Speaking Politics word of the week: woke

Edgy, and an answer to the anti-PC campaign by the right, 'woke' is getting some play at the party conventions.

Mary Altaffer/AP
Tim Kaine is very 'woke,' according to a former Michigan governor.

Woke: A social media slang term that’s now found its way into politics; in that context, it signifies being mindful of and connected to a group’s important concerns.

Enthusing over Hillary Clinton’s selection of Tim Kaine as her running mate, former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm praised Mr. Kaine on Twitter as someone who “is as decent, honorable, selfless [a] soul as you will ever meet. A man with the heart of a servant, who is ‘woke.’ ’’

Her endorsement provoked a flood of responses from liberals questioning whether the Virginia senator deserved the label because of his stances that they view unfavorably, such as supporting trade deals.

Ms. Granholm’s tweet came as various commentators have been trying to explain “woke.” The most popular entry in the Urban Dictionary defines it as “being aware” and “knowing what’s going on in the community.”

But such a definition is “not quite that simple,” said Charles Pulliam-Moore, writing in Fusion earlier this year. He noted it was popularized as a call to action associated with the Black Lives Matter movement, but that it “has taken on a different, more complex meaning” over time.

“Like most slang, the meaning of ‘woke’ changes depending on who’s saying it, and to whom,” he said. “Among black people talking about Ferguson [Missouri], ‘stay woke’ might mean something like: ‘stay conscious of the apparatus of white supremacy, don’t automatically accept the official explanations for police violence, keep safe.’ ”

Now that its popularity has spread, he added, the word “has slowly morphed into something that occasionally comes across as a derogatory jab at the very idea of staying ‘woke.’ ”

In another dissection in the New York Times Magazine, Amanda Hess described woke as “the inverse of ‘politically correct.’ If ‘P.C.’ is a taunt from the right, a way of calling out hypersensitivity in political discourse, then ‘woke’ is a back-pat from the left, a way of affirming the sensitive.”

Bustle’s Maddy Foley pointed out that singer/activist Erykah Badu first used “stay woke” in her 2008 song “Master Teacher,” and that within a few years, “the phrase had begun to gain popularity as a way of describing an informed, questioning, self-educating individual, which is essentially how we use it today.” 

Like other pop-culture words such as “cray-cray” and “throwing shade,” it appears to be finding a home in the political realm. At last week’s Republican National Convention, Jezebel writer Anna Merlan wrote of encountering veteran GOP strategist Karl Rove and asking him, “How woke are you?”

Merlan added: “ ‘I don’t know what that is,’ Rove said, a little irritably as he speed-walked away from us.”

She also tweeted about an encounter with radio show host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones: “Alex Jones says he’s ‘100 percent woke’ after I explained what woke is.”

Chuck McCutcheon writes his “Speaking Politics” blog exclusively for Politics Voices.

Interested in decoding what candidates are saying? Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark’s latest book, “Doubletalk: The Language, Code, and Jargon of a Presidential Election,” is now out.

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