It’s time to let America’s amnesiac wokesters in on a secret: They embraced the term “woke.” They defined it, wrapped themselves in it, screamed it from the rooftops, and invested it with religious passion. The rest of us merely responded.
The woke, having forgotten all this, are now charging conservatives with inventing or distorting the word and using it as a semi-racist right-wing bogeyman term. MSNBC’s Alex Wagner, for example, claims that conservatives know that woke ideas are “sensible” but don’t have to acknowledge as much if they don’t define the word. At the Washington Post, Philip Bump says, “‘Woke’ simply describes anything that is inherently alarming to the right.” Also at the Washington Post, Ashley Parker and Liz Goodwin write that “conservatives began using ‘woke’ in pejorative terms to undermine Black and liberal ideals,” and Candis Watts Smith, author of Stay Woke: A People’s Guide to Making All Black Lives Matter, says the that the word “evokes Black folks or Blackness” and “on other things [it] kind of spills over.” The association with race, she says, isn’t accidental.
There’s a lot of truth to these takes. But they’ve got the players all wrong. It’s the Left that believes woke policies are sensible. It’s the Left that has stretched the word to encompass a range of progressive ideas. And it’s the Left that warmed to the term in part because of its racial frisson.
In 2014, after the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the #staywoke hashtag became a digital rallying cry around Black Lives Matter activism. Then, in the Trump years, progressives freed the slogan from its BLM context and deployed it wherever needed. Which is why you’d see pieces in the New York Times such as, “In Defense of ‘Woke,’” by Damon Young. In 2017, a photo of a baby wearing a “stay woke” sign at a Women’s March event went viral. Stacey Abrams spoke at something called the “stay woke” rally in 2018. When the pandemic hit in 2020, #stayhome #staywoke hashtags appeared on liberal Twitter. By the time George Floyd was killed by Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis, every white liberal interested in signaling his revolutionary sympathies was advertising his wokeness. As Aja Romano noted candidly in Vox in October 2020, “‘woke’ has evolved into a single-word summation of leftist political ideology, centered on social justice politics and critical race theory. This framing of ‘woke’ is bipartisan: It’s used as a shorthand for political progressiveness by the left, and as a denigration of leftist culture by the right.”
That’s right. Back then, both sides understood that wokeness had become a leftist catch-all term. Conservatives still do, but the Left decided to erase its own role in this history. Why? Because soon after 2020, wokeness became an embarrassment and a political liability. The country started to reject the widespread radical project. In November 2021, Republican Glenn Youngkin was elected governor of Virginia. At the time, Democratic strategist James Carville was asked what went wrong. “Well, what went wrong is this stupid wokeness,” he said. “Some of these people need to go to a woke detox center or something.”
But short of detox, there’s always wishful thinking. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez responded to Carville by claiming that “woke” was “a term almost exclusively used by older people these days.” The Left has been trying to fight the term ever since, pretending that it’s something cooked up by racist right wingers to discredit their opponents. As we get closer to the 2024 election, we’re going to see more of this revisionism.
Sorry, wokesters. Live by the hashtag, die by the hashtag. It’s not our fault that you made yourselves easy targets of parody and derision. You took every scattered strain of ill-considered social-justice leftism—from defunding the police to erasing biological sex—put it in a box, wrapped it in a bow, and labeled it “woke.” And it turned out to be a gift to the right.
Next time someone on the Left asks you to define wokeness, ask him to define “woman,” or “man,” or “mother,” or “father.” And when he can’t, tell him that’s wokeness.