It's Time For ‘Woke’ To Be Put To Sleep

When a word that originated in the Black community as a rallying cry has been bastardized by the right, it's time for that word to die.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed HB 7, known as the Stop Woke bill, in Hialeah Gardens, Florida, on April 22, 2022.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed HB 7, known as the Stop Woke bill, in Hialeah Gardens, Florida, on April 22, 2022.
Daniel A. Varela/Miami Herald via Getty Images

Remember the “dab”?

It’s that one-move “dance” that anyone with upper limb motor skills can execute. There are conflicting reports on its provenance, but most attribute its rise in popularity to the Atlanta hip-hop scene in the mid-2010s, with acts including Migos, Rich the Kid and Skippa Da Flippa.

NFL player Cam Newton eventually popularized it by performing it as a touchdown celebration. There was a steady increase of “mainstream America” (read: not Black folks) performing the dab on TikTok. And then Ellen DeGeneres got to it and started teaching guests on her show how to do it, including then-presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton in 2016.

And who could forget this cringey “dab-acle:”

When Ellen gets a hold of something, consider it all burned up: If you see anyone dabbing in 2023, it’s probably a middle-aged white dad from Norman, Oklahoma, celebrating his daughter scoring a soccer goal.

Mainstream culture co-opting the creations of Black people, and putting them down when they’re done, is nothing new. See: Miley Cyrus and just about any Kardashian. But people co-opting the politically charged phrases that define the Black movement and using them against us is as new as social media.

This has happened with the word “woke.” Like the dab, we need to set fire to it forever.

“Stay woke” originated in the Black community around the time 18-year-old Michael Brown was fatally shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, becoming a catchphrase of the Black Lives Matter movement in the mid-2010s. “Woke” is the successor of the much older rallying Black call to “wake up!”; a reminder for the oppressed to keep their eyes and minds on the oppressor and to try not to get caught lacking.

“Woke” might’ve seen the apex of its popularity as the catchy hook of Childish Gambino’s 2016 smash “Redbone.” Hulu even had a series named “Woke,” which apparently didn’t live up to the mantle of being an “issues” show and was killed after two seasons.

Now? “Woke” has been weaponized against us. Conservative Republican politicians use it to stress how they’re not interested in any sense of liberation for marginalized people. Nikki Haley, the world’s most not-wannabe Indian ever, suggested that “woke ideology” in schools will turn children into the infected from “The Last of Us” or something.

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) coined the phrase “woketopians” to complain about all these people gunning for his “rights.” Florida (again) Gov. Ron DeSantis, who’s probably the country’s single most dangerous human heading into the 2024 presidential election, famously said in a speech last November that “Florida is where woke goes to die.” (I spend winters in Florida, and at the very least, “woke” is on life support.) Even young Republicans recognize “woke” as the political equivalent of a dad joke now and are asking the party’s elder statesmen to knock it off.

If I had to declare an official time of death for “woke,” it would be March 14, when conservative firebrand Bethany Mandel goose-stepped right into delightful internet fodder as a guest on The Hill’s “Rising” web series.

When discussing her new book, “Stolen Youth,” which apparently suggests that “woke ideology” will send children into a heroin-fueled homicidal tailspin, Mandel used the word “woke” enough that host Briahna Joy Gray asked her to define it for the purpose of the discussion.

What happened next was about as gratifying a moment as an anti-right-winger could ask for: Not only did Mandel stumble through not answering the question, she announced in the moment that it would go viral. Indeed, the “Karening Moment” has been viewed millions of times, and Twitter hasn’t been kind.

Mandel convinced Newsweek to platform her tears; she framed it as a teachable moment for her kids and an example of what happens when the big, bad left sets a well-meaning white lady up for the fall. Twitter, justifiably, is also having fun with that.

Despite using the word as the axiom for her book and her entire professional reason for being, Mandel seems to have never been able to rightly define “woke.” I’m certain she’s not alone among her fellow conservatives in their inability to define the word since it’s really just shorthand for the N-bomb for many of them.

It’s a catch-all word to attack Black rights, LGBT rights, critical race theory and anything that doesn’t fit the tidy bubble of “American traditionalism” (read: white supremacy). They’ve done the same thing with “canceled,” which is now used as a phrase of defiance from conservatives who insist that they’ll bleed out on the American flag before they allow it to ever happen to them.

“Black lives matter” (the sentiment, not the troubled business) and “Defund the police” have also been weaponized or used to create bastardizations (blue lives matter, white lives matter) detracting attention from actual marginalized groups. If a phrase or hashtag demanding better treatment for the marginalized gets enough traction on Twitter, expect some politician with soullessness in the eyes of their profile photo to chase clout with their followers by shooting it down.

It’s frustrating to watch something with meaning to us become used in the opposite way in which it was intended. We’ll come up with something new, and they’ll inevitably bastardize it as well. I’ll never use the word “woke” the way we intended again, but at least I got to see a woman dog-walked over criticizing something she didn’t understand.

It doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of the movement, but it’s the little joys that count.

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