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Two Steps Forward

Why can't we take back 'woke'?

It's time to reclaim the word in the name of a just and sustainable future.

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It's time to wake up to "woke."

The word, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as "awareness of racial or social discrimination and injustice," but whose use has expanded to include a broader range of issues, has become weaponized by a relatively small group of right-wing politicians and pundits.

It's now being deployed as a means of dismissing, disparaging and denigrating progressive ideas and ideals — and, often, anyone whose views don’t hew to right-wing orthodoxy. That includes most issues that fall under the sustainability rubric: the well-being of people and the planet, from climate change to racial equity to the rights of women to the social safety net.

As the Washington Post reported recently: "Woke has turned into conservatives’ favorite word for anything they dislike."

Why all this bother for a single 4-letter word?

It's time to take back the word in the name of our collective future.

Now, I’m keenly aware that, as a white man, "woke" isn’t necessarily mine to take back. (More on that in a moment.) "Woke" dates back decades in the Black community. Its origin is attributed to a 1938 folk song by Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter and was popularized in a 1962 New York Times essay, "If You’re Woke You Dig It," by novelist William Melvin Kelley. It referred to the need for Blacks to recognize and speak out against the ways they had been held down by a white-dominated society. A 2008 song by American singer-songwriter Erykah Badu, "Master Teacher," prominently featured the lyric "I stay woke." Around that time, "woke" crossed cultures and entered the mainstream.

Then, the backlash.

Conservative politicians, commentators and critics began hurling "woke" as a pejorative, a simple (and, arguably, lazy) way to denigrate and disempower any political or social movement or policy deemed a threat to conservative values.

It doesn't have to be this way. I submit that we must reclaim "woke" to neutralize its negative connotations. And do so boldly and unapologetically. To wit:

  • If creating an inclusive economy that considers the well-being of those at the economic margins of society is woke, I’m in!
  • If ensuring that the justice system provides fair and equal treatment for all races and ethnicities is woke, sign me up!
  • If ensuring a livable planet for future generations is woke, I accept!
  • If ensuring that workers are paid a living wage and aren't exploited or abused is woke, count me in!
  • If requiring businesses to operate in a way that doesn’t contribute further to the climate or biodiversity crises is woke, that's me!

Why all this bother for a single four-letter word? Because, to be honest, the other side has succeeded in using the word to undermine the ideals so many of us hold dear. Its use of woke effectively trivializes the important work that needs to be done to transition to a just, equitable and sustainable world. We need to stand up for those goals, not let them be defined by those who find them threatening to the status quo.

Layered question

Back to who "owns" "woke." Does it belong to the Black community, in which case I — and my white brothers and sisters — should keep away? Or has it fallen into common usage such that its original meaning has taken a back seat?

I asked my friend and colleague Bryan Lewis to weigh in. Lewis runs the Emerging Leaders program at, my company’s nonprofit spinoff, which supports and advances professionals of color in the sustainability field.

"That’s a layered question," he responded when I asked who, if anyone, has a rightful claim on the word.

"On one hand," Lewis continued, "‘woke’ has carried meaning in the Black community for decades. It’s dizzying to see the way the word — originally rooted in Black empowerment — has been packaged and repackaged for conversations that many times either don’t involve us, or worse, actively disempower us.

"On the other hand, no, we don’t own the word or how it’s used — especially now. To be honest, most of us don’t use the word much anymore. Why would we, with how it’s been weaponized against our identities and communities?"

I get it. Still, I like to think that we — all of us, regardless of race or ethnic background — can take back the word from the largely conservative, straight, white, older — and climate-denying — population that’s been using it to stifle dialogue and thwart progress.

Besides, it's not as if a singular definition of "woke" has taken root in Americans' minds. An Ipsos poll released last month found that Americans are divided on whether "woke" has positive or negative connotations. Two in five thought it was an insult, while about a third considered it a compliment.

So, there’s still time to redeem the word.

Can we do it? It won’t be simple or quick, but we must try. If we’re to keep moving forward in addressing some of the most critical issues of the day, we’ll need to make our case — clearly and forcefully. And, in the process, relegate those working to subvert the sustainability imperative to the dustbin of history.

Thanks for reading. You can find my past articles here. Also, I invite you to follow me on Twitter and LinkedIn, subscribe to my Monday morning newsletter, GreenBuzz, from which this was reprinted, and listen to GreenBiz 350, my weekly podcast, co-hosted with Heather Clancy.

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