‘Woke’ is not in the slightest bit new

As I type, the Prime Minister has just fumbled his notes during a speech, asking for forgiveness three times for his shambles, and riffed about Peppa Pig World.

By Calum MacDonald
Friday, 26th November 2021, 10:53 am

Meanwhile The Telegraph is reporting that Nigel Farage is considering a return to politics. I’m not sure what that means, given his spectacular failure to get elected seven times as an MP. “Kermit” is trending on Twitter for reasons that are not discernible, and one of the raging debates of the day is whether or not young people enjoy being described as “woke”.

A headteacher, who is also the president of the Girls’ Schools Association, has urged parents and teachers to keep up with young people rather than mocking young people by calling them “woke”. She says young people are just standing up for their beliefs.

Samantha Price is correct – times have changed and there is an element of “keeping up” required, for all of us. I’m just not sure the older generation should all be criticised for being left behind by “wokeness”. When I think of the changes and evolutions that my older relatives have embraced, endured and survived I am, frankly, in awe. It wasn’t long ago that my 90-something year old granny was quite handy with her iPhone, and that my 90-something year old auntie was enjoying Zooming into a church service on an iPad. This is as they endured an isolating pandemic where normality was rationed in a way they hadn’t experienced for decades.

More troublesome than that, however, is the idea that young people are the only ones capable of standing up for what they believe in. Underpinning youth activism – and enthusiasm – on things like racism, sexism and equality in general, is youth. I wrote here a couple of weeks ago about the spark in young people at Cop 26. It goes without saying. However, the other cornerstone to youth activism is that young people today stand on the shoulders of woke giants.

Some of the comments underneath the BBC’s tweet of the woke-watch headteacher are predictable: “Don’t they have anything else to do”; “most of them haven’t woke until at least 11 o’clock”. One of them, however, highlights the basis for this column: “Young people have always been woke, generations before and generations to come.” Thank you Gazza, this is exactly what I thought too.

There is some contention about the precise definition of “woke”, which calls into question the origins and uses as well as the self-labelling and self-aggrandising use of the term by some. The generally accepted definition is: “Alert to injustice in society, especially racism.”

I think the derogatory use of “woke” is born from our desire to label, differentiate and reduce. There’s nothing new under the sun, of course – human beings have done this forever – this iteration is to try to drive a wedge between political ideologies of left and right. I think that is an injustice to wokeness. What should be more challenging to our thinking and attitudes, though, is why “woke” has been allowed to become a derogatory term at all.

Weren’t we all woke at some stage or another? Perhaps we still are…

The word “woke” is most likely to have originated among black communities in the early 20th century. People were protesting for civil rights and against injustice. However, in more recent memory, we should look at 2014, when “woke” became a defining term in the aftermath of the police killing of Michael Brown in Missouri. From there, we are most likely to associate woke with the Black Lives Matter movement.

Remember: “Alert to injustice in society, especially racism.”

Were those protesting the Iraq War in 2003, woke? Probably. How woke were those involved in protests against fascism? Quite woke, you would think. There were marches against poverty and hunger in 1932 - woke or not? Were Suffragettes woke in their fight for equality for women? Arguably, yes. I can’t pretend to be an expert on these movements, but they have foundational principles of fairness, equality, peace and being so alert to injustice, that you actively take it on. Is that something of which to be ashamed? Do we hide our faces in disgust at those who protested against the Iraq War? Do we rail against those who railed against fascism? How about those awful people who marched against desperate hunger! Gosh, those woke warriors are despicable! You see my point?

It is exhausting to have to justify alertness to injustice. It is exhausting when those who take issue with a political viewpoint use it as a derogatory term.

However, I don’t think we should be so quick to drive a generational divide and attempt to split off a woke younger generation from a bunch of old relics who don’t see, understand or care about injustice. I’d suggest that anyone who is critical of young people for being woke, has simply forgotten their own wokeness - or never tried it. We should all have been woke once - and perhaps we’d be served better as a society if we were all woke again.