What is ‘woke’?
Article first appeared in the Portugal Resident.
When it comes to the 21st century and the ever-evolving world that we are all part of, very few terms and ideologies in recent years have caused such political, educational, and cultural debates as the introduction of the term ‘woke’.
The term ‘woke’ is now used daily in mainstream vocabulary. However, a lot of people are still not clear about the meaning behind the actual word. The majority believe it to be a sign of awareness and openness to social issues, whilst others use the term as a scathing insult. The media uses and brandishes the term daily, with equally positive and negative connotations, according to the political stance of the paper.
As educationalists and parents, no matter what our own political standpoint, it is important to be informed about the daily use of this new term, to understand its origin and to consider its impact within today’s society.
What does ‘being woke’ mean, or is intended to mean, and how is one word able to provoke such heated and controversial comments?
As we say in school, let’s look up its definition in the oracle – the Oxford English Dictionary. The Oxford English Dictionary gave this statement in 2017 against public backlash for being too political with its inclusion of the word ‘woke’.
Oxford English Dictionary – woke, adjective: Originally: well-informed, up-to-date. Now chiefly: alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice; frequently in stay woke.
“By the mid-20th century,” says the Oxford English Dictionary, “woke had been extended figuratively to refer to being ‘aware’ or ‘well informed’ in a political or cultural sense.” Therefore, one can interpret being aware … knowing what’s going on in the community (related to racism and social injustice).
Woke is increasingly used in relation to social issues, and the media increasingly uses the term with relation to any issues regarding Black Lives Matter.
This is related to the origin of the word, which has, in fact, been around for much longer than most people realise. It began as a slang term in the 1960s in Harlem, an area of New York, at the time heavily populated by African Americans, and was used in everyday speech.
Harlem author William Melvin Kelley is attributed as the first writer to use the word ‘woke’ in 1962 in the New York Times with his essay ‘If You’re Woke You Dig It’.
Many believe that its association with social injustice can be traced back to the release of the 2008 song ‘Master Teacher’ by Erykah Badu:
Even if yo baby ain’t got no money
To support ya baby, you
(I stay woke)
Even when the preacher tell you some lies
And cheatin on ya mama, you stay woke
(I stay woke)
Even though you go through struggle and strife
To keep a healthy life, I stay woke
(I stay woke)
Everybody knows a black or a white there’s creatures
in every shape and size
(I stay woke)
The term ‘stay woke’ began to be widely used within the black community by those who questioned their perceived place in society and strove to improve this perception.
Its association with the Black Lives Matter movement was cemented in 2014 after the shooting of Michael Brown in Missouri. The word ‘woke’ was now firmly associated with Black Lives Matter and social action, as activists made world headlines by encouraging people to ‘stay woke’.
A lot has been made in the media of the term ‘being woke’ and the use of phrases such as the woke brigade, the woke generation, woke culture, not being woke enough, the woke police and woke education.
Education has been brought into the ‘woke’ debate, especially in the United States, where schools have been heavily criticised for what some believe to be politically biased woke teaching. In recent months, public schools in the United Kingdom have been drawn into the ‘woke’ debate, with parents and key figures in the media questioning what is being taught to their children.
As parents and educators, it is important to make ourselves aware of current broader issues whilst, at the same time, ensuring that young minds are exposed to a wide diversity of views and encouraging debate, discussion, informed objective knowledge and understanding to draw their own conclusions.
“The goal of education is the advancement of knowledge and the dissemination of truth”
– John Fitzgerald Kennedy
“The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education”
– Martin Luther King