Gov. Ron DeSantis calls his state the place where “woke goes to die.” Fellow 2024 Republican presidential hopeful, Vivek Ramaswamy, wrote an entire book denouncing so-called “Woke, Inc.” And according to a national poll conducted by HarrisX for the Deseret News, being labeled “woke” will get you less support among voters. Nearly half say they’re less likely to support a “woke” candidate, while 24 percent say the opposite. In Republican circles, being labeled “woke” is almost certainly a political pox. When Time magazine dubbed Utah’s Spencer Cox “The Red-State Governor Who’s Not Afraid to Be ‘Woke’,” he denounced the headline and said, “Being kind and trying to bring people together is very different than being ‘woke.’” But what is “woke”? And why are so many Republicans talking about it in the run up to the 2024 presidential election? Here’s the breakdown.


Defined

The term woke has its origins in Black vernacular — a shortened version of woken — the past tense of wake. The term suggests an awareness — an awakening — regarding issues related to race and social justice. In the 2010s, the term’s usage expanded to include an array of progressive causes and ideologies. Soon, as one British journalist put it, the term became shorthand for an “overrighteous liberalism.”

#staywoke

The first known use of “woke” was a spoken warning from Huddie Ledbetter, the blues musician known as Lead Belly, appended to this 1938 song about nine Black youths falsely accused of rape in rural Alabama. The 1931 case would become a spark for the civil rights movement, and each defendant was later exonerated or pardoned. But Ledbetter offered pragmatic advice to Black travelers in a region that could be hostile. “Best stay woke. Keep their eyes open.” In 2014, the hashtag #Staywoke coalesced as a watchword against police brutality as protesters used it along with another hashtag that launched a movement: #blacklivesmatter.

Huddie Ledbetter | Getty Images

Blowback

On the right, and even within pockets of the left, some soured on certain progressive reforms as crime and lawlessness increased in places like San Francisco and Seattle. Others grew tired of big brands leveraging serious social issues to market everything from sneakers to tech gadgets. Even “Saturday Night Live” mocked the commercialization with a sketch on “Levi’s Wokes” — unappealing jeans described as “Sizeless, style neutral, gendernon-conforming denim for a generation that despises labels. Levi’s heard that if you’re not woke, it’s bad. So we made these.”

I love naps

During the 2017 Women’s March, a nation-wide demonstration that drew more than 1 million people, an Asian-American toddler in North Carolina wore a hand-drawn sign: “I ♥ naps but I STAY WOKE.” A photo went viral, shared online by celebrities like Ariana Grande. Within two weeks, the boy’s father applied for a trademark to use the phrase on hats, pants, socks, sweaters and T-shirts. His application was abandoned but the slogan was already taking off among largely white mainstream liberals.

“The woke movement was supposed to be about people of color not getting opportunities, the at-bats that they deserved, finally making that happen. And it was about that, for about eight seconds. And then somehow white women swung their Gucci-booted feet over the fence of oppression and stuck themselves at the front of the line.” — Bill Burr, a notoriously abrasive comedian, on “Saturday Night Live” in October 2020

Woke capital

Coined by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, this term describes brands that cast themselves as forces for social change on issues like racial justice or transgender rights, wrapping candy in rainbows or disassociating from troubled entities like the NRA. Others called it “woke-washing.” But the concept has also evolved into investment frameworks that consider how a company handles environmental, social and governance issues, or ESG.

Woke-lash

As Douthat predicted, conservatives can feel besieged — by inclusive beer and woke M&Ms, but also call-outs by X (formerly Twitter) mobs. That might explain Fox News’ obsessive pushback, compiled in a montage by news watchdog Media Matters. Those labeled “woke” include: Amazon, banks, Boy Scouts, Chick-fil-a, CIA, Covid-19, dating apps, Delta Air Lines, Disney, emojis, Federal Reserve, Goodyear Tires, Lego, the military, My Little Pony, Microsoft, NASA, Nike, real estate, websites, Walmart, Women’s History Month, The World Health Organization and Yelp.


“The idea of purity and you’re never compromised and always politically woke — you should get over that quickly. The world is messy. There are ambiguities. If I tweet about how you didn’t do something right, I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself, because man, do you see how woke I was? I called you out. That’s not bringing about change. If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far.” — Former U. S. President Barack Obama


Word Police?

Today, 40 percent of Americans see “woke” as an insult. About a third take it as a compliment, more among adults under 34. More than half of adults under 34 define woke as “being informed, educated on and aware of social injustices” while 39 percent believe it means “to be overly politically correct and policing others’ words.” Seniors are more likely to say they don’t know what it means.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis embraces an anti-woke message as part of his campaign for the GOP Presidential Nomination, saying his state is where “woke goes to die.” | Getty Images

This story appears in the October issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.