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Woke Culture: All You Need to Know

Have you ever heard the phrase ‘stay woke’ and wondered what it meant? 

Or you’ve been called anti-woke, and wondered if it was some type of sleeping disorder. Well, this article is about to cover everything you need to know about the word ‘woke’, so get comfortable. 

Etymology of the word woke

Coming across this word for the first time, one would think it is the past tense or past participles of the word wake. 

Even though it is actually the former and, yes, in some way it truly represents what the word stands for today, we really are not here to talk about English words and their tenses. 

The phrase “woke” and to “stay woke” started appearing in the 1940s and was first used by African Americans to mean becoming aware of or sensitized to societal issues.

Many would argue that before this time, black Americans had taken everything lying down and this was the period of the uprising. Hence we can see how appropriate it was to use the word “woke”. 

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Origin of the word

The earliest known use of woke was in a collection by Jamaican philosopher and Harlem activist leader Marcus Garvey in 1923, which included the call, “Wake up Ethiopia! Wake up Africa”. This was a plea for Black people across the world to open their eyes to racial subjugation. 

In 1938, Lead Belly in his song “Scottsboro boys” sang “I advise everybody, be a little careful when they go along through there – best stay woke, keep their eyes open.” Another call to stay vigilant. 

The phrase woke was also used in a 1971 play titled Garvey Lives by Barry Beckham. He wrote: “I been sleeping all my life. And now that Mr. Garvey done woke me up, I’m gon’ stay woke. And I’m gon’ help him wake up other black folks.”

It also entered popular culture thanks to singer Erykah Badu, who used the phrase “I stay woke” in her 2008 song Master Teacher.

And obviously, with the advent of the internet, black people everywhere adopted it to be the word that means freedom, liberation, and a call to fight the system. 

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How did ‘Woke’ become politicalized? 

In 1962, William Melvin Kelley wrote a New York Times essay, titled If You’re Woke You Dig It. The word gained prominence from that essay. 

A combination of the biggest newspapers at that time and a word that originated from Harlem, the centre of Black culture in America. You can be sure it would catch on like wildfire. 

But that was just the beginning.

Woke took a backseat for a while until 2012, when an unarmed teenager named Trayvon Martin was killed in Florida by the watch volunteer George Zimmerman. Once again, ‘woke’ resurrected to raise awareness among the masses.

Later, the term went on as a call of action, especially for black people all over the world to smell the bullshit, and it got along with the Black Lives Matter movement really well. Therefore, the notion of woke has taken a different toll and has become more complex since the time they started a campaign on social media.

Fast forwards, after some years the term got affiliated with liberal causes, feminism, LGBT tasks, and cultural issues with left-wing politics.

Today, the term ‘woke’ faces a lot of backlash and criticism from people who are not in the favor of woke culture. Majorly the conservatives, these people are not really in tune with such liberal movements.

And now, the word has become weaponized by opposing sides of the spectrum. 

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The promise and problems of the culture 

While we cannot deny the massive impact of the woke culture in racism, sexism and other forms of social injustice, we must force ourselves to critically look at the damage that it causes as well. 

Woke culture no doubt has fulfilled and is still fulfilling its promise of opening our eyes up to injustices that we may have overlooked. One of the most impactful ways it has helped us as a society is by stopping us from being complicit in socio-political issues. 

An example that hits close to home is the 2023 elections in Nigeria, as well as the EndSARS protest that happened 2 years before that. The latter shook the government and political leaders that the youths were able to band together and make the choice to stand against oppression. And in the former, the youths made it their mandate to vote out an oppressive government. 

This is a big effect of the woke culture. 

Issues such as feminism, racism, sexism and homophobia have become more prevalent and the woke culture has brought them to our notice. 

The problem, however, lies in the word’s trendiness.

The woke culture has suddenly gone from black to bad as capitalism has strongly profiteered from the movement. Large corporations run campaigns on the back of a movement they hardly care about, and individuals who feign social awareness on these pressing issues instead of actively engaging institutions and people around them. 

The problem remains that woke has become weaponized and therefore does not carry the original message that comes with the word.

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The weaponization of ‘Woke culture’

Ever heard of the theory called ‘phasing of the image’

The theory was propounded by French philosopher Jean Baudrillard. It explains how something starts with a clear connection to reality then through time progresses into what is called a hyperreality. 

In this phase, any connection to a former reality dissipates, and a new, socially constructed reality emerges.

The use of the word ‘woke’ by corporations and governments, who really are just jumping on a trend without the intention of causing any real change, has watered down the message. 

This weaponization did not start with corporate leaders and government; it started with individuals who have held the culture as a baton to cancel anyone, especially in the public sphere who has not supported what the culture police deems as a notable cause. 

So, it is no surprise the woke culture has become a marketing gimmick for companies who want to retain their market share got on this bandwagon. 

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In conclusion: Should woke culture ‘take a nap’? 

While we all agree that woke culture has come a long way in giving power to the people, we can also be objective by seeing that the power has almost no restrictions. 

And while power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. 

So could it be time to properly define what woke means to us as a people? What the limitations to cancel culture are? And perhaps redefine what is politically correct.