Pay Attention

How ‘woke’ went from black activist watchword to teen internet slang

Charles Pulliam-Moore

For years, the idea of being “woke” was a hallmark of socially-minded, black social media, but it’s recently crossed over onto the broader, whiter internet.

Can We Talk About How Woke Matt McGorry Was In 2015, BuzzFeed asked in a post celebrating the How To Get Away With Murder actor for being a cis, hetero, white guy who’s also sympathetic to gender and racial inequality. “Woke,” MTV decided, was the new “on fleek” on its list of 2016’s teen slang. And Twitter is full of people tweeting “#staywoke,” often as a joke.

What does being “woke” actually mean, though? A quick search through Urban Dictionary turns up this result:

“Being Woke means being aware. Knowing whats going on in the community”

But it’s not quite that simple. Like most slang, the meaning of “woke” changes depending on who’s saying it, and to whom. Among black people talking about Ferguson, “stay woke” might mean something like: “stay conscious of the apparatus of white supremacy, don’t automatically accept the official explanations for police violence, keep safe.”

In this usage, “woke” indicates healthy paranoia, especially about issues of racial and political justice. Staying woke about the horrific shooting of Laquan McDonald, for example, is what ultimately led the people of Chicago to learn that Rahm Emanuel, their mayor, attempted to cover the whole thing up to save his political career.

“Woke” can also refer, mockingly, to (white) people whose perspectives on race change suddenly after learning about historical injustice. (e.g. “You talked to Brad recently? He read some Ta-Nehesi Coates and now he thinks he’s woke.”)

Though it was popularized as a call to action that went hand in hand with the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the idea of getting (and staying) “woke” has taken on a different, more complex meaning in the years since it first began to spread across the internet.

Understanding that evolution is easiest when we look back at just where “woke” came from.

2008-2009: The Badu Years

In her 2008 song Master Teacher, Erykah Badu (along with Bilal and Georgia Anne Muldrow) sing about how they dream of a world where there are “no niggas,” but instead “only master teachers.” They immediately clarify that they “stay woke.” (Meaning that they recognize that, although it would be nice, their dream of racial equality is far from reality.) Badu’s song is generally considered the first major usage of the phrase.

Most (but not all) reviews of Badu’s album barely mention Master Teacher, but Post Bourgie effectively described exactly what the song and the phrase “stay woke” probably meant to the average listener in 2008: “Did any of it make any sense? Right. There’s a lot of that to go around on this disc.”

When a curious fan took to Yahoo Answers in 2010 wondering what Badu meant, the best voted answer at the time explained that she was referring to staying awake using improper grammar.

“It means she can’t speak proper English,” another user agreed.

Blatant racism aside, the overall themes of the song are fairly straightforward, but in a pre-Trayvon Martin, pre-Ferguson, pre-#BlackLivesMatter world, “stay woke” did not yet mean what it does today.

2010: Hibernation

After Badu’s album, the phrase “stay woke” didn’t appear in any prominent media for another two years. The phrase “stay woke” first appeared on Twitter in late August of 2009, but the tweet was sent late in the evening and was literally referencing the act of staying awake close to midnight.

In 2010, this is generally how “woke” was used on Twitter: to connote actual sleepiness.

2011: “Stay Woke” Awakens

By 2011, Badu’s song Master Teacher was still most peoples’ first exposure to “stay woke,” but the phrase’s non-literal meaning had started to spread. Yahoo Answers about the phrase were much more mature and closer in meaning to the current meaning.

“The ‘I Stay Woke’ line from Master Teacher can be interpreted in different ways,” Yahoo user Nick P. reasoned. “New Amerykah Part One: 4th World War is a very political album, so it could mean to stay aware of what’s going on in the world around you, and don’t let the government keep you unaware of their scandals, conspiracies, the racism that still exists, etc.”

2012-2013: Trayvon Martin, #BlackLivesMatter, and Pussy Riot

On February 26, 2012, George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin, and in the following months, Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder and subsequently found not guilty.

That same year, Erykah Badu came out in solidarity with the Russian rock group Pussy Riot. At the time, the band was being threatened with jailtime for staging a queer, sexually charged protest-performance. Badu took to Twitter expressing her support for the women and urging her followers to stay woke. It’s around this time that other Twitter users began to use the #StayWoke hashtag in reference to remaining vigilant about social issues.

The court’s decision not to convict George Zimmerman sparked a wave of public outrage that resulted in protests across the country and the creation of the Black Lives Matter movement. Social media played a key role in the way that Black Lives Matter transformed from a collection of disaffected activists into an organized phenomenon.

By 2013, Black Lives Matter had become a powerful, real-world force and an iconic hashtag used by thousands of Twitters users to organize and shed light on the stories of even more black lives that had been lost too soon.

Calling someone “woke,” in these years, was a signal that they understood these systemic injustices, and were determined to do something about them.

2014: Memeification

Around 2014, something interesting began to happen. While #BlackLivesMatter continued to thrive as a rallying cry for the modern Civil Rights movement, #StayWoke began to drift off into meme territory, and it was quickly co-opted in a way that #BlackLivesMatter never really was.

#AllLivesMatter, the racist response many people held up as the answer to #BlackLivesMatter, sought to dismiss and demean the importance of its Black-centric counterpart. That wasn’t the case with #StayWoke. Neither #StayWoke’s spelling nor its literal meaning changed, but its focus did.

The core idea—staying cognizant of large, adversarial forces—remained intact, but #StayWoke’s new meaning allowed it to be attached to mundane, ridiculous things.

2015-2016: Irony

Today, “woke,” a phrase that was meant to encourage critical thinking about social issues and injustices, has slowly morphed into something that occasionally comes across as a derogatory jab at the very idea of staying “woke.” #StayWokeTwitter, a loosely-connected Twitter subculture, is filled with people deemed to be too woke for their own good and the people who get kicks out of their over-the-top conspiracy theories.

None of this is earnest. When Jezebel writes about a “Woke Hungarian Who Did 7 Types of Blackface to Save Africa From Going Extinct,” they’re mocking a white woman who acted a damned fool in her self-righteous quest, not praising her for racial awareness.

Like “bae,” “on fleek,” and “bruh,” it was only a matter of time before “woke” was co-opted by the mainstream (read: white) internet, but there’s a certain tragedy to its loss that’s different and more painful. Like #SayHerName or #IfIDieWhileInPoliceCustody, #StayWoke was, for a time, a legitimately useful word for black people reminding each other to be conscious of black struggles during a time of systematic injustice.

Now, though, for some, it’s just an internet signifier, used for joking about how you should stay woke to about idling UPS trucks or bragging about how you have the same initials as Anakin Skywalker.

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