Ask Kids & Race: “What does ‘woke’ mean?”

By Katharine Strange

A lot of white people (including myself) want to be respectful and kind to all people, but sometimes find anti-racist terminology confusing. We were raised in nearly all-white schools and taught to be “colorblind.” Now that we are living in more multicultural or multiracial spaces, we fear that we will screw up and say the wrong thing.

If that is you, you’ve come to the right place. I’m here to answer questions and help you figure out this etiquette, which may be new to you. If you have questions, feel free to email me at Questions can be asked anonymously.

Today’s question is “what does ‘woke’ mean?”

“Woke” is a term that originated in African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) which means something akin to being socially conscious. “Woke” can be traced back to the early sixties but became popular after Erykah Baduh’s song “Master Teacher” came out in 2008, in which she sings, “I stay woke.”

“Stay woke” became a byword in the Black community, a way of saying “pay attention, work towards justice, don’t accept the status quo.” To be woke is to remain vigilant. Being woke is questioning the dominant media and political narratives and thinking critically about society’s power structures.

The term “stay woke” became more widespread with the formation of The Black Lives Matter Movement after the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The term “woke” quickly spread out of the Black community, to allies of other races, and soon filtered out into the mass consciousness as a “trendy” word. The word was bandied about so much that it began to lose all meaning.

But being woke means more than talking the talk. Wokeness connotates both awareness and action.

For white people, this means finding ways to support anti-racism work without needing to be the center of attention. This is hard for us to do! Our society tends to center white people’s stories. In this day, many white people will declare themselves “woke” but few will actually be woke.

For a pop culture example check out Childish Gambino’s track (utilized in Jordan Peele’s award winning film Get Out):