[Series] What is woke? 4. The decline


Reclaimed by large companies, criticised as much by satirical broadcasts as by a former Democratic president, confiscated by the far right: the term woke is now a minefield.

Covering the first year of Donald Trump’s mandate, the previous episode of this series ended with one observation: that of its mutation following its cultural appropriation.

Escaped from the African-American vernacular and now mainstream, woke in 2017 was no longer an expression for insiders, but a catch-all label that found itself between a rock and a hard place: “the left uses it as a shorthand for political progressiveness, and the right as a denigration of leftist culture”, summed up Vox at the end of 2020. Presenting woke as necessarily laudatory (or even neutral) in the mouth of a Democrat would however be reductive, since “Even on the left, the idea of being ‘woke’ can be a double-edged sword, often used to suggest an aggressive, performative take on progressive politics that only makes things worse”, the article continues.

A source of criticism and good jokes

The Daily Show, the satirical show of the Comedy Central channel, illustrated this criticism in February 2018 via a video posted on YouTube entitled “How woke is too woke?”. Host Trevor Noah, a South African comedian who grew up in an apartheid-torn country, states:

“sometimes people are so woke that they undermine what they were trying to do in the first place”

Noah began his presentation, which can be seen above, with an anecdote: during a walk with friends (all white), a man shouted “hey, you monkey!” at them. Immediately, one of the host’s comrades showed him compassion in the face of the insult, inspiring Noah to ask “how do you know he was talking to me?”. After this example of racist subconsciousness masked as benevolence (some would call it a micro-aggression), the host went on to criticise a Democrat elected official from the Kennedy clan. After a speech in support of young illegal immigrants who had grown up in the United States, this Congressman had addressed them in Spanish… even though the majority of them spoke perfect English. Trevor Noah saw it as a combination of condescension and ‘accidental prejudice’

If this Daily Show video is political editorial with a few good jokes, the opposite recipe (humour tinged with politics) does not spare the Woke, as illustrated by a sketch broadcast in the summer of 2018 that has gone viral online – over 23 million views on Facebook alone. Broadcast in the U.K on BBC One’s Tracey Breaks the News (below), it imagines a talk group “for people so woke that it’s totally impossible for them to have fun” :

A facilitator mentors young progressives “who ruin their lives by being too virtuous”, like one newcomer for whom “it all started with little things, like signing an online petition, or going to a march”. “Before I knew it, I was writing to the Guardian about LGBT representation in the Harry Potter books”, he confessed to his fellow students who were outraged by (among other things) the “problematic” Friends series. The staging of the sketch evokes meetings of people suffering from addictions (such as Alcoholics Anonymous) as much as those of cult survivors. This pseudo-religious aspect is one of the criticisms levelled at wokism, described by several intellectuals as a new belief in a secularised world.

Woke, a new religion?

In an article entitled America’s New Religions, published in December 2018 in New York Magazine, conservative blogger (and LGBT movement figure) Andrew Sullivan parallels the exuberant faith of both sides of the US political spectrum. On the right, “We have the cult of Trump, a demigod who, among his worshippers, can do no wrong”. On the left, “the cult of social justice, a religion whose followers [note that the term used is ‘follower’, the same as for a subscriber on Twitter, Ed.] show the same zeal as any born-again Evangelical”. Sullivan illustrates this comparison with a play on words by referring to “the young adherents of the Great Awokening”.

The Swiss historian Olivier Moos, a research fellow at the Religioscope Institute, used this as the title of a study published at the end of 2020 entitled The Great Awokening – Réveil militant, Justice Sociale et Religion [Militant Revival, Social Justice and Religion, Ed.] He explains this formulation as follows:

“A cultural moment characterised by a renewal of fervour and mobilisation, based on a rejection of liberal norms deemed sterile and oppressive in favour of a new liberating moral vigour, and more or less related to the religious revivals that have punctuated the history of North American Protestantism since the 18th century, the period of the first Great Awakening (1730-1760)”.

This analogy allows Sullivan to view ‘cancel culture’ and the recognition of privilege – militant practices associated with the woke movement – as modernized religious rites:

“Like the Christians after the Middle Ages, [the woke] punish heresy by banishing sinners from society or imposing public humiliation on them, and offer the possibility of redemption through careful public confessions of their sins. Social justice theory requires the recognition of white privilege in a way that is strikingly reminiscent of the recognition of original sin. A Christian is born again; an activist becomes woke”.

In July 2020, Sullivan was dropped from New York Magazine. “Attacking, and even mocking, critical theory’s ideas and methods [“the woke agenda”, as he later calls it, Ed.] as I have done continually in this space, is therefore out of sync with the values of Vox Media [the publisher of NY Mag, Ed.], Sullivan wrote in justification of his ouster. Since his departure, the author has launched his newsletter while continuing to mock wokism on Twitter.

Woke-washing: when capitalism turns to woke

In a country whose motto “In God We Trust” appears on every dollar note, capitalism and religion go hand in hand, and the term woke soon makes an appearance in analyses of corporate strategy.

In February 2018, at a time when several major American brands announced progressive measures (support for the LGBT cause, disengagement from the gun lobby, etc.), the New York Times published an article entitled The Rise of Woke Capital. Its author, Ross Douthat, believes that there are two ways of analysing this trend: either by welcoming a growing awareness of societal issues by companies, or by seeing it as a decoy to divert the attention of activists while inequalities, particularly wage inequalities, persist. “In fact, these are not two different stories: just two aspects of the same story”, says the journalist, who sees in this ‘woke capitalism’ a form of bought peace, a diversion:

“A certain kind of virtue-signaling on progressive social causes, a certain degree of performative wokeness, is offered to liberalism and the activist left pre-emptively, in the hopes that having corporate America take their side in the culture wars will blunt efforts to tax or regulate our new monopolies too heavily”

After greenwashing, which Wikipedia defines as a form of marketing spin in which green PR (green values) and green marketing are deceptively used to persuade the public that an organization’s products, aims and policies are environmentally friendly, now comes woke-washing. The occurrence now counts 37,100 results on Google. 

Such a practice could hardly escape satire: in February 2019, Stephen Colbert’s Late Show came up with ersatz (of the real) Gillette commercials, after the famous razor brand released an ad riding the #MeToo wave to denounce toxic masculinity, far from the macho image associated with the brand. While admitting to being sensitised by the Gillette ad, Colbert wonders: 

“Are our public institutions so weak that we need to be taught a moral lesson by razor companies? Because, first it’s Gillette, and next thing you know every company’s going to try to jump on the  woke bandwagon!” 

This is followed by a parody of a company selling ice scrapers to de-ice windscreens, whose original slogan “Fight Frost” is replaced by “Scrape away toxic masculinity!”.

Popularised in 2018,  the phrase “Get Woke go broke” is summed up by Know your meme as “the sentiment that companies who embrace political correctness or cave to demands of social justice activists will suffer financially as a result”. In early 2020, an article by the UK’s Chartered Institute of Marketing used the phrase in its title: “When brands go woke, do they go broke?”.

“Woke is, or has become, a politically charged term, as much about lifestyle criticism as it is about a real set of values”, says the analysis, which ultimately questions the notion of corporate social responsibility, or at least the way it can be presented to customers:

“Brands should make a distinction between being woke and having a mission, as it is increasingly clear that potential employees or customers value those who make positive choices. However, not all companies can be mission-driven, and those that seek to create a mission that is contrary to a brand’s history must be aware of the risks involved (…)”

In the case of Gillette – whose famous ‘woke’ advert published on YouTube at the beginning of 2019 has now reached 36 million views, but with 1.6 million negative reactions and half as many ‘likes’ – this image change did not have the desired effect on sales: a few months after the campaign, the value of the brand was written down by its parent company by 8 billion dollars. To justify this, the company pointed to lower shaving frequencies, due to a taste for beards.

Resistance to woke in the first degree

Criticised for its excessive nature, compared to a new intransigent religion, and reclaimed by marketing: who could still use the term woke in a positive and first degree way in 2018? There are a few examples from the African-American community, as if in a last-ditch attempt to reappropriate a now overused term. 

Thus in June 2018 the rapper Meek Mill released the committed track Stay Woke denouncing, alongside R&B singer Miguel, the discrimination of the American judicial system by referring to the Black Lives Matter movement. The song was unveiled on the stage of the BET Awards (annual ceremony organised by the Black Entertainment Television channel). The theatrical production, with a large number of extras, denounced police violence and the mass incarceration of African-Americans:

Although its live performance was critically acclaimed, Stay Woke (11 million views on YouTube for its audio version) was not a commercial success.

On the political side, and in the run-up to the 2020 presidential campaign, another sincere use of the term woke was embodied in late 2018 in the BeWoke initiative. This online platform aims to mobilise young black voters in the run-up to future elections, encouraging them to register at polling stations. Without being overtly anti-Trump, it is indeed to counter the re-election of the Republican billionaire that the site intends to explain to “black Generation Z and Millenial voters” – i.e those under 35 – “the meaning, history and purpose of civic participation as part of social justice”

Several podcasts and other video programmes were produced, with guests from the worlds of celebrity (Jamie Foxx, Kim Kardashian, or politics (Democrats Pete Buttigieg and Maxine Waters). But more than two years after the launch of BeWoke, despite Trump’s defeat, the results are not very encouraging for the initiative. In terms of audience, the numbers are not great: the video above, for example, has only about 20 views on YouTube, while the Twitter account has only attracted about 1,000 followers, despite a relatively large influence on Instagram (22.1K followers). 

But beyond these statistics, it is above all the results of the election that have a taste of failure for BeWoke. In 2020, 12% of African-American voters voted for Trump, compared to 8% four years ago. “This figure is all the more significant as the turnout of this electorate, which represents 12% of the population, should be much higher than in 2016”, explains Le Monde.

Criticism comes from within 

In August 2019, African-American feminist Loretta Ross signed a post in the New York Times entitled “I’m a Black Feminist. I think call-out culture is toxic”. This reproductive justice activist, whom no one would suspect of conservatism, embodies a critique of certain woke practices that comes from within (from the ‘left’).

In October 2019, the use of the term by the first black president of the United States will be remembered as a critical look at the woke, as Obama also warned activists against self-righteous excess at his foundation’s annual summit in Chicago: 

“This idea of purity and never being compromised, always being politically ‘woke’ and all that stuff, you should get over that quickly… The world is messy, there are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids, end even, you know, share some things with you”

Less than a year later, in July 2020, this left-wing concern about the excesses of the new progressive militant movements was expressed in an article that had an international impact. Alongside Loretta Ross, but also Noam Chomsky, Salman Rushie and Thomas Chatterton Williams, nearly 150 intellectuals co-signed this text published in Harper’s Magazine. If the term woke is not used in this article, which seems to target the excesses of what it designates (as TCW summarises very well in the quote below), it is certainly not by chance.

“Linguistic purgatory”

Woke has acquired a doubly pejorative connotation: first, for those designated by the label, and second, for those who use it critically, quick to be categorised as ‘far-right’. As African-American author Damon Young wrote in the New York Times (“In Defence of ‘Woke'”) in November 2019:

“Like ‘virtue-signaling’ and ‘social justice warrior’, woke now says more about the political views of the person using it than about its purpose”

And he couldn’t have put it better, since in a Guardian post entitled “The anti-woke backlash is no joke – and progressives are going to lose if they don’t wise up”, reporter Ellie Mae O ‘ Hagan asserts that all those on the left who are alarmed at some of the woke excesses “should ask themselves why they are parroting arguments that are largely advanced by the far-right”.

If the word is thus increasingly used in a pejorative way by conservative or critical speakers, if it is even considered (at least by some) as an element that automatically discredits the word of the one who uses it, it still remains, to some extent, used in the first degree in a way that could be described as ‘neutral’. And even if it is increasingly rare, one of these first-degree uses is self-designation.

A case on which Young does not hesitate to ironise:

Woke floats in the linguistic purgatory of terms coined by us [African-Americans] that can no longer be said unironically, levitating next to “swag” and “twerk” in the “Words Ruined by White People” ether. What was a compliment just a few years ago has become, at best, an eye roll. If a stranger at a dinner party is introduced — or introduces himself — as woke, I know that I’ll need some whiskey before talking to him.”

A use that is found, notably in militant circles, to designate (still in a relatively pejorative way) the excessive zeal of certain militants. A sort of race to militant purity (which is also beginning to be decried in France) that Loretta Ross has always denounced:

Is this semantic shift the result of the pejorative use of the term by the conservatives, which has ended up ‘contaminating’ the woke camp, or is it the result of an accumulation of excesses in the practice of ‘call-out’ which has ended up pushing some woke to denounce these excesses of zeal via this term? Hard to say. Perhaps both? 

The polysemy of woke is logically reflected in the term ‘anti-woke’, which is aimed as much at the disenchanted-with-the-left as at the genuine reactionaries (who are to be found jumbled up in the very young FAIR organisation). This guilt by association partly explains the reconfiguration of the Anglophone media landscape in recent years. 

The success of the anti-woke?

Tired of being caricatured as fascist henchmen/women – including by some of their colleagues – for their opinions on anti-racism or trans activism, many ‘anti-woke’ journalists with a certain audience on social networks have resigned from their established media. They include Andrew Sullivan (ex-New York Magazine), Bari Weiss (ex-New York Times), Suzanne Moore (ex-Guardian), Glenn Greenwald (ex-The Intercept), Matthew Yglesias (ex-Vox), among others, now all active on Substack. This platform founded in 2018 allows authors to publish newsletters accessible by subscription. 

This status as the ‘promised land of the anti-woke’ is attracting a lot of criticism to the platform, to which Substack user Fredrik deBoer responded in a post pointing to the growing homogeneity of mainstream media ideology as a reason for the success of this new pool of ‘discordant’ voices. This intellectual, regularly published by the Washington Post, among others, wonders:

“The vast majority of the country [U.S] is not woke, including the vast majority of women and people of color. How could it possibly be healthy for the entire media industry to be captured by any single niche political movement, let alone one that nobody likes? Why does no one in media seem willing to have an honest, uncomfortable conversation about the near-total takeover of their industry by a fringe ideology?”

According to deBoer and his peers, if the intellectual posture of the ‘anti-woke’ (which also flourishes on sites such as UnHerd or New Discourses) is so successful, the responsibility lies with the uniformity of the traditional newsrooms. However, this analysis completely overlooks the polarisation of the American media, which has been underway for years with the rise of conservative media (Fox News, New York Post) that can hardly be described as woke, let alone ‘fringe’.

After woke-washing, should we expect anti-woke-washing in the next few years if the exodus of free writers and their readership seriously threatens the already fragile revenues of certain media? Having tripled its number of subscribers during the Trump presidency to reach 7.5 million by the end of 2020, the New York Times, caricatured as a ‘woke chapel’ by its critics, puts this hypothesis into perspective.

The term ‘anti-woke’ would deserve a dedicated article, as its meaning and uses are also complex. As proof, this recent tweet from Thomas Chatterton Williams, a frequent critic of the excesses of wokism and who could easily be described as anti-woke. TCW insists on the difference between ‘being anti-woke’ and ‘not being woke’ and on the trap of anti-wokeism:

We have come to the (temporary?) end of this series attempting to better understand the term ‘woke’ and its Anglo-Saxon trajectory. If the initial objective – to recall its history, its evolutions and stakes – seems to have been achieved, to ‘definitively define’ a term with so many facets and connotations remains illusory. It is now tempting to ‘put woke to rest’ in view of the risks it poses to those who use it (whether they are supporters or critics). Who in either camp would appreciate being equated with a sectarian fanatic (by using it at face value) or a dangerous neo-fascist (by using it to criticise or mock)?

Whatever the fate of the term, woke is already assured of television posterity. In September 2020, just after a summer marked by the revival of the Black Lives Matter movement, the subscription video-on-demand service Hulu unveiled a new series entitled…Woke. Created by two African-American writers (Keith Knight and Marshall Todd), it tells the story of how a San Francisco cartoonist on the verge of mainstream success ‘sabotages’ his career by becoming more politically engaged. The artist in question, although black, did not pay much attention to the racism of American society until he was the victim of police violence. This incident made him see the world differently:

The eight-part series has been fairly well received by the American press, although some critics have questioned the relevance of Woke given the socio-political climate in the US at the time of its broadcast. “It probably seemed more provocative when it was being developed a couple of years ago, but in the wake of nationwide racial justice protests following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police officers (…), it’s a series that feels out of time”, writes African-American critic Tambay Obenson on Indiewire, who ultimately criticizes the series for not being… woke enough. Despite these reservations, the series has been renewed for a second season: we haven’t finished reading and hearing the ‘w-word’.


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