It’s only four letters, but ‘woke’ has become one of the most controversial and influential words today. From social media to political campaigns, you cannot escape what has popularly been named the ‘woke culture’. But what exactly does it mean?
So, let’s take a trip back in time and learn about the origin and importance of the woke culture and its significance in the present world.
1. What is Woke Culture?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term ‘woke’ as being in a state of awareness. Later, the word has evolved and includes views or awareness (sometimes derogatory) about various political and social matters.
Though its use can be seen before in the early twentieth century, the term ‘woke’ most notably dates back to the 1940s and was first used by African Americans, referring to becoming woken up or adequately aware of the issues of justice and discrimination.
Even though it started with racism, the woke culture now covers many other social injustices related to inequalities, sexism, and homophobia.
2. The Timeline of the Word ‘Woke’
While the presence and influence of the woke culture can be felt throughout the ages in various aspects of society and politics, a timeline can be constructed to understand its evolution. Here, some of the most notable events are highlighted.
One of the earliest notions of wokeness as an idea for black political consciousness originated from Jamaican philosopher Marcus Garvey, who wrote “Wake up Ethiopia! Wake up, Africa!” in 1923. It was a cry addressed to the black people to become more aware of the social and political issues of the times.
After a few years, in 1938, the word resurfaced again with Lead Belly’s song ‘Scottsboro Boys‘, which has the phrase ‘Stay Woke’. It was a protest song where the singer narrated the incident where nine black teenagers from Scottsboro, Arkansas, were wrongly accused of raping two white women in 1931.
Through his lyrics, he says, ‘So I advise everybody, be a little careful when they go along through there – best stay woke, keep their eyes open’. This was not just to focus on racial equality but much more precisely on the requirements of black people at that time.
It was a warning to people to stay alert of the threats and dangers in general and from conservative people in power. ‘Stay woke’ reminded black people of the importance of remaining watchful in the face of racist violence.
A Black leader of the Mine Workers Union spoke about how the blacks were paid less than the whites. He declared that they had been asleep, but they would remain “woke from now on.”
An essay of Melvin Kelley’s “If You’re Woke, You Dig It” appeared in The New York Times.
The author argued that black people should have a unique way of communicating that white people cannot grasp.
In a 1972 play named ‘Garvey Lives!’ by Barry Beckham, the word ‘woke’ appeared again. It had the message of staying woke and helping other black folks to wake up from their slumber of unawareness.
The song ‘Master Teacher’ of Erykah’s Badu has the lyrics ‘ I stay woke.’ Here, Erykah posed the question – what if black people had a chance to be known for what they are known for, along with having a real fighting chance in society? What if they could achieve great things in their lives?
This is when the word started as a revolution for the black community and became a common term related to social injustice. It rapidly started to be taken over and altered into an unfavourable descriptor for everything linked to inclusivity and anti-discrimination.
‘Stay woke’ became a category in the popular show Jeopardy.
Hulu premiered the comedy show ‘Woke’ which tells the story of a black cartoonist navigating the racism in society and becoming a “woke” black man.
3. Fighting the Woke Wars
In 2022, Florida Governor DeSantis signed the “Stop W.O.K.E Act,” which more or less forbids instruction on race ties or diversity that indicates someone’s status as either privileged or oppressed based on race, colour, nationality, background, or sex.
What once started as a revolutionary thought and idea of justice for the black community has now become a distorted legacy with cancel cultures and marketing campaigns.
3.1. Cancel Culture
The Cancel Culture, in many ways, is a product of the woke moment. It is the idea and acts to cancel or shun the person who performed unacceptably or voiced some unfavourable opinion. ‘Cancelling’ occurs when those who claim to be ‘woke’ do something that shows prejudice and discrimination. Whereas keeping individuals responsible for their actions is necessary, labelling someone as such without allowing for fruitful discourse does more harm than good.
3.2. The New Era of ‘Woke’
Being woke became cool and popular with entertainment media, with articles listing hot celebs who are ‘woke.’ Online magazines published lists of the “young and woke,” which included “celebrities who set an example.” Public figures who made a statement of being anti-racist, feminist, queer, or gender nonconforming were applauded.
4. The Impact of Woke Marketing
When used in advertising and promotional content, “woke” brands bring specific social or political concerns, such as prejudice or injustice, to the forefront.
In advertising and marketing, the WOKE movement grasped the media’s focus. Woke advertising campaigns have emerged as a method for making an actively attentive, significant impact and strengthening brand ties with audiences and customers globally by connecting with the public’s daily concerns through social media discussion and gathering public opinion.
Big brands, on the way to developing connections not just through product but also through brand identity, discovered the possibilities for adapting human attributes such as humility, passion, and sophistication to embrace human behaviours.
Brand businesses evolved into activists, campaigning for justice due to customers’ content with their brand services. The slowly growing belief brands that did not have a moral purpose were perceived as unauthentic by the public.
This gave rise to the meme over the internet: “Get woke, go broke.” On the one hand, companies sparked public debate on critical topics, but then, on the other hand, they degraded the actual concept of woke.
Popular global brands have been embracing feminism as a marketing technique to promote their products in the market while they have discovered a more straightforward approach to increase their sales. Brands like Pantene and Dove remained steady with their marketing tools with a greater focus on WOKE attributes.
The advertisements’ awareness even influenced recent UK legislation to take a step to prohibit stereotyped gender portrayal in all forms of advertising.
For example, reflecting closely on the #LikeAGirl campaign, research shows that the campaign’s video influenced a shift in the perception of approximately 70% of women and 60% of men. Being a feminist and openly promoting feminist messages for marketing has become so popular in overall trend in today’s generation that it is now considered cliché.
If properly executed, such campaigns can always use their influence to promote meaningful cultural shifts. Nonetheless, brands must consider their customer groups, evaluating whether such a campaign will positively influence the region. A bold campaign is insufficient regarding woke marketing for a brand to be considered truly ‘woke’.
5. In the Wake of ‘Woke Culture’
Dismantling oppressive structures that have been disregarded for a long time, or worse, are still being maintained by those in positions of power, is at the heart of movements like Black Lives Matter. Therefore, it would appear that people must “wake up” and be “woke.”
Being “woke” to particular concerns seems to be a very positive thing, given that racial and social inequalities of many kinds are still pervasive in many cultures today. And besides, how else can you hope to solve such problems if you are unaware of them?
For the same reason, it appears critical to identify and categorise this movement. The term “woke” may appear to be overused in general usage, yet it refers to one side of the culture war. And now that you have given it a name, you can recognise, reveal, and oppose it.