Mickey Skidmore, AMHSW, ACSW, MACSW

The term ‘woke’ is at the centre of many of the fiercest political and cultural debates at the moment. Some people say being woke is a sign of awareness to social issues, others whip out the term as an insult.

The origins of woke, in this context dates back at least to the 60s in African American communities, but its mainstream ubiquity is a recent development. Woke was officially added into the Oxford English Dictionary as an adjective in June 2017. The term’s break into mainstream language is acknowledged primarily from the Black Lives Matter movement in the USA.

Prior to increased recognition of this movement, the term generally referred to someone who was well-informed and alert to injustice in society. By 2017 it became somewhat more nuanced to recognised those who were aware of and actively attentive to important facts and social issues (especially issues of racial and social justice). The Black Lives Matter movement is largely credited with putting a finer point to the broader use of the term — having or marked by an active awareness of systemic injustices and prejudices, especially those related to civil and human rights.

Subsequently, the word was co-opted and twisted into a social media-fueled, leftwing political ideology. Despite the term reflecting underlying principles of advocacy and social justice (consistent with the Social Work profession) derived from the state of being awake to or conscious of structural inequalities in society and being hyper-aware of one’s own role in those inequalities, white nationalists took issue with this and began pushing back. With classic Orwellian skill, there was clearly success in spinning this term as someone who is constantly inspecting every institution in society, looking for the presence of racism, sexism, and other forms of pervasive prejudice.

Initially, it was included in the context of “political correctness” gone astray. But quickly it has become a common term of derision among some who oppose the movements it is associated with, or believe the issues are exaggerated. And it is now used to mock or infantilise supporters of those movements. Like “politically correct” before it, the word “woke” has come to connote the opposite of what it means. It is a term that has become weaponised and more likely today to being used as a stick with which to beat people who aspire to such values, often wielded by those who don’t recognise how un-woke they are, or are proud of the fact.

Like so many other issues, this too has become politicised. On the left, to be “woke” means to identify as a staunch social justice advocate who’s abreast of contemporary political concerns — or to be perceived that way, whether or not you ever claimed to be “woke” yourself. On the right, detractors often claim they are rejecting the word as a signifier of pretentiousness and “cultural elitism”. Criticising “woke culture” has become a way of claiming victim status for yourself rather than acknowledging that more deserving others hold that status. 

There is defensiveness now that evoking the concept of “wokeness” invites ironic blowback. The way that terms like “woke” and “wokeness” are used outside of the Black Lives Matter community seems to bear little connection to their original context, on either the right or the left. Woke has become distorted beyond recognition. In a relatively short timeframe, it has shifted from a virtue signal to a dog whistle. It has become a word whose meaning has more in who said it than in what it meant or mocked.

When I came to Australia a decade ago, I was initially struck by the tradition at the beginning of certain events to acknowledge the traditional owners and elders of the land. My initial impression of this was that at some level it was a “woke” action — acknowledging the historical, and systemic injustices and prejudices related to civil and human rights of indigenous people. Over time however, my views and perspectives about this tradition has evolved and shifted. I now am inclined to see this as token, hollow, superficial and even hypocritical gesture that only serves to shine a light on and reinforce the entrenched dynamics of white privilege. (We’ll acknowledge the traditional owners of the land … but we have little or  no intention of returning what was taken from you … or realistically address the impact it continues to have on your children and your culture).

While my intension is to write about this from a place of advocacy and social justice, the reader can decide for themselves if this observation reflects an exaggerated political correctness or cultural elitism; or rather, an attentive observation of important facts and social issues associated with racial and social justice. Regardless of your take, I think it can be argued that it is a “woke” perspective.