[Series] What is woke? 3. Cultural appropriation of a polysemous word


Between 2017 and 2018, after Trump’s arrival in the White House, “woke” entered the dictionary and everyday language. Criticism grew against the word as it moved away from its African-American roots with its appropriation by the general public and then the emergence of the #MeToo movement.

In the U.S, 2017 opens with the inauguration of Donald Trump, and American progressives are hungover. The term ‘woke’ takes on its full meaning: it is impossible to remain ‘asleep’ when the daily news, via traditional media as well as social networks, is continuously broadcasting reasons not to turn a blind eye. 

However, the growing popularity of the term is not unanimous, far from it, even among the activists concerned. Although it entered English-language dictionaries in mid-2017, ‘woke’ had attracted the attention of lexicographers a year earlier: it was thus a candidate for the “word of the year 2016” distinction for the Oxford Dictionary. ‘Post-truth’ was finally preferred. It must be said that a linguist had argued against this distinction in a post published by the institution’s own website! Entitled How ‘woke’ fell asleep, this text – which seems to have been depublished since then but of which an archive remains accessible – is signed by Nicole Holliday, an academic who presents herself on Twitter as “mixed race African-American”. 

After recalling the community origins mentioned in the previous episode of this series, Holliday writes:

“The political meaning of ‘woke’ unfortunately sometimes seems expunged. A search of Twitter today shows that while ‘stay woke’ is still used in tweets with its original pro-black political meaning, it is also used in non-political and humorous tweets”. 

With supporting examples, she believes that the term “has been stripped of both its gravity and its unifying aspect for black people and their conscious allies in the face of oppression”.

The racial sanitisation of the word

For Nicole Holliday, “the racial aspect of woke has been sanitised for the general public”. In early 2017, two months after the publication of her analysis, Holliday was incensed on Twitter to learn that ‘woke’ had just been voted “Slang Word of the Year 2016” by the American Dialect Society (pdf), an institution founded in 1889 bringing together linguists, lexicographers, and other grammarians. The word is now, in her words, “downright outdated when this year and this space are anything but woke”

Another linguist, Taylor Jones, also criticised the cultural appropriation of the term on this occasion, pointing out that almost all of the American Dialect Society scholars who have distinguished ‘woke’ are white. Jones, himself white but a specialist in African-American vernacular English, had posted this warning on Twitter a few months earlier:

“White folks, PSA [Public Service Announcement, Ed.]: ‘woke’ is a label people can give you. We can’t declare ourselves woke. Not how that works. Cuz usually, we ain’t”.

In April 2017, Jones’ growing exasperation with the reappropriation of the term ‘woke’ inspired this obituary on Instagram: “RIP. Woke 1963-2017”

What he sees as the death knell of the term is the sale of badges presented – unironically, a priori – as ‘woke’ in an American shop. For $1.50, you can buy an accessory displaying such benevolent thoughts as “Rise above hate”, “Full of love, free of gluten” or “Deep breaths”. Now reduced to a mere marketing pitch, this is woke well and truly “racially sanitised”, to re-quote Nicole Holliday.

The Woke and woke, acidic chronicle topics

In May 2017, Holliday’s analysis received renewed interest: she was quoted in an article in the New York Times, which used the word ‘woke’ 13 times to describe the evolution of the American audiovisual landscape. While pointing out the post-Trump victory emergence of programmes a priori cut out for the ‘resistance’ mentioned earlier, the article reminds us that the biggest audience successes of the time, such as The Big Bang Theory series, for example, are not particularly woke. Worse: “for every ‘woke’ TV show, there are seven sitcoms about whiteness”, says André Brock, an interviewed communications professor. The New York Times does not specify whether this estimate is sourced or a figure of speech, but the University of Michigan, where Brock teaches, immediately relayed his statement in the daily newspaper of reference, asking the question in all seriousness: “Is TV really as woke as we hope?”:

A week later, this column prompted another, much more acidic one, in the Boston Globe. Its author, journalist Alex Beam, shared it on Twitter, calling his text “grouchy” and using the hashtag #vivelalanguenouvelle (in French in the text). In this column, entitled Not woke and never will be, the author relays Nicole Holliday’s analysis before caricaturing what he thinks makes a person woke: “Do you use the word ‘intersectionality’ a lot, even if you aren’t exactly sure what it means? If yes, you are progressing well along your journey to wokefulness”. The conclusion of this column – which was published a few days before the Evergreen University scandal that we will discuss later – is clear: 

“The real purpose of woke is to divide the world into hyper-socially aware, self-appointed gatekeepers of language and behavior, and the rest of humanity”.

While the word ‘woke’ inspires articles, opinion pieces and other debates that take it further and further away from its African-American roots, the news continues to divide the country. From Trump’s controversial executive orders targeting Muslim countries, to the violent white supremacist demonstration in Charlottesville, to the protests by African-American athletes during the national anthem, racial injustice remains a major concern. On Twitter, #BlackLivesMatter is unsurprisingly in the top 10 hashtags used in 2017 in the US. If there is one sequence of the year that remains, almost four years later, the symbol – or even the caricature – of the woke question in terms of anti-racism, it is the one at Evergreen State College, a university in the state of Washington. 

The Evergeen scandal or the caricature of the woke

For several decades, this institution has symbolically denounced discrimination with its traditional ‘Day of Absence’. During this annual day, racialised students and staff are invited to be absent from campus to illustrate their importance within the institution. In 2017, with the election of Trump, activists at the university decided to mark the occasion by reversing the usual concept: this year, white individuals are asked to stay off campus during the Day of Absence. Bret Weinstein, a biology professor at Evergreen, sees this as a counterproductive “act of oppression” and opposes it, much to the dismay of student activists.

As the weeks go by, the climate becomes more tense. According to the university’s student newspaper, “The protests, which began on May 14, are the culmination of this, of years of documented and undocumented racist aggressions both from and within the institution of Evergreen”. Bret Weinstein becomes the target of student organisations: accused of racism and harassed, he is violently urged to resign. In June, Vice News reports in detail on the scandal in the documentary below:

Although the term ‘woke’ is not mentioned in the documentary, Bret Weinstein uses it on Twitter during the controversy. The woke movement is “broken”, says Weinstein, because “at this moment, many [people] are having a false and very dangerous epiphany”. An epiphany is “a moment of sudden and great revelation or realization”. According to Weinstein, the ‘awakening’ of his students is not without risk, because it is based on counter-truths. 

It is worth noting that in the tweet (signed by his brother) that Weinstein relays, the students who came to intimidate him are labelled “a lying mob” and “SJWs”, an acronym for ‘Social Justice Warriors’. This pejorative neologism is used, mainly by the far right, to refer to zealous social network progressives: over time, ‘woke’ has become its quasi-synonym for some, as we shall see later. 

Since the scandal, Bret Weinstein has left Evergreen under the weight of threats, pocketing a hefty compensation check in the process. He now hosts a podcast in which he relentlessly criticises the excesses of wokism. Last December, he spoke to Le Figaro about the affair that cost him his job. When asked about “the danger” (the term was coined by the Figaro journalist) of the woke movement, Weinstein denounced the desire to “start all over again from a simple blank page”, which in his opinion is “naive” and leads to “disaster”:  

“The chronic failure of this movement is to simplify everything. No nuance is possible”.

Towards the end of 2017, as luck would have it, it was another Weinstein (no family connection) who hit the headlines for infinitely more serious matters. Even more than racism, sexist and sexual violence will give a new impetus to ‘wokism’, one of the components of which is the public denunciation of injustice and inequality.

The #MeToo wave 

In October 2017, the powerful producer Harvey Weinstein was targeted by damning revelations from The New Yorker and then the New York Times that exposed his sexual predatory behaviour. These devastating investigations triggered the #MeToo movement, a viral phenomenon launched by a tweet from actress Alyssa Milano.

The #MeToo hashtag is a big hit, with nearly a million retweets in 48 hours according to Twitter, and over 12 million posts, comments and reactions in less than 24 hours on Facebook. 

A few months earlier, the Oxford Dictionary defined ‘woke’ as “aware of social and political issues, especially racism”. Since sexual and gender-based violence is clearly a “social and political issue”, the adjective is unsurprisingly seen as an appropriate one to call for post-Weinstein awareness, as in this tweet posted in the wake of Alyssa Milano’s appeal: 

She is addressing men, many of whom are now realising the extent of the phenomenon of violence against women. The fall of the Hollywood mogul brings in its wake those of other men of power accused of similar acts.

According to Google’s annual roundup, among the five most ‘searched’ personalities on the search engine in 2017, in addition to Weinstein, are former star host Matt Lauer and actor Kevin Spacey, also accused of sexual violence in the wake of the tyrannical producer. This succession of “swinging pigs”, to use the French-speaking counterpart of #MeToo, contributes to the extension of the domain of the woke struggle: that against toxic masculinity becomes an activist, political, media and cultural issue.

Woke inspires scriptwriters

In 2017, it is impossible for pop culture, and in particular comedy TV shows, to ignore the woke phenomenon; many writers find in it material that is quick to divert and parody. On 30 September, the inaugural episode of the 43rd season of NBC’s cult programme Saturday Night Live featured the Levi’s Woke sketch, which has now reached 5.4 million views on YouTube. This fake ad with Ryan Gosling imagines the famous jeans brand offering woke trousers, meaning “without a size, with a neutral and mixed style” so as not to hurt anyone’s feelings – even if it means being indisputably ugly:

A few weeks later, in the midst of the #MeToo wave, the Conan show confronts sexism and woke. In a sketch, the stereotype of the flirtatious construction worker who is a heavy load to women is reversed: we discover a specimen who is ‘awake’ and proud of it (“I’m woke!”) after having undergone “hours of sensitivity training and psychotherapy”. From his perch, he harangues the crowd. “Hey, you! You are not an object! You are a human being! And I respect your right not to be ogled!” this ‘Woke Construction Worker’ shouts at a woman in the audience:

The mutation of the word

Far from punchlines and other television parodies, woke is also becoming an increasingly unflattering label in intellectual debate. On 6 October 2017, the author Thomas Chatterton Williams wrote a harsh review in the New York Times of the collection of essays by Ta-Nehisi Coates, an activist and author accused by his detractors of “approaching the cause of blacks only through the prism of white supremacy”, according to Le Monde. For Chatterton Williams, Coates’ thinking “exacerbates the inequality it seeks to counter”. The future author of Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race develops: 

“This, more than anything, is what is so unsettling about Mr. Coates’s recent writing and the tenor of the leftist ‘woke’ discourse he epitomizes. Though it is not at all morally equivalent, it is nonetheless in sync with the toxic premises of white supremacism. Both sides eagerly reduce people to abstract color categories, all the while feeding off of and legitimizing each other (…)”.

Although used with some distance through the use of inverted commas, Chatterton Williams’ use of the term ‘woke’ provoked a reaction from linguist Nicole Holliday, who did not hide her preference for Coates’ theses: “Linguistic plot twist! ‘woke’ replacing ‘PC’ as insult for activists for transformative social change. ‘Woke’ died & came back as an insult”.

As 2017 draws to a close, the moral grandiloquence criticized in the television footage and the earlier TCW post gradually becomes inseparable from the name ‘woke’, much to the chagrin of those primarily concerned – the African-American community – from whom the term escapes more and more: “If non-black people can keep the word ‘woke’ out of their mouths in 2018, that’ll be grand”, tweeted an influential British activist linked to the Black Lives Matter movement at the end of December 2017.

A few weeks later, at the end of February 2018, the mutation of the word is discussed on an American late show. John McWhorter, an African-American professor of linguistics at Columbia University, is a guest on Stephen Colbert’s Late Show (video below). Presenter of the Lexicon Valley podcast, of which Colbert declares himself to be a “big fan”, McWhorter uses the example of the word ‘woke’ to highlight the perpetual and rapid fluctuations of language:

“When I first learned of the word woke, it was still the coolest thing, like “you are woke to the complexities and injustices of society”, it was the kind of cool word that smelled roughly of marijuana and lavender. And then about two seconds later, a certain kind of person started sneering, “oh, is that person woke?”, and it’s at the point where ‘woke’ has been used in quotation marks in many circles as the word “perky””

“Now ‘woke’ is a word that people on a certain side of the political spectrum are throwing at other people, the idea being that you’re a smug person who thinks that your views are the ones that you think come from on high believe their opinions are superior. That has happened during the time that a certain person became president [Trump] and about six months before that. I found it fascinating. The word ‘woke’ will be all but unusable within ten years”, predicted McWhorter, who has since become one of the critical intellectual figures of wokism. Three years on from his prediction, one would be tempted to say that the linguist may even have overestimated the longevity of the term’s relevance, as we shall see in the next episode of this series. To be continued.


→ 1. Editorial2. The origins (XXth - 2017)3. The cultural appropriation of a polysemous word4. The decline (2018 - 2021)
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