Woke will lose its Blackness, it will fade into whiteness–the same whiteness which assumed the term was just misconjugated verb.
‘Woke’ has been added to the Oxford Dictionary. Woke–if you didn’t know this already–originated from African American Vernacular English (AAVE), which is a dialect. Woke is a “Black word” and while some may love that it was added to the dictionary, it feels less like a dialect influencing a language and more like an erasure of its African American origins.
Woke, as the Oxford Dictionary now defines it, means “alert to injustice in society, especially racism.” The term gained more popularity amongst non-Black people following the increased visibility of police brutality against Black, Indigenous and people of color, and after the Ferguson protests when DeRay McKesson–who often included a “stay woke” within his tweets–launched a platform literally called Stay Woke.
I am a self-proclaimed woke person and the absorption of the word into English could come off as more of a negative than a positive. Much like “on fleek” our beloved word will be whitewashed, printed on Forever 21 shirts, overused and misused by white folks trying to be cool. The originators will be forgotten, robbed of the cultural credit due to them. We know this is true because it happened to Peaches Monroee and countless others before her.
While Black folks are routinely dismissed and discriminated against because of our hairstyles and AAVE in personal and professional settings, white people profit off of our styles, wear dreads and awkwardly co-opt our words and cadences for cool-points.
Meanwhile, white millennials will play the word on their Scrabble boards and laugh as they collect points for a word they do not use properly. People will buy “stay woke” cocktails with Red Bull, and tweet that you should “stay woke” in reference to the unfairness of the C minus they got in trigonometry. Woke will lose its Blackness, it will fade into whiteness–the same whiteness which assumed the term was just misconjugated verb, and now thinks that it makes a great descriptor for their Corgi who is nice to Black people.
When I think of “woke” I think of Spike Lee’s School Daze where we see a fresh Laurence Fishburne running through his campus screaming “wake up!” The entire movie is centered around the idea of Black people washing away their identities and losing their ties to Africa. Lee is insinuating that Black people have fallen asleep and that white supremacy has taken over the proverbial wheel, so they need to “wake up.”
The word itself can be traced back to 1962, but it was most likely used before then. Erykah Badu pushed it back into our minds in her 2008 song, “Master Teacher”, where she does a call and response for you to “stay woke” as she searches for a beautiful world where there are “no niggas, only master teachers”. Four years later, Trayvon was killed while his murderer walked free and Black America was rudely awakened.
The collective Black response to injustice ushered in the time of being woke. Kara Brown wrote a piece for Jezebel titled “In the Aftermath of Ferguson, Stay Angry and Stay Woke.” The piece was a reminder that being woke is not a moment in time or an observation you make on Twitter, but rather a journey or a goal to reach.
As you go forward and use woke in your conversations, I ask that you remember the origins of the word. Remember wokeness is a response to racism. Remember that AAVE is policed when Black folks speak it but it’s suddenly cool when Connor and Becky use it. Wokeness requires us to acknowledge and dismantle inequity–you aren’t born woke, you learn it and it shows up in everything you do.