Jack Dorsey

What It Really Means to Be “Woke”

White appropriation of Black culture is nothing new. But when white marketers lay claim to a politically charged word used to describe those of us doing the work, we have a problem.

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“The burden of the brutalized is not to comfort the bystander … If you have a critique for the resistance, for our resistance, then you better have an established record of critique of our oppresion. If you have no interest in equal rights for Black people then do not make suggestions to those who do. Sit down,” said Grey’s Anatomy actor and activist Jesse Williams, as he accepted BET’s Humanitarian Award during the network’s awards show on Sunday, June 26. Within seconds of his instantly iconic speech about race, Williams—who recently executive-produced BET’s documentary Stay Woke: The Black Lives Matter Movement (which premiered in May)—reaffirmed his status as the “Wokest Bae.”

What does it mean to be woke? And can white people be “woke,” too? Because last week, writer Soraya N. McDonald argued that A-list actor-producer Brad Pitt is not only woke, but the wokest man in Hollywood (more than Jesse—really?) because he uses his status—and his production company Plan B—to create space for artists of color, with such films as 12 Years a Slave, Selma, and the upcoming film Moonlight. But how about Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who earlier this month wore a Twitter-branded #StayWoke T-shirt during a Code Conference conversation with Black Lives Matter activist Deray McKesson? Twitter has determinedly remained politically neutral, and yet, there he sat, donning his branded T-shirt—that raised more than a few eyebrows. Is Dorsey a white guy publicly demonstrating his social and political consciousness, or just another cultural appropriator, trying to brand a politically charged word?

There is nothing new about white people appropriating black culture—music, fashion, beauty, language. We’ve seen this happen well before Elvis Presley “launched” rock-n-roll; most recently, we’ve endured Miley Cyrus’s “black” phase, Kim Kardashian’s boxer braids. Rachel Dolezal. And our idiomatic phrases have been co-opted and repackaged: White people are twerking, referring to one another as each other’s “bae,” and claiming this and that is “on fleek.” And the nature of internet virality ensures that black user-generated content will more quickly infiltrate mainstream white media. Once these words enter the white domain, they’ve reached their peak—many use these words without acknowledging their origin, or even understanding its background or context.

But “woke” is in a class by itself—it’s a powerful, political, distinctly Black word. When white people brand it, it triviliazes it, and takes its power away. To wit: When a journalist asked Dorsey to define “woke,” he said, it’s “being awake, and eyes wide open around what’s happening in the world. We saw that in Ferguson, and what I didn’t really consider before I got there, that I saw on the ground, is what you see on the television screen versus what’s actually happening behind the camera. It was just amazing for me to see, especially at night, the press running around West Florissant, and how they were telling the stories, and how protesters were having conversations with them about what stories they were telling, and where the focus was, and the focus inappropriately on the wrong things. And to me, that’s when I really first saw this phrase in action—was making sure that we’re telling our story, and we’re telling what’s on the ground, and we saw it live through Twitter.” And then he told the crowd that they would be receiving a free #StayWoke Twitter-logo T-shirt. If it were up to Dorsey, woke would be the new brand slogan for a “politically neutral” social-media platform.

The virtual community of Black Twitter has been engaged in a very real and ongoing conversation about the myth of post-racial America, how deeply woven racism is into American culture, and from here hashtags like #ICantBreathe, #StayMadAbby, #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, and #StayWoke emerged. When woke is used by non-black people, it can not only use its potency; it can lose its message because there’s confusion or misinformation about how the word should be used. Even Time magazine got it wrong when they used “Stay Woke” to alert their readers on the (fake) long-awaited album release of Frank Ocean.

So what does it mean to be “woke,” then?

Writer Charles Pullium-Moore at Fusion, outlines the history of the word and traces its first use to Erykah Badu’s 2008 song “Master Teacher.” In 2011 the word had gained popularity by the socially conscious black millennials, activists, and scholars. The term slowly entered mainstream media since it has been linked to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which gained traction in 2012 after the news that George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin. Twitter users grabbed the #StayWoke hashtag to keep others up to date about systemic racism, the industrial prison complex, and police brutality.

Thus initially the word “woke” was used to look beyond the portrayed narrative of black people in the media, and, when necessary, to check your own (white) privilege. The trickle-down effect of black slang ensures that the media and corporate entities are quick to jump on the latest hashtags in order to feign cultural relevance. In January, woke reached the number 5 spot in MTV’s top ten list of teen slang words: “You need to read some Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Or listen to some Beyoncé. Stay woke, dude.” Jezebel launched its “How Woke Are You” quiz where you can test your consciousness with questions such as “How familiar are you with current events and social issues,” “Are you a feminist,” and “Who is bae?”

White allies have used the word to proudly demonstrate that they are indeed woke by our society’s standards. Well-intentioned public figures such as actors Penn Badgley and Matt McGorry have shown that they’re socially conscious and aware, thus they’re being crowned woke baes. The musician Macklemore created an eight-minute track where he raps about his white privilege and details his learning curve on social and racial injustice. Complex chose four female celebrity crushes who are woke, because they’re either “dismantling the patriarchy or protesting police brutality”.

The fight against white supremacy became neatly packaged in a short hashtag. Woke has been repackaged and separated from its context over and over again. Thus by stating that you’re woke, you’re draped in a cloak of social consciousness. Woke then becomes a kind of shorthand, an easy, affordable character attribute. This wrings, because racism of course doesn’t magically disappear when you publicly call out other people, or publicly announce that you’re woke.

The use of woke is cultural appropriation at its finest. Woke has been formed amid the black struggle and fight against the racial injustices in Ferguson, Sanford, Baltimore, and Flint. The implication of woke becomes more prominent since we’re currently living in a difficult time: from the economic crisis, racism, terrorism, police brutality, the fight for transgender rights, to the U.S. presidential election. There are weekly headlines when it comes to police-profiling or a presidential candidate who once again has a speech filled with microaggressions and racism. Woke implies that you’re also fighting against prejudice and white supremacy. It means that you’re being aware of racial injustice or prejudice; you’re making a conscious choice to act. But it still connotes blackness.

Instead of calling out others, white allies should center, listen, and learn from those who’re being oppressed. You can use your privilege to start the discussion but ensure that there’s room for the oppressed to speak out.  

Does it really matter that woke has mostly lost its political connotations and that it’s now often used in a different context?  It’s almost a natural occurrence that words with roots in the black community are being used and warped by mainstream culture. The etymology of the word has changed in the span of four years. The word has transformed from being a social and political statement; to being overused by mainstream media, white and black allies alike; to subtly call out overeager white allies; and now the hashtag #staywoke has turned into a joke—see the parody account of Bill Nye who tweeted: “if u could look at earth from 65 million light-years away, u would see dinosaurs, stay woke.”

The concept of woke is ever changing. It has initially shone a light on the subtle elements of pernicious racism that’s invisible tangled in American culture. Despite its changes, its true meaning will always be anchored in America’s culture lexicon.


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