Douglas Andrews / February 22, 2023

Defining Wokeness Down

The once meaningful word “woke” has been appropriated from urban blacks by preening white leftists.

The Left wrecks everything it touches. So says conservative author and thinker Dennis Prager, and he’s right. Art, music, journalism, sports, comedy, education, medicine, movies, the military, the Boy Scouts, free speech, social media, voting — everything.

And now, true to form, the Left has gone and wrecked the word “woke.”

“Republicans use ‘wokeism’ to attack left — but struggle to define it,” sneers the Washington Post’s sour-grapes headline, which leads into an article all about the Rascally Right’s weaponization of “woke.”

“Republican politicians and voters alike have differing definitions of wokeism,” the Post’s scriveners tell us, “and some struggle to define it at all. The rallying cry has recently been used to denounce everything from climate change policies and socially responsible investing to transgender rights, critical race theory and the Black Lives Matter movement.”

So the Post thinks the Right, in its failure to define “woke” with Websterian precision all across the board, has forfeited its right to use the term, forfeited its right to deploy it against the Left as a means of derision. To which we say: Good luck with that.

Here, we’re reminded of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous rejoinder when asked during a landmark obscenity case about his definition of hardcore pornography. “I know it when I see it,” he said.

Similarly, we know “woke” when we see it.

“Woke,” we know, is the past participle of “wake.” But it’s much more than that. Just ask Merriam-Webster, which added this version of the term in 2017:

Woke is now defined in this dictionary as “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice),” and identified as U.S. slang. It originated in African American English and gained more widespread use beginning in 2014 as part of the Black Lives Matter movement. By the end of that same decade it was also being applied by some as a general pejorative for anyone who is or appears to be politically left-leaning.

We also know that it comes from the black community, perhaps from back in 1938, when blues singer Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter helped popularize the term in his protest song, “The Scottsboro Boys.” In it, as the Post reports, “He urges Black America to ‘stay woke’ to social and political injustice as well as physical violence.” Or maybe it was New York City novelist William Melvin Kelley, who some credit with putting the term in print in 1962.

But where blacks have long used the term as a rallying cry against racial injustice and discrimination, the Left latched onto it more recently and began using it culturally appropriating it to denote progressive activism in the fight against supposed systemic injustices more broadly. So while we suspect Rosa Parks was “woke” when she refused to get to the back of the bus, and John Lewis was woke when he got his head split open on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, we now have to make room for woke “transgender” activists. Because, you know, a man’s right to relieve himself in a girl’s bathroom is the civil rights struggle of our time.

“Wokeness is a problem” said Democrat strategist James Carville back in 2021, “and we all know it.” Today, Carville doesn’t even use the term — because, he says, it originated with black Americans “and then overeducated white people ruined the word.”

Let that sink in: and then overeducated white people ruined the word.

Indeed, that leftist pretentiousness has fully boomeranged, as it often does, and it’s since given rise to the term “woke joke,” which the Urban Dictionary describes as “a person (or organization) so intent on appearing to be supportive of ‘social justice’ that any semblance of common sense or critical thinking has been abandoned.”

In a way, then, white leftists have done to the word “woke” what they helped do to black communities during the George Floyd riots: they’ve burned it down.

Think about it: Does anyone really believe that the black community that brought us “yo” and “bro” and “dis” and “chill” and “word” and “fresh” and “homeboy” is happy that a decades-old secret handshake of theirs has been appropriated by preening white leftists who think men can get pregnant?

We think not.

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