Protesters in Boston.

Protesters in Boston. Photo: Stuart Cahill/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald

How Did “Woke” Become a Slur?

Protesters in Boston.
Protesters in Boston. Photo: Stuart Cahill/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald

While reading an article about corporate culture’s appropriation of words commonly used in Black culture, I came across the acronym AAVE.

What is AAVE? African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is a variety, or dialect, of American English, most commonly spoken today by urban working-class and middle-class African Americans.

AAVE has a rich culture dating back to American slavery. Slaves invented their own version of English to speak with other slaves, affording them the ability to communicate in a way whites might not understand. AAVE was a way for Black people to share messages, ideas, and activities.

Numerous words, which were given new life by Black people, eventually found their way into mainstream culture—words like “crib, crew, and yasss. But now that the term “woke” has entered mainstream culture, some people’s use of the term has begun to sound a bit like a racial slur.

“Woke” was originally a term used largely by Black people to signify a consciousness around racial issues in America. But in culture and politics today, the most prominent uses of “woke” are as an insult. Those critical of so-called woke ideas and people often invoke the idea that they are being “canceled” or a victim of “cancel culture.”

Cancel culture is broadly the idea that people advocating more liberal ideas, particularly around identity and race, can publicly shame those who don’t agree with them, sometimes leading to people being removed from their jobs, having their invitations revoked, or having their products boycotted—in other words “canceled.”

Today, “woke” ideas involve identity and race (like the idea that white people in America have privilege or that Black Americans deserve reparations). While the term originally pertained to racial issues, it has come to encompass conversations around art, politics, economic and social class, gender inequality, trans rights, and environmentalism.

Conservatives and Republican politicians have begun using the term “woke” as a way to generate resentment against Black Americans who are pushing for equal rights and recognition. Casting people as too “woke” and eager to cancel people, products, and companies is just another way to push back against the movement for racial equity. In our increasingly diverse country, conservatives are attempting to discredit the efforts of traditionally marginalized groups and activists who are exposing racism, discrimination, and injustice.

The term “woke” has come to encompass everything and anything conservatives don’t like, from defunding the police, or abolishing capitalism, to the use of gender neutral terms.

Can we have our language back, please? Conservatives are not willing to shift their perspective, to listen to and respect other people’s experiences and become empathetic and understanding of other’s obstacles and challenges. They would rather remain unbothered and retain their idea that America works just the way it should. And this is why the term “woke” was coined in the first place. Because, as Audre Lorde says, “we can’t dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools.” So here we are, out here making our own tools.

Get woke. It’s time to stop getting upset at the wrong things. Learn to embrace difference so that we can all flourish. Stay woke. We must continue to pressure corporations and politicians to do the right thing.

 

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