includes gender, sexuality, disability, and Marxist economics.”


Since it’s now used derisively, woke now says more about the speaker than about the topic. It’s shorthand for someone to bemoan any particular thing that irks them. It’s the new “politically correct,” a term which means little more than whatever unspoken rule the user thinks has gone too far. Further, since it is now used much more by critics than by allies, it’s almost impossible for a person from a particular minority group to have any idea if they are being criticized by the speaker or not.

And therein lies the problem. The very people the word was meant to help are now the unintended victims of any derision meant by the word. As happens in so many cases, the victims are ordinary Black people. Yes, yes, I know, you’re not against Black people, but instead against crazy Oberlin professors, rainbow sidewalks, Drag Queen Story Hour, Harvard students supporting Hamas, and teenagers wearing masks outdoors 24 months after a pandemic. Everyone gets their opinion on each of these things.

But can we find a word to express our reservations other than woke?


“Since it’s now used derisively, woke now says more about the speaker than about the topic.”


If it is true that the word “woke” is almost always pejorative, this means that the majority of my town, Memphis (65% Black), will cringe every time it’s used—knowing that even if it wasn’t intentionally targeting them, it wasn’t exactly supporting them, either. A cable news host says, “That’s a bunch of woke #$%!” and might think he’s insulting fragile people who walk across the stage in Berkeley; yet such careless usage also marginalizes those who walked across the bridge at Selma. Great grandparents picked cotton, grandparents survived Jim Crow, parents used segregated restrooms, and kids watched Tyre Nichols get roughed up like a punching bag. We can forgive them for assuming that this particular four-letter word might function more like a dog whistle than a policy position.

So for my part, I’m not going to say “woke” anymore. It feels lazy, unspecific, and hurtful.

If we want to criticize someone who has a different sexual ethic, we should say so.

If we want to be pro-Israel or pro-life, we should make the case.

If we want to rip Marxist economics, we can present a better way.

If we want to criticize cynical social theories that distort the truths of the gospel, we should say so.


“So for my part, I’m not going to say ‘woke’ anymore. It feels lazy, unspecific, and hurtful.”


But let’s not use a sloppy ad hominem like woke.

Can we be less generic and more generous?

Can we say more about what we really mean, and this time be less mean?

“Woke” wasn’t a pejorative in 1962 and it doesn’t have to be today. When we use it as one, we aren’t insulting the crazy congresswoman or the nutty professor. They don’t read our Facebook posts. Our Black friends and neighbors might. At least for now. Jesus raises objections all the time. But he doesn’t do it by belittling others. When we hurl verbal grenades at generic targets, we risk severe collateral damage.

Anyone who is really awake should know this.

“Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone.” (Colossians 4:6, NRSV)


From Bob Turner’s “Stationery” site. Used with permission.

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