As I write this, I am enjoying my morning coffee in a mug that proclaims “awake not woke.” A friend gave it to me, and I think it’s funny.
“Woke” is certainly the word of the moment. But what does it really mean?
I’ve been asked this numerous times by readers when the term comes up in one of my columns (and it often does).
It’s a fair question. Depending on whom you ask, you can get a very different answer.
That’s especially true when it comes to political party. Democrats seem to see the word as a badge of honor, while Republicans have harnessed it as something that must be stopped – and a blanket term for everything they dislike about the left.
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A new USA TODAY/Ipsos Poll found a that majority of Americans, including 78% of Democrats and 37% of Republicans, see “woke” in a positive light, and define the term as “to be informed, educated on and aware of social injustices.”
Yet nearly 40% of those surveyed (and 56% of Republicans) say the word constitutes something more negative, “to be overly politically correct and police others’ words.”
Political correctness is part of the right’s aversion to wokeness. Yet “woke” has come to hit on much deeper societal concerns, and that’s why it has become a touchstone for many conservatives.
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At the recent Conservative Political Action Conference, the word was a common refrain among declared Republican presidential candidates, including former President Donald Trump, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy (recently dubbed the “CEO of Anti-Woke, Inc.”).
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“I’m running for president to renew an America that’s proud and strong, not weak and woke,” Haley said at CPAC.
Others are getting on board, too. Earlier this year, Indiana GOP Rep. Jim Banks has recently formed the “Anti-Woke Caucus,” with an aim to “defund wokeness.”
No one, however, has elevated the fight against “woke” more than Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. He has repeated frequently that his state is where “woke goes to die” and that he’ll never surrender to the “woke mob.”
DeSantis has riled many on the left for pushing legislation that actively seeks to suppress woke ideology in classrooms and workplaces. He even signed a law named the “Stop WOKE Act.”
If he gets into the 2024 presidential race, as expected, you can bet this anti-woke mantra will be central to his campaign.
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Still, what does it mean?
Despite its frequent use among politicians, it’s infrequently defined, leaving most of us to our own definitions. If conservatives are going to keep using “woke” as a rallying cry, there needs to be a much clearer consensus about its meaning and what the right hopes to accomplish.
A DeSantis spokesperson has called it a slang term for “progressive activism” and a “general belief in systemic injustices in the country.” That’s pretty vague.
In an attempt to get a clearer definition, I reached out to several organizations on the right.
Zach Goldberg, a self-proclaimed “wokeness studies scholar” at the Manhattan Institute, says “woke” means more than just left-wing radicalism. He says the essence of woke is “the belief that outcome disparities between groups – be they races, sexes, or ‘genders,’ etc. – are largely if not entirely the product of oppressive social forces and structures.”
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I think that hits on what DeSantis and others are worried about. The woke ideology is about more than preferred pronouns and avoiding offensive words. It’s a view of America that pits “oppressors” against the “oppressed.”
Carrie Sheffield, a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum, says “woke” has evolved over the years, much like feminism. The word originally was used to signal awareness of racism and injustice. But, Sheffield says, its meaning has swung so far to the left, it now undermines tenets of Western civilization such as capitalism.
She argues that critical race theory – as it has been adapted at the K-12 level – is teaching schoolchildren to dislike each other.
That kind of division is dangerous to the future of our country. If that’s what Republicans mean when they’re talking about “woke,” they need to do a better job explaining it.
Ingrid Jacques is a columnist at USA TODAY. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @Ingrid_Jacques