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This past week, Tim Scott has come under criticism for admonishing “woke supremacy,” naming that the liberal movement is “as bad as white supremacy” (The Hill). The rise of the term “woke supremacy” indicates that the word “woke” has strayed far from its original intentions.
The term is often attributed to author William Melvin Kelley, who used the term in his 1962 New York Times essay about the appropriation of Black vernacular (often referred to as AAVE). But the idea of “staying awake” has been used to support social and political issues for hundreds of years. The term “stay woke” specifically was first used as part of a protest song by Blues musician Huddie Ledbetter called “Scottsboro Boys,” which a group of nine Black teenagers in Scottsboro, Arkansas, accused of raping two white women (Vox).
The word resonated with musician Georgia Anne Muldrow, who used it as her own personal mantra to stay motivated. Her definition of the term is as follows:
Woke is definitely a black experience — woke is if someone put a burlap sack on your head, knocked you out, and put you in a new location and then you come to and understand where you are ain’t home and the people around you ain’t your neighbors. They’re not acting in a neighborly fashion, they’re the ones who conked you on your head. You got kidnapped here and then you got punked out of your own language, everything. That’s woke — understanding what your ancestors went through. Just being in touch with the struggle that our people have gone through here and understanding we’ve been fighting since the very day we touched down here. There was no year where the fight wasn’t going down.
Georgia Anne Muldrow, in conversation with Elijah C. Watson for OkayPlayer
Muldrow wrote the word into her song “Master Teacher”, which was re-recorded by Erykah Badu, a Grammy-award-winning singer and songwriter, and released in 2008 (OkayPlayer). That track brought the term “stay woke” to the forefront of modern Black culture. “Stay woke” became a rallying cry for Black lives after the killing of Michael Brown in 2014, a reminder to watch out for police brutality. This specific use of the term defines its relevance to our current culture. Aja Romano wrote a detailed history about the word “woke,” including a comprehensive timeline, if you want to learn more (Vox).
And, as words tend to do in culture, the word “woke” was mainstream by 2016. Everyone – individuals, brands, talk shows, politicians, sports teams – started using the word broadly to align themselves with conscious values and ideas. As Sam Sanders notes in his article for NPR, this is a standard pattern for how words cycle through our culture (NPR). And AAVE is routinely adopted and misconstrued by mainstream communities. But a word that once carried significant cultural significance for the Black community got co-opted to display solidarity without any action attached to it. Woke went from something we did to something we only said.
“Words that begin with a very specific meaning, used by a very specific group of people, over time become shorthand for our politics, and eventually move from shorthand to linguistic weapon. Or in the case of woke, a linguistic eye-roll” (NPR).
As soon as the term found mainstream understanding, it also started to be wielded by conservatives as an attack. Nowadays, it’s more likely you hear about “wokeness,” “woke culture,” “woketopians,” or “woke supremacy” condescendingly, usually as a way to dismiss liberal views of equity and inclusion as a “liberal agenda” or a form of “political correctness.” Suddenly, the word woke went from protecting marginalized folk to attacking them for standing up for their rights. This evolution of the term aligns with an incredibly polarized era. It’s no wonder that by October 2018, 80 percent of Americans believe that “political correctness is a problem in our country” (The Atlantic).
But woke supremacy is just a phrase. White supremacy is a culture. The word “woke” wouldn’t even exist if Black people had to stay vigilant to stay alive. Individuals, for example, wouldn’t express outrage over a journalist using the N-word if white supremacy hadn’t fostered a condition where discrimination against Black people hadn’t been normalized for generations. The conversation on racial stereotypes in some of Dr. Seuss’s books can’t happen if those racial depictions haven’t been weaponized against communities of color for decades.
Although some individuals have faced personal discomfort after being called out publicly for inappropriate actions, this so-called “woke supremacy” doesn’t have the capacity to create systemic harm. Don Lemon stated it far more plainly on CNN. “I’ve never seen a woke supremacist lynching anybody. Never saw a woke supremacist denying anybody access to housing or a job or education or voting rights. Never saw any woke supremacists enslaving anybody. Never saw any woke supremacists trying to keep people from marrying amongst different races. Where are the woke supremacists attacking police? Where are the woke supremacists hunting police officers in the halls of the Capitol and beating them with Blue Lives Matter signs” (Huffington Post)?
Ironically, centering “woke supremacy” alongside “white supremacy” only emphasizes the real issue. Some people are so focused on protecting white supremacy that they’re willing to manifest a new enemy to exercise its power against. As a result, there are coordinated attacks against “wokeness” that are actually more forceful applications of white supremacy culture. Schools are passing bills to ban the 1619 Project and conversations on racism and sexism from the curriculum and poll public university employees about their political identity. In FiveThirtyEight, Perry Bacon Jr. notes that this isn’t new; the right has leveled the same attacks against “‘outside agitators’” (civil rights activists in 1960s), the ‘politically correct’ (liberal college students in the 1980s and ’90s) and ‘activist judges’ (liberal judges in the 2000s).”
So, what do we do about it? First, we recognize that the argument is inherently flawed. We focus our attention back on systemic harm rather than political noise. In essence, we draw our attention back to the root of the word itself: the social and racial issues that threaten the safety of Black people and other marginalized groups. And instead of preparing for battle in a fictional war, we stay committed to the work. After all, actions are louder than words.