White People Keep Misusing the Word ‘Woke’

They twisted it into something it never meant

Photo Credit | Illustration by Tara Jacoby via the Observer

The word woke, got tossed like a salad. What started as a phrase amongst Black advocates has become an abused tool. White people on both sides of the ideological spectrum misused this word.

Liberals often use the term as a sense of pride. They theorize that wokeness can save them from white privilege and their role in white supremacy. This perspective is noble but misguided. On the other end, conservatives lament, woke police, accusing them of cancel-culture. Instead of self-introspection like the liberal, the conservative rejects the assertions by woke Black people. Thus, they try to condemn the very idea of condemning them. See how convoluted that got right quick. They see the insistence on racial equality as problematic as opposed to actual racial inequality. Tsk, tsk. Both groups made the same mistake by taking a word out of context.

The term woke has been around for while within the Black community. But, it gained steam through our music. Erykah Badu used the term in her 2008 hit, Master Teacher. Woke went viral after officers shot Michael Brown. This injustice left a mark on the Black community. Black people then started using the term woke to gain a consensus. Folks also referred to this group as “the conscious community.”

This ideological framework finds itself rooted in Black identity politics. A white person may ask, “What are they conscious about?” Well, my dear reader, Black people who are conscious are consistently aware of white supremacy, its impacts on our communities, and the purpose of unity. See, someone who is Black, but unconscious may hurt other Black people and work against progress.

Now, you may ask yourself where white people fit into all this. The answer is — they don’t. There is no role for white people to play in arising a pro-Black state in complacent Black people. That’s something we have to do as a community and white people cannot help us with that. Even if they are theoretically conscious of the same injustices, they can become accomplices, but cannot become us.

Black people are not automatically woke and this word began as a way to awaken complacent Black people from their slumber. It’s easy to fall into a vat of complacency because of the constant impacts of racism. Of course, our society benefits from white people who understand, respect, and advocate for Black people. However, wokeness isn’t something they could or should bestow upon themselves.

Misusing the word comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of the term. This word derives from the context of ebonics. Thus the speaker is implied, Black. Thus, being woke or calling others woke or sleep is a judgment made through the Black perspective. Because of white supremacy, white people cannot actually become woke. Their slumber is a presupposed underlying condition of their whiteness.

If it weren’t for white supremacy, Black people wouldn’t have to wake one another up from their slumber. Black people waking up means rising up against the white-dominated system. While some white people fight to dismantle white supremacy, the world woke isn't the right one to describe their coming-to-the-light moment. I know woke sounds cool, but the semantics matter here.

The subversion of ‘woke’ is political and means the word can now be used to perpetuate the very injustices it sought to eradicate in the first place. (Morris, 2020)

In recent years, white liberals have hijacked the word. They want it to refer to being progressive in general. For example, someone who supports the environment may earn the label. Likewise, someone who supports women's rights may consider themselves woke. And while progressive causes are admirable and necessary to fight for, wokeness is inseparable from Blackness. Understanding this will help white people who misuse the word but mean no harm.

When conservatives use terms like “woke police” they undermine the idea that every person deserves justice. As long as insisting on fairness is seen as oppressive, society will never change. People with this ideology often use the term to undermine the movement for racial equality.

Staying woke means never becoming complacent to the injustices caused by white supremacy. For example, Chauvin’s lawyers presented their case to the jury. They wanted to justify Floyd’s death. Yet, someone who is “woke” will never forget what they saw — George Floyd gasping for air. Wokeness is about seeing through the nonsense and standing firm in your conviction to leave this world better than we found it.

Becoming woke is not like getting “saved” in a religious sense. It’s not a one-stop-shop. Woke is a state of mind. It’s a social contract that must constantly be reviewed and renewed. That being said, the word’s been commandeered. There’s no way we can return to using it in the same context as before.

“It may be that the word ‘woke’ is irrecoverable, that it has fallen too far into the hands of people who want to use it to stoke division, rather than illuminate injustice.” (Morris, 2020)

White people benefit from the word woke because they can form a line and put themselves on the right side of it. They can claim to understand a Black person’s worldview by associating themselves with woke culture. The problem is, white people shouldn’t be the ones to decide whether or not they are anti-racist. Woke has been used by white people to pat themselves on the back. And in other cases, to condemn and undermine Black voices. While this word is too far gone, we can commit to doing better as a society. People can commit to the underlying principles of woke culture without taking it out of context.


Morris, N. (2020, March 27). How the word ‘woke’ was hijacked to silence people of colour. Metro. https://metro.co.uk/2020/03/27/word-woke-became-tool-silence-people-colour-12426214/.

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Black Womanist 🎓Ph.D. Student | EIC of Cultured | 🖋@ ZORA & Momentum | #WEOC Co-founder | allisonthedailywriter.com | I 🤎 ☕️ https://ko-fi.com/allyfromnola

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