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What does “Woke” mean?


What Does it Mean to be “Woke”

In recent years, the term “woke” has become increasingly popular. It is a term that has been used to describe people who are aware of social and political issues, and who actively seek to address them. But what does it really mean to be “woke”? And why has the term become so divisive? In this article, we will explore the meaning of “woke” and the various opinions surrounding it.

What does “Woke” mean?

The term “woke” or phrase “stay woke” originated in the African American community. The term “Woke” (/ˈwoʊk/ WOHK) is an adjective derived from African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) meaning the black community should stay “alert (awake) to racial prejudice and discrimination”. Something we touch on in our Race Awareness and Anti-racism training. The term “woke” has since been adopted by various other underrepresented communities to describe individuals who are aware of issues such as; gender inequality, LGBTQ+ inequalities, ageism, ableism and other social justice issues.

Although many people think being “woke” is a new term that rose to prominence during the Black Lives Matter protest following the murder of George Floyd in 2020. It’s earliest known examples of wokeness revolves around the idea of Black consciousness “waking up” to a new reality of racial equality activism which dates back to the early 20th century. 

In 1923, the Jamaican philosopher, publisher, journalist, entrepreneur, and social activist Marcus Garvey included the summons “Wake up Ethiopia! Wake up Africa!” as a call to global Black citizens to become more socially and politically conscious. Some years later, in 1938, Blues musician Huddie Ledbetter, a.k.a. Lead Belly released a protest song in support of the Scottsborro Boys, nine 13 to 20-year-old young black boys who were illegally and falsely imprisoned, because they were seen with two white women, and falsely accoused of raping them. At the end of the song itself he states:

“I advise everybody to be a little careful when they go long through that, but stay woke, keep your eyes open”

In recent musical culture, Erykah Badu’s – 2008 Master Teacher, and Childish Gambino’s 2016 hit – Redbone refers to staying woke, but in this instance in relation to potentially getting in trouble, in which he sings:

“But stay woke, haters creepin’. They gon’ find you. Gon’ catch you sleepin’, ooh.”

Being “woke” means being conscious of the various forms of oppression that exist in society, and actively seeking to address them. This can be done through activism, education, or simply by being aware of one’s own biases and working to overcome them.

The criticisms of “Woke Culture”

Despite its origins as a term of empowerment, the term “woke” has become increasingly diluted in recent years. As some people view being “woke” as a virtue (behaviours showing high moral standards), while others (mainly those who mainly benefit from the status quo)  view it as a negative trait. Some argue that being “woke” is simply a way for individuals to signal their virtue (virtue signalling – a public expression that demonstrates a person’s good character, social conscience or their moral correctness), while others argue that it is an important step towards creating a more just society.

One of the main criticisms of “woke” culture is that it can be divisive and exclusionary. Some argue that the constant need to be “politically correct” can stifle free speech and lead to a culture of self-censorship. Others argue that the focus on identity politics can create divisions within society, rather than promoting unity.

Another criticism of “woke” culture is that it can lead to a form of moral superiority. Some individuals who consider themselves “woke” may believe that they are morally superior to those who do not share their beliefs. This can create a sense of elitism (the belief that a society or system should be led by an elite) and may lead to a lack of empathy towards those who do not share the same views.

Navigating Woke Culture

Navigating “woke” culture can be difficult for some, particularly for those who are new to the concept. It can be difficult to know what is considered “appropriate” language and behaviour, and there is often a fear of saying or doing something that might be perceived as offensive.

One of the key aspects of being “woke” is understanding the impact your words and actions have on others. This means being aware of the various forms of oppression that exist in society and working to be an ally to marginalised and underrepresented groups. It also means being open to feedback, constructive critique and willing to learn from mistakes. Which for many, is a difficult behavioural change. As such, some move towards being open to feedback, learning and willing to learn from mistakes. Whereby others lean into the idea that being “woke” is nonsense, and are unwilling to accept feedback, constructive critique and are unwilling to learn from mistakes that challenge their own views and traditional “societal norms”. 

Being “Woke” and Being “Cancelled” 

Cancel culture has been a controversial topic in recent years, with some arguing that it stifles free speech and others arguing that it’s a necessary tool for holding powerful individuals and institutions accountable.

It’s important to recognise that “woke” culture is not always perfect. However, we often see the term “woke” and “cancelled” used interchangeably in modern society, but they are not the same thing. 

Being “woke” refers to being aware and conscious of social and political issues that affect marginalised groups, such as racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of discrimination. It is about being empathetic, listening to diverse perspectives, and actively working towards creating a more equitable society. It’s not inherently negative or punitive. In fact, many people view being “woke” as a positive trait, as it demonstrates a commitment to social justice and a willingness to challenge the status quo.

On the other hand, being “cancelled” refers to being held accountable for actions or statements that are deemed offensive or harmful, usually in the context of social media. Being cancelled involves a public backlash, where people call for a person to be boycotted or face consequences such as losing their job, endorsements, or reputation. 

It’s also important to remember that people who don’t consider themselves to be not to be woke (anti-woke) also call for people to be cancelled. As such, being “cancelled” and being “woke” are not exclusively synonymous with each other.

While being “woke” and being “cancelled” may intersect in certain situations, they are fundamentally different concepts. Being “woke” is about understanding and advocating for social justice, while being “cancelled” is about holding people accountable for their actions and statements.

It is important to recognise this distinction because the two terms have been used to discredit and dismiss social justice movements. Those who don’t agree with being “woke” often equate being “woke” with being “cancelled,” as a microaggression to undermine the validity of social justice issues and portray them as petty or vindictive. It leads to the mentality that there should be freedom of speech without leads to freedom of consequences, which inaccurately implies that being “woke” leads to a culture of fear and self-censorship. 

The Importance of Being Informed

Regardless of your opinion on  people choosing to be woke (alert to racial prejudice and discrimination) or “woke” culture, it is important to be informed about social and political issues. 

Ignorance and apathy can be just as damaging as prejudice and bigotry, bigotry being a person’s obstinate or unreasonable attachment to a belief, or opinion,  in particular prejudice against a person or group of people with shared protected characteristics). By being informed and engaged, we can work towards creating a more just and equitable society for all.

No One Is a Monolith

It’s important to remember that no one person and/or view point represents an entire community of people, and it’s ignorant to suggest that is the case. 

Chris Rock’s Netflix Special – Selective Outrage

For example, Chris Rock’s recent Netflix special has caused controversy among those who consider themselves “woke.” Some argue that Rock’s jokes perpetuate negative stereotypes about marginalised communities and suggest that there is a problem with the idea of being “woke” itself.

By making fun of people who are conscious of social issues and actively working towards equity and justice, Rock’s special may reinforce the idea that being “woke” is a negative thing. This can be damaging to individuals and communities who have been fighting for progress and equality, as it may discourage others from joining in and continuing the work.

Furthermore, by portraying “woke” individuals as overly sensitive and easily offended, Rock’s jokes may undermine the validity of their experiences and struggles. This can lead to further marginalisation and a lack of understanding or empathy towards important social issues.

It is important to remember that comedy can be a powerful tool for addressing social issues and bringing about change. However, it is also important for comedians to be mindful of the impact their words and jokes may have on marginalised communities. Instead of using humour to dismiss or undermine the work of those who are “woke,” comedians should strive to use their platform to elevate and amplify their voices and experiences.

While Chris Rock may not agree with the idea of being woke, it does not mean that his perspective represents the entire black community. It is important to recognise that the experiences and opinions of black people and people of colour are diverse and complex, and cannot be reduced to a monolithic viewpoint.


The term “woke” is not a one-size-fits-all label that can be applied to all people in the same way. It’s important to recognise that individuals are complex and multifaceted, and their level of awareness and engagement with social justice issues can vary depending on a variety of factors.

For example, a person who is “woke” in terms of their understanding of racism, may not be as informed about issues related to LGBTQ+ issue. Similarly, a person who considers themselves as “woke” in relation to LGBTQ+ rights and has a particular viewpoint, doesn’t mean another person who considers themselves woke shares the same belief.  Additionally, a person’s level of engagement with social justice issues can vary over time, as they learn and grow in their understanding of the world around them.

Furthermore, it’s important to recognise that people have different perspectives and experiences that inform their understanding of social justice issues. A person who comes from a marginalised community may have a more nuanced understanding of issues related to race, gender, or sexuality and more, than someone who has never experienced these forms of oppression.

Therefore, it’s important to avoid making assumptions about people based on their level of “wokeness”. It’s also important to recognise that people are capable of growth and change over time. Just because someone may not be as informed about a particular issue at the moment, doesn’t mean that they can’t learn and grow in their understanding in the future.

Ultimately, the term “woke” should be used as a starting point for important conversations about social justice and equality. It’s a way of acknowledging the importance of being aware and engaged with the world around us, but it should not be used to make sweeping generalisations about people or to dismiss important conversations about social justice issues.

What To Do When Accused of Being “Woke”

If someone accuses you of being “woke,” remember, being woke is a positive thing, it’s about being alert (wake) to racial prejudice and discrimination. So first off, say “thank you” to whoever implies that being “woke” is a problem. They are stating their position that you should not be willing to challenge racial prejudice and discrimination, and conform to the current societal status quo.

It can be tempting to respond with defensiveness or aggression. So when someone does accuse you of being “woke”, “a part of the woke brigade”, “the woke-ies” as a snub, slight or insult. However, it’s important to approach the situation calmly and thoughtfully. Here are some suggestions for what to say and do when someone accuses you of being “woke”:

  1. Clarify what they mean: Before responding, make sure you understand what the person means by “woke.” Sometimes, the term is used incorrectly or as a derogatory label. Ask them to explain what they mean by it. If you’ve read this full article, you’ll know what it means to be woke. Do they? 
  1. Use facts and data: When presenting your argument, try to use facts and data to back up your claims. This can help build a more objective and logical case for why being woke is important and why their anti-woke stance may be misguided.
  1. Don’t take it personally: Remember that the accusation is not about you, but rather about your beliefs or actions. In some cases it’s about people projecting their feelings onto you. Try not to take it as a personal attack.
  1. Stay calm: Responding with anger or defensiveness will only escalate the situation. Stay calm and measured in your response.
  1. Explain your perspective: If the person is open to a discussion, explain why you believe in the ideas or actions that they are labelling as “woke.” Share your experiences or research that have led you to these beliefs.
  1. Listen to their perspective: It’s important to hear the other person’s perspective and understand why they feel the way they do. Even if you don’t agree, listening can help de-escalate the situation and promote understanding.
  1. Find common ground: Look for areas of agreement or shared values. Focus on finding common ground rather than emphasising differences.
  1. Respectfully disagree: If you don’t agree with the accusation of being “woke,” respectfully explain why. Avoid being confrontational or dismissive.
  1. Move on: If the conversation is not productive or if the other person is not open to a discussion, it may be best to move on. Don’t waste your energy on unproductive or negative interactions.

Remember that being “woke” is not a bad thing. It simply means being aware of and working towards social justice and equality. Don’t let the term be used as an insult or a way to dismiss important issues. Stand firm in your beliefs and continue to educate yourself and others.

Moving Forward

The concept of being “woke” has its challenges, but it is an important step towards creating a more just and equitable society. It is important to remain informed about social and political issues, and to be willing to engage in difficult conversations with those who may hold different opinions. 

Being “woke” is not about being perfect, but about being willing to educate yourself, learn and grow. It is about recognising that the world is not always fair or just, but that we have the power to make a difference through our words and actions.

To conclude, promoting diversity and inclusion isn’t about being woke, it is about embracing and celebrating differences, companies can create a more dynamic and productive workplace culture. 

However, achieving true diversity and inclusion requires ongoing effort and education. If you want to better understand diversity and inclusion for your employees and senior leadership teams, consider investing in diversity consulting services which can provide valuable insight, strategies, and tools to help your organisation build a more inclusive environment. As well as considering  training your employees on different areas such as LGBT, Race and Anti-Racism, Microaggressions, Unconscious Bias, and Intersectionality, to help your team understand and navigate complex issues related to diversity and inclusion. 
Contact us today to learn more about how we can support your organisation’s journey towards diversity and inclusion, and if you’re not ready to take that next step, have a read of some of our other articles from our online blog.

What does “Woke” mean?
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