#StayWoke has become a paper-thin catchphrase that’s largely lost the gravity of the hard shifts in consciousness the phrase has come to evoke or refer to. But this doesn’t mean those shifts have stopped happening.
While some people are too grown-up or take themselves too seriously to engage with slang terms, the Oxford English Dictionary has officially added the word “woke” to its pages. It’s defined as “alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice”, or (more broadly) politically and culturally aware. Since the word has gone mainstream, the more specific modern meaning is steeped in the Black Lives Matter movement, popularised by social media, and made prominent by the ongoing series of racially targeted police shootings in the USA.
It’s significant that ‘woke’ is tethered to political and social landscapes, as a word and concept. Given the power of language and the necessity of its evolution, this term has come about because our society desperately needed it to. Conversations around wokeness need to happen, and they need to be critically robust – from all sides: From the battle to be the most woke between the woke authorities and the woke police on social media to those at the very beginning of their political awakening who slip up, get called out, torn apart, dragged and then never venture an opinion again.
The roots of the word date back. Fiona McPherson of the Oxford English Dictionary told Dazed Digital that ‘woke’, with its current meaning, has a history in Black American slang that dates back to the 60s. Here’s why it’s really not progressive to consider yourself beyond slang, new words and evolving language: These terms are essential for facilitating relevant, critical conversations.
Wokeness is an ongoing process, I think, even for the very woke. Conversations about the dynamic state of wokeness, about the triumphs and pitfalls of call-out culture, about the power of punching up when shaming people abusing positions of power – these conversations need to happen.
Discussions about the porous boundaries between becoming woke, being woke, staying woke, being selectively woke, not being woke enough – need to happen. At which level does this become a tyranny and at which level is this indispensable to radical progress? There’s substance enough here (in the word and concept of woke) to unpack the complexities of what it means to live deliberately as a culturally/politically aware person. New, evolving language is what makes this possible.