What does woke mean? Definition of woke culture in 2024 - and what critics mean by ‘woke police’

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The term ‘woke’ has found its way into mainstream vocabulary - despite debate over its meaning

As language changes and continues to evolve, it’s not unusual for a word or phrase to make its way into the mainstream and leave many confused about its actual meaning. One that’s been used with increasing frequency over the past few years is “woke”. But what does “woke” mean? This is everything you need to know.

What does woke mean?

The old meaning of the word defines woke as simply the ‘past participle of wake’, as in to wake up, or awaken. In a modern sense, the meaning of the word has changed a lot, and in 2017, the new meaning of the word woke was officially added to the dictionary.

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Described by Merriam-Webster as “chiefly US slang”, the dictionary defines the word as: “Aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice)”.

Protestor holding a sign which reads: “History has its eyes on you.” (Photo: Shutterstock/Jennifer M Mason) Protestor holding a sign which reads: “History has its eyes on you.” (Photo: Shutterstock/Jennifer M Mason)
Protestor holding a sign which reads: “History has its eyes on you.” (Photo: Shutterstock/Jennifer M Mason) | Shutterstock/Jennifer M Mason

Woke nowadays refers to being aware or well informed in a political or cultural sense, especially regarding issues surrounding marginalised communities - it describes someone who has “woken up” to issues of social injustice.

Merriam-Webster says: “Stay woke became a watch word in parts of the Black community for those who were self-aware, questioning the dominant paradigm and striving for something better.”

According to The New Yorker, conservatives have always attacked progressive ideas by calling them "political correctness". However, there is a lot of attention surrounding the term "woke", and some lawmakers even wish to create a "anti-woke caucus" in the House of Representatives. According to the magazine, the term "woke" used to denote social consciousness or empathy, but it has since evolved into a meaningless term that the conservative right uses to put blame on societal problems.

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Where does the word woke come from?

The earliest usage of woke in this politically aware sense can be traced back to a 1962 New York Times Magazine article written by William Melvin Kelley, titled If You’re Woke You Dig It. The article described the appropriation of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) by white beatniks.

Additionally, in 1971, the play Garvey Lives! by Barry Beckham reads: “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 folk.”

Erykah Badu’s 2008 song Master Teacher also featured the phrase “I stay woke”, which helped popularise the word.

Protesters march to Oriel Colleges statue of Cecil Rhodes on the first anniversary of the death of George Floyd, an American man killed by police in the US state of Minnesota, and whose death spurred the Black Lives Matter movement in the US, UK and elsewhere (Photo by Laurel Chor/Getty Images)Protesters march to Oriel Colleges statue of Cecil Rhodes on the first anniversary of the death of George Floyd, an American man killed by police in the US state of Minnesota, and whose death spurred the Black Lives Matter movement in the US, UK and elsewhere (Photo by Laurel Chor/Getty Images)
Protesters march to Oriel Colleges statue of Cecil Rhodes on the first anniversary of the death of George Floyd, an American man killed by police in the US state of Minnesota, and whose death spurred the Black Lives Matter movement in the US, UK and elsewhere (Photo by Laurel Chor/Getty Images) | Getty Images

In 2012 when Russian feminist group Pussy Riot were imprisoned for a protest intended to shine a light on the oppression of women, Badu Tweeted: “Truth requires no belief. Stay woke. Watch closely. #FreePussyRiot.”

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The use of the word reached mainstream vernacular when the Black Lives Matter movement used the hashtag #staywoke following the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri by police in 2014.

“The word woke became entwined with the Black Lives Matter movement; instead of just being a word that signalled awareness of injustice or racial tension, it became a word of action. Activists were woke and called on others to stay woke,” Merriam-Webster explains.

What does woke stand for?

Unlike other four letter words associated with the social justice movement, the individual letters of woke don’t stand for anything. The word woke itself is not an acronym.

What does ‘woke police’ mean?

The term “woke police” is used, mainly, by critics of the movement as a way to negatively describe those who identify as woke and fight for social justice issues. The term is used to claim that woke people are policing others actions and words, generally in response to backlash someone else has received for their words or actions.

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For example, if a celebrity has been found to have used racist or sexist language and is being held accountable for their actions, defenders of said person may say that the “woke police” have been offended, as a way of undermining the backlash.

A sign attached to a bicycle reads “I Woke Up Today With Less Rights Than I Went To Sleep With” as abortion rights activists protest after the overturning of Roe Vs. Wade by the US Supreme Court, in Downtown Los Angeles, on June 24, 2022 (Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)A sign attached to a bicycle reads “I Woke Up Today With Less Rights Than I Went To Sleep With” as abortion rights activists protest after the overturning of Roe Vs. Wade by the US Supreme Court, in Downtown Los Angeles, on June 24, 2022 (Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)
A sign attached to a bicycle reads “I Woke Up Today With Less Rights Than I Went To Sleep With” as abortion rights activists protest after the overturning of Roe Vs. Wade by the US Supreme Court, in Downtown Los Angeles, on June 24, 2022 (Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images) | AFP via Getty Images

Writer, broadcaster, former barrister and Guardian columnist Afua Hirsch says: “The truth is, there are no woke police.”

Hirsch explains: "In reality, the only thing that unites the woke is an intellectual curiosity about identity and how complex, how nuanced, how rooted in disparate histories it can be. The real groupthink, the genuinely cohesive crowd, it’s increasingly clear, is that of the anti-woke, the most weaponised identity of all.”

Hirsch points out the irony of “the rightwing culture warriors [who] claim to support free speech” but “they seem to want minorities to shut up and stop complaining”.

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What's an example of woke being used by the media?

In 2021, Former Good Morning Britain host Piers Morgan said that the Oscars that year had been ruined by the “woke brigade”. Throughout the history of the Oscars, the award show has been criticised for not featuring a more diverse lineup of nominees.

In 2015, the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, created by April Reign, started trending after all 20 acting nominations were awarded to an all white lineup. The hashtag was quickly used as a way to level criticisms against the Oscars, and encourage change.

An Oscar award statue (Photo by MICHAEL TRAN/AFP via Getty Images)An Oscar award statue (Photo by MICHAEL TRAN/AFP via Getty Images)
An Oscar award statue (Photo by MICHAEL TRAN/AFP via Getty Images) | AFP via Getty Images

In 2016, the Academy announced its acting nominations for the upcoming ceremony and once again it was revealed that they were made up exclusively of white actors. The hashtag was once again revived.

Responding to criticisms in 2016 and threats of boycotting, the Academy announced that, “in a unanimous vote” the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences approved a series of “substantive changes designed to make the Academy’s membership, it’s governing bodies, and its voting members significantly more diverse”.

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The 2021 Oscar’s was the most diverse year that the ceremony has seen, making history with director Chloé Zhao scooping the award for Best Director - making her the second female director of all time to win the award, and the first women of colour to win.

Director/Producer Chloe Zhao, winner of Best Directing and Best Picture for “Nomadland,” poses in the press room at the Oscars on Sunday, April 25, 2021, at Union Station in Los Angeles. (Photo by Chris Pizzello-Pool/Getty Images)Director/Producer Chloe Zhao, winner of Best Directing and Best Picture for “Nomadland,” poses in the press room at the Oscars on Sunday, April 25, 2021, at Union Station in Los Angeles. (Photo by Chris Pizzello-Pool/Getty Images)
Director/Producer Chloe Zhao, winner of Best Directing and Best Picture for “Nomadland,” poses in the press room at the Oscars on Sunday, April 25, 2021, at Union Station in Los Angeles. (Photo by Chris Pizzello-Pool/Getty Images) | Getty Images

However, prominent right wing figures took issue with the steps taken to diversify the Oscars, including former Good Morning Britain host Piers Morgan. Morgan, who has often spoken out against “woke culture”, tweeted: “BREAKING: Oscars ratings crash to an all-time low, down a staggering 58% on last year’s Awards (which was also an all-time low.) As I feared, the woke brigade may have now destroyed the biggest, glitziest event in show business.”

However, others were quick to point out that demand for the awards ceremony might be lower than usual following a year where the film industry was brought to a halt due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

One person replied: “What’s it got to do with the woke brigade? There’s a pandemic. It was a less glitzy show due to Covid. Only film fans would have found all the talk interesting. Plus many haven’t watched the films as no cinemas. I assume this tweet is just to try and wind people up.”

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Another wrote: “Think this is a case of people just not caring as much, rather than the woke brigade. Traditional cinema hasn’t adapted to the age of streaming. More people will have heard of Netflix movies than some of the movies present at the awards.”

Sports broadcaster Gary Lineker replied to Morgan, writing: “Or perhaps nobody went to a cinema in the last 12 months?”

Piers Morgan attends the 2019 British Academy Britannia Awards presented by American Airlines and Jaguar Land Rover at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on October 25, 2019 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for BAFTA LA)Piers Morgan attends the 2019 British Academy Britannia Awards presented by American Airlines and Jaguar Land Rover at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on October 25, 2019 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for BAFTA LA)
Piers Morgan attends the 2019 British Academy Britannia Awards presented by American Airlines and Jaguar Land Rover at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on October 25, 2019 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for BAFTA LA) | Getty Images for BAFTA LA

The term ‘woke’ once again made headlines recently when presenter Ashley James was questioned by former Tory MP Gyles Brandreth about being 'woke' and questioned whether the term 'wokeness' was being used to promote social injustice on This Morning show. Gyles shared a story about a London hospital stating that some mothers should use the term 'chestfeeding' instead of breastfeeding.

Ashley explained that she was still breastfeeding and had given birth in a London hospital. She argued that the government is stoking culture wars and that 'wokeness' is a good thing, as it can help address social injustice. The mum-of-two said: “If you’re dealing with a trans person, use the term chestfeeding as it’s more inclusive. No one’s trying to ban the word breastfeeding.”

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She also encouraged for more diverse MPs, including female, disabled, and people of colour, to work towards a less divided country while arguing that the term 'wokeness' has been weaponised, similar to the term 'snowflake', and that it is merely attempting to tempt society to care about and consider people's feelings.