Culture Wars/Current Controversies

A short history of wokeness

By Kevin Baldeosingh, Spiked

What does it mean to be woke? Those who consider themselves woke, even if they don’t use the label, might see wokeness as an embrace of positive virtues, such as tolerance, fairness and awareness.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines woke as meaning ‘alert to injustice in society, especially racism’. Urban Dictionary defines it more sarcastically as ‘the act of being very pretentious about how much you care about a social issue’.

Although the term didn’t enter the popular lexicon until around 2016, particularly thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement, Dictionary.com traces its origins to a 1943 article in the Atlantic. The article quotes a black United Mine Workers official from 1940, who uses woke as a metaphor for social justice: ‘Waking up is a damn sight harder than going to sleep, but we’ll stay woke up longer.’

Being woke seems to be an especially modern cultural phenomenon. But the roots of it are actually more than three centuries old, reaching back to the romantic movements of the 18th and 19th centuries.

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