How the meaning of woke changed in 2022

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Some political parties see it as a danger, and Justice and Security Minister Yesilgöz called it “a threat to the rule of law”: ‘wokism’. It has become perhaps one of the most controversial words this year.

Cultural sociologist Walter Weyns, professor at the University of Antwerp, wrote the book Who woke up what? He prefers not to use the term wokism. “It gives the impression that it’s a well-rounded ideology with thinkers, people in charge and spokespeople. That’s not the case, wake is much looser.” But what is awakened and where does it come from?

Stay awake

First the beginning: the word woke originated in the 1930s when it was used by black Americans as snake (slang) to keep each other aware and ‘wake up’ to structural racism. Keeping each other from blind spots to racism was described as ‘stay awake’. From the 1960s, it took on a political connotation when black civil rights movements began to use it.

“It was used as a rallying cry to make people aware of the injustice they were living with,” says Weyns. Since this century, the phenomenon has also been used in feminist circles. “Because of its rapid spread through social media, it was used for all forms of exclusion, discrimination and deprivation and inequality.”

According to Monique Roelofs, professor of philosophy of art and culture at the University of Amsterdam, the expression is woke popularized and expanded over the last decade, but also slowly changed its meaning. “Now it’s about awareness of all forms of social oppression, structural privilege and it’s also explicitly related to sexuality and gender.”

More familiar, but also negative

In Great Britain, the agency Ipsos has researched the concept. The number of people reading or hearing about be awake there is an increase: 65 percent of those questioned knew the term. In 2020, it was still 49 percent. In particular, those over the age of 55 became more familiar with the concept in the meantime.

Got in recent years woke also a more negative connotation: more people in Britain take it as an insult, according to Ipsos. This feeling also increased especially among the over 55s.

Cultural sociologist Weyns: “Because woke used in many ways, it has different charges. It adds to the confusion about the meaning.”

Fierce advocates of freedom of expression woke as a stifling of academic freedom. “In a way it is,” says Weyns, “but followers of woke ask to talk about minority groups in a respectful way. Why? Because certain people feel that experience, feel insecure and want to be heard and understood.”

In early December, research from various college and university magazines found that higher education employees who try to promote diversity regularly encounter (online) harassment. It also happened to Roelofs when she started working at UvA in 2020. She received hate mail within a few months. “I was called a vigilante whore,” she says. The professor does not want to give an explanation for the hate reaction.

“Slow it is woke in general, language has become a negative concept. It is used as a swear word. I am also shocked by Minister Yesilgöz’s statements,” continues Roelofs. The minister mentioned woke a problematic movement that subordinates free speech to subjective feelings. “It seems paradoxical because ‘anti-Wokism’ itself commits exactly the kind of exclusion it is. woke of accused. It discourages a critical analysis of culture in teaching.”

Escalated cancellation culture

Woke is often confused with certain extreme aspects of a cancellation culture, says Roelofs. It is boycotting people who, in the eyes of some, have gone wrong. As an example, she cites the swift removal of a painting at Leiden University last month, following a tweet by an employee who was annoyed by the canvas. The painting from 1976 depicts six elderly men from the university’s then board of directors.

“Here, no questions were asked that needed to be asked,” says Roelofs. Questions like: “How does a painting work? How does it relate to the function of the room in question?” The painting has since been put back on temporary display.

“The escalated cancellation culture should be criticized and woke must be seen separately from it,” says the professor. “I believe in the power of public debate, a critical analysis of culture and subtle reflection on it and seeing the nuances. This creates greater support, which causes certain sharp edges of the debate to go away.”

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