There’s a word going around these days that seems quite divisive. It’s one of those words that seems to separate people, mostly along political lines. It’s a hot-button word that gets people’s blood boiling. Some people seem to get up in arms about it. As we’ve already discussed, words don’t mean much unless we define them. And this particular word is sometimes used by either side of the political spectrum in different ways. The word I’m talking about is “woke.” What does this word mean? Are people on the political left “woke?” Are people on the political right “anti-woke?” It’s all very confusing, isn’t it? I hear people say things like “Go woke, go broke!” I also hear pundits talk about “the woke agenda.” As is true about many topics, it is impossible to speak of it appropriately if we don’t define the term. So what exactly does the word “woke” mean, and what are we supposed to do with it?
Woke is a word that is borrowed into American English from African-American Vernacular English (AAVE). Just as people who live in different English-speaking countries have different grammar and syntax, the African-American community developed spelling, grammar, and syntax in the United States. John McWhorter, a linguist and professor at Columbia University, says that AAVE was influenced by regional dialects in Great Britain that enslaved people were exposed to because they worked alongside indentured servants who spoke those dialects. An example of how AAVE sounds different from English dialects is the “cot-caught merger.” In some dialects of English, the words cot and caught are pronounced the same way. In AAVE, along with other dialects, they are pronounced differently. This is one of many subtle differences, but some words and phrases are also different in AAVE. The word “woke” is an adjective equivalent to “awake”. It is also used as a past participle for awake. This usage has become commonplace in American English. For example, “Fr. Tim woke up late for church” instead of “Fr. Tim was awakened late for church.” Essentially, “woke” simply means “awake”.
Now what do we do with this information? It all depends on who you ask. In the mid-20th century, the term “woke” was used within AAVE to remind people of color to remain aware and cognizant of what was going on around them. “Stay woke!” was advice given to young African Americans by their elders to remind them to pay close attention to what was going on around them. This was particularly good advice in areas of the country where racism was prevalent. It was not uncommon for African-American boys to be accused of crimes they did not commit. The advice to “stay woke” helped to ensure they could maintain some control over the stories that might be told about them. In the early 21st century, it grew to serve as a reminder to pay attention for the possibility of being cheated on by a romantic partner. It also meant to literally “stay awake”. Or “do not fall asleep” or “do not become unconscious.” It wasn’t until the 2010s that “woke” began to carry with it social awareness implications. “Woke” in this context means “awake and aware of social justice.”
If we break it down like that, I think it’s safe to say that there is nothing inherently wrong with the concept of “wokeness”. So why has it become such a hot-button word in our political dialogue? I think most people agree that everyone ought to have equal rights. I think it’s safe to say that most people want equality and justice. Our Pledge of Allegiance reminds us that the United States is one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. According to our definition of “wokeness”, it sounds like we pledge to be “woke”. The truth of the matter is people have a tendency to misappropriate the term. When one group does not fully understand the language use by another group, there can be a practice of exploiting the word and taking it out of context. Think of the Gospel of Luke, 4:7. This passage says, “If you worship me, this will all be yours.” Sounds nice, doesn’t it? But that’s only when we read it out of context. If we go back and read verses 5 and 6, we see that it is the devil talking to Jesus. Or how about another humorous example? If we’re quoting the John Lennon song Imagine, then we could say John Lennon sang, “You may say I’m a dreamer but I’m not.” That line is in the song. Look it up! But it’s out of context. It’s missing the ending. “You may say I’m a dreamer but I’m not the only one.” Reading it in the correct context provides a totally different perspective. If we want to twist what someone means, it really isn’t that hard to do. In fact, like the song Imagine says, “It’s easy if you try.” See? That was an out of context quote that I made work for my argument.
The word “woke” has been used recently as a pejorative directed at people on the political left. But I have to tell you, I lived in Berkeley, California, the de facto headquarters of “the political left”, and I never heard anyone there self-identify as “woke.” I also have lived in Provo and Ogden, Utah, which are very much on the right. And in those places, I never heard or saw people do some of the things the liberal people in Berkeley said conservatives say or do. In reality, most people are probably in favor of mostly the same things. People want access to good education, a livable wage, adequate homes, healthy food, clean water, plumbing, nicely paved streets, and plenty of opportunity. It’s true that people don’t always agree on how best to achieve those goals, but for the most part they do have the same goals. I don’t have all the answers of how to get there. I don’t use the word “woke” to describe myself in everyday speech, but according to the definition we’ve explored together, I think it’s safe to say we’re all “woke”. Feeding the vets on the first Friday of the month fits in with the definition of “woke”. Participating in POWWOW fits in with the definition of “woke”. Operating a food pantry fits in with the definition of “woke”. St. John’s is “woke” in the sense that our parish is awake and alert to the needs of our community.
I guess where I’m going with this is that it’s important to be mindful of our vocabulary and the words we use. As I said, I don’t use the word “woke” and neither do many of the left-leaning people in my life. I only hear it used by people on the political right and usually as an insult to their sisters and brothers on the left. But by the definition we’ve explored together, it’s much better to be woke than not, isn’t it? We don’t have to use that word if it isn’t a word that fits our vocabulary. We really probably don’t want to intentionally insult people with whom we disagree anyway, right? And as we’ve talked about, our baptismal covenant reminds us of the importance of striving for justice and peace among all people, and respecting the dignity of every human being. As long as we don’t blow the term out of proportion, it sounds to me like our baptismal covenant is informing us to be “woke”. Don’t use that word if it doesn’t work for you. But continue to be mindful of the needs of others in the world.