Lesson 1: What is Woke?

Woke collageMany of my friends at some time in the past year have asked, “Exactly what is ‘woke’ anyway?” It’s usually in response to politicians using the term in a derogatory way, in mockery as if something “woke” is silly or in anger as if it is dangerous.

My understanding is “woke” goes back a long way in Black American speech. It referred to being aware of the racism in our society. Although it appeared in Black American music, it was not controversial until the Black Lives Matter movement picked it up. It drew attention to police brutality associated with Black American men, such as Travon Martin and George Floyd. To be “woke” meant waking up to what happened or is happening with the systemic racism built into American society.

Many immediately reacted that this was un-American because it focused on what is wrong with our nation. Slogans such as “All lives matter” implied “woke” was really reverse racism that denied free speech to groups in the community. They pointed to Black American athletes kneeling during the national anthem to support their charge.

Before long “woke” was associated with promoting any liberal cause in the broader cultural war, feminists, climate change advocates, LGBTQ activists, immigration asylum providers, and critics of economic injustice were all described as being “woke.”

In defense, advocates maintained they were just acknowledging the whole story of history. There was no hope for correcting our errors if we did not confront the truth.

Arguments developed over whether ethics demanded some form of reparations or whether “woke” was threatening our children’s patriotism. And of course, those who oppose “woke” are accused of white supremacy, fighting to preserve their privilege.

Stepping back from the emotional conflict, it might help to observe that a basic feature of all the great world religions is “awareness.” They all claim to teach a reality not obvious in society. I’ll examine that in the next few weeks in a series I call “Woke Christianity.”

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