How “Woke” Became a Slur

By Joshua Adams May 05, 2021

James Baldwin wrote a piece in The New York Times entitled “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?” In the text, Baldwin explored how Black people used language as a tool to adapt and survive the terrible experience of American slavery. Baldwin wrote, "There was a moment, in time, and in this place, when my brother, or my mother, or my father, or my sister, had to convey to me, for example, the danger in which I was standing from the white man standing just behind me, and to convey this with a speed, and in a language, that the white man could not possibly understand, and that, indeed, he cannot understand, until today.”

The slave experience birthed the political nature of Black speech- naming systems of oppression in order to avoid, subvert and eventually dismantle them. Black people needed to be vigilant and have a deep understanding of their social conditions in order to navigate them. In essence, they needed to be “woke.”

Though it has become a buzzword in pop culture and politics, woke has been seen in many parts of Black culture- from Marcus Garvey telling Africa and its global diaspora to “Wake up!”, to Erykah Badu or Childish Gambino using it in a song, to the Hulu series called “Woke”, to its associations with the Black Lives Matter movement. African Americans have also used woke playfully, whether in memes about using your “third-eye” or satirical characters like “Conspiracy Brother” to poke fun at people who take social and historical awareness to the extreme.

Yet, like many words, the meaning of woke has moved away from its origin over time- in some ways that are problematic. Now woke has come to mean knowledge of and virtual signaling about essentially any social justice issue. deandre a. miles-hercules, a sociocultural linguistics grad student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, argues that the first layer of woke’s misappropriation comes from a counterintuitive place: progressives – particularly, but not only- white progressives.  

“Like many terms that have become popular and have broad purchase in African American communities, it has been appropriated by people who consider themselves allies,” said miles-hercules. “Conservatives then took it and weaponized it as a way to demonize people who were interested in social justice, equity and freedom.”


Conservatives have certainly pounced on woke. Commentators, like Megyn Kelly, have called mainstream media like The New York Times and the Oscars “woke media.” Congressional Republicans have condemned and threatened “woke corporations”, and Senator Tim Scott has said that “Woke supremacy is as bad as white supremacy.” On Twitter, some users have started to use woke as a noun, which sounds very awkward within the rules of African American Vernacular English. 

Meredith D. Clark, an assistant professor in the Department of Media Studies at University of Virginia, argues that the misuse of woke is a combination of an elite class taking the word and making it toxic to serve their own purposes; and in some cases, a not-so-subtle form of anti-Blackness.

“It is a quick way to signal to others that whatever those people over there are saying is not real, not substantial, this is something that’s easily dismissed, you shouldn’t pay attention to it,” said Clark. “And that is the same sort of treatment that has been reinforced over and over again through anti-Black policies and social practices used to try to cement our position at the bottom of society.” 

Though many have stripped woke of its original meaning, Aerielle M. Allen, a Postdoctoral Fellow in psychology at NYU, said that the word has had the potential to unite different communities and fulfill half of its mission, which is to raise awareness.

“We [Black people] are constantly given this burden of being so knowledgeable and everyone else can fly by in the nostalgia of ignorance, so I do think it should be something that can be used in other communities,” said Allen. “But if you are going to use the term for whatever your social justice purpose is, know its origins. Recognize that and allow it to bleed into the other issues you want to use ‘woke’ for.” 

Without considering the bad-faith arguments against wokeness, the scholars agree that social awareness needs to be tied to action. This means less diversity and inclusion statements, and instead, more work to dismantle systems of oppression. A critique that miles-hercules agrees with, is that too often the "woke" among us can use inaccessible language when talking about historical and cultural issues.

“When I come into contact with a Black high schooler, I have to be able to talk to them in a way that is comprehensible about our history, systems of oppression, identity, how beautiful Black language and culture is- I have to take all my fancy degrees and to distill that in a way that is useful,” said miles-hercules.

Now that woke has become a catch-all pejorative used by folks across the political spectrum, can it be “reclaimed”? 

“Reclamation is tricky. It can be a way of coping with the kinds of co-optation and appropriation that we know is inevitable over the last century,” miles-hercules said. “But Black people are hip to the game and are used to things that come out of our language and culture being weaponized against us.”

Allen believes this is an opportune time to take back the word. Since misuse of Black language will always happen, she offers a point of caution to those who stop using it simply because it has been co-opted.

“It just means that several months from now, we coin another term and we put movement, energy, blood, sweat and tears into it, but throw it away once we feel that it’s been co-opted,” said Allen. “We can’t keep extending our energy towards recreating the same things.  

Clark argues that there is nothing to reclaim. She draws the analogy to translation- just because an English speaker gives a French, Arabic or Igbo word a new meaning, doesn’t mean the native speakers need to accept it.

“So there’s nothing for us to take back from them, it’s up to them to figure out what it is that they don’t want named and why [they] are willing to co-opt our term in order to keep it from being named,” said Clark.

Joshua Adams is a Staff Writer for Colorlines. He’s a writer,  journalist and educator from the south side of Chicago. You can follow him @JournoJoshua