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Since when was woke a bad thing?

Martha Brown, Sir Jonathan North Girls’ College

When was the last time you heard someone use ‘woke’ for anything but an insult? The adjective
woke originated in African American English, gaining more widespread use in 2014 as part of the
Black Lives Matter movement. Until recently, the word has merely meant being awake to injustice
and inequality in society. However, within the last few years, woke seems to have taken on a new

In a recent tribute, Britain’s Got Talent judge Amanda Holden claimed that the late Paul O’Grady
“was not woke in any way”, adding “I love people like that.” This sparked criticism, with one twitter
user commenting “Either @AmandaHolden has no idea what ‘woke’ means, or she has no idea who
Paul O’Grady was.” Paul himself was a queer activist, anti-austerity campaigner, and an advocator
for ending stigma around AIDS. In other words, practically the definition of woke.

Holden is not alone. According to YouGov, 59% of people in Britain are unaware of what woke
means. Of the remaining 41%, only 3 in 10 consider themselves to be woke. Furthermore, 23%
believe that being woke is a positive thing, 33% see it as neither good nor bad, and 37% consider
being ‘woke’ to be a bad thing.

Recently, in response to Bud Light signing up trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney to promote the brand,
a conservative-leaning group known as Consumers’ Research have taken contempt for all things
woke one step further, creating a system that allows users to receive ‘woke alerts’, warning them
about companies that the creators deem ‘too far-left’ in their marketing. Executive Director Will Hild
claims that the alerts will “help consumers make better informed decisions about where to spend
their money.” According to Axios, Consumers’ Research is spending a whopping six figures to
promote their text alert system to the public.

In contrast, there are some who believe that ‘woke culture’ is nothing worth grumbling about. For
instance, in an episode of her documentary series Kathy Burke: Growing Up, actor and comedian
Kathy Burke laments the way that the word woke is used to ridicule those that advocate for equality
and change. She observes “They’re calling you ‘woke’ if you call out bad things, basically. If you’re
not racist, you’re woke. If you’re not homophobic, oh you’re woke.’ Additionally, she urges young
people to “Be woke, kids. Be woke. Be wide awake and f***ing call it out.”

For centuries, older generations have mocked their younger counterparts for their opinions and
behaviours, take for example, a quote from Aristotle, written in fourth century BC about the young
people of the time, “They think they know everything, and are always quite sure about it.”

Therefore, it’s unsurprising that a word that is so often used when referring to young people has
been diabolised. However, my hope is that woke, now a buzzword, weaponised alongside phrases
like ‘social justice warrior’ or ‘snowflake,’ can be reclaimed, returning to what it once was, a label
worn proudly by the people that it described.

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