In the summer of 1963, the US edition of Newsweek ran a story reporting on the progress of the civil rights movement. The story quoted Carrie Allen, a grocery store worker from Union Springs, Alabama: “We the Negro people are now not afraid. We have woke up.”1 Reading a new biography of Martin Luther King, Jr, that quoted this story, it occurred to me that at the end of a couple of years of the cultural and political abuse of the word “woke”, this might have been the only legitimate use of this word I have come across recently.
Since late 2020, woke has become a catch-all term to misdescribe, label and dismiss the supposed excesses of those who call for greater justice in our world and greater sensitivity to the ways in which our words and systems cause harm to others. It has become a lazy shorthand for right-wing politicians to rally people for their own self-interest and there have been various media voices who have been happy to launch their own “anti-woke” bandwagons.
The irony is that the rapidity, readiness and pervasiveness with which the word has been co-opted and weaponised has demonstrated the ongoing cultural and political power of those who have chosen to misuse it in this way. It seems they are not under siege—as they argue so vehemently—and certainly not to the extent they would claim. And to take such a good and powerful word from a minority culture and so quickly twist it into a pejorative term is a prime example of their political muscle and mendacity.
While such linguistic violence is probably less surprising in our fractious political, cultural and media environments, it is more troubling when such language seeps into church contexts. While from a culture that is not my own, the simple and cultural meaning of woke is something we should applaud. Speaking up for the poor, the oppressed and the marginalised is a biblical mandate (see Proverbs 31:8,9). To sneer at those who would seek to take this seriously and to mock the language of the oppressed themselves is a callousness that is far below the calling of our faith.
So I have a simple request: please don’t use “woke” as a negative term. Yes, there are extreme examples and proposals that arise in the name of inclusivity and equality. These should be questioned and challenged as needed, but our call is always to err on the side of generosity, compassion, love and welcome. This includes choosing not to use language that is mean and exploitative, even in the words themselves.
I’m not “woke” because that is not a term that fits in my culture, even as I admire those who have used that kind of language in the work of justice in past decades. Neither am I “anti-woke” because “woke” is a term that belongs to others and my faith demands I am not anti-others. However, our faith does call us to be awake. We are to be alert to the voices and forces in the culture around us that would tempt us to deny our common humanity and the different perspectives of others. And we are to be awakened to the different way of being in the world that our faith always calls us to: “For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love and self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:17, NLT).
Perhaps Ms Allen from Union Springs, Alabama, summed it up well: we simply do not need to be as afraid as some voices would urge us to be and we do not need to be so anxious to defend our own tradition and culture. And then we do not need to be so mean in the language we use.
1. Quoted by Jonathan Eig, King: The Life of Martin Luther King, Simon & Schuster, 2023, page 313.
Nathan Brown is a book editor for Signs Publishing Company.