What is ‘woke’ and why is it a four-letter word?

By Lindsay Advocate

Calgary Women's March, ca. 2018. Licensed under the Creative Commons.

By David Rapaport, adjunct professor of sociology, Trent University

In a previous article for the Advocate, I commented that the proper use of language is an essential component of honest and coherent political discussion. Certain words or phrases, when used frequently and maliciously, act as ‘dog whistles,’ or signals to an audience. What might seem harmless and neutral is in fact harmful and even dishonest, in the sense that it signals an entirely different meaning from what the word normally means.

Conservative commentators and politicians have adopted the term ‘woke.’ The term is a disparaging and even dismissive description of people who express concern and advocate for or act on behalf of the disadvantaged and the less privileged. The use of the term woke acts as a commentary on the character of those of us who speak out, donate money, or advocate for correcting historic injustices and real disadvantages that are still experienced by too many people. The term woke is now a slur, a dis, an insult, an affront. It transforms caring and sympathy into vices. Conversely, indifference and non-caring are transformed into virtues.

Ironically, the origin of the term woke can be found in Black American culture. It can be traced to the music of iconic folk singer, Lead Belly in 1938 when he warned Black Americans to stay ‘woke’ to racial prejudice. It gained more recent usage by Black Lives Matter activists in the mid-2010s, a call to be aware of the realities of racism. With the rise of the nationalist right, the term was adopted by ‘anti-woke’ crusaders around the world; Ron DeSantis in Florida, Balasz Orban in Hungary, the National Rally in France, Alternative for Germany, Trump supporters in the United States, and members of the so-called freedom convoy in Canada.

The Canadian conservative movement has joined this linguistic war against progressive, anti-discrimination politics. Maxine Bernier of the People’s Party frequently challenges and critiques ‘wokeism.’ On Twitter he recently wrote that “you cannot be a woke leftist if you are mentally sane.” In March, the Conservative Party of Canada posted a petition that began with “Tell the woke censors to keep their hands off the Internet.” Surely a petition against Bill C-11 could have been written more honestly and constructively. Pierre Poilievre, the CPC leader uses the term regularly – against the Liberal Government, the CRTC, the CBC, and many policies with which he disagrees.

The anti-woke campaign is a rerun of the politically correct charges of three decades ago. The terms woke and politically correct reposition the spotlight of important discussions onto the advocates and allies of the disadvantaged and away from those who are disadvantaged by inequality, homophobia, sexism, racism, and ageism.

If we are going to have a culture war, one that is grounded in our beliefs, our values, and our practices then let’s be honest about where we stand. If you are against programs, legislation and regulation that aim to correct historic injustices against women, Indigenous Peoples, people of colour, gays, lesbians, less-abled, and seniors – then simply say so. Come out of the bushes. Defend your privilege. Please spare us the dishonesty of hiding behind a false charge of wokeism, which points a finger in the wrong direction.

Let’s keep the discussion on discrimination, social justice, inequality, and privilege serious, meaningful and focused. Using terms like politically correct and woke only distract us and demean the community that is trying to address them. But address them we must. To do otherwise would diminish us as the social beings that we are meant to be.


  1. C. Wilson says:

    It says a lot about a person to me, when they regard empathy and caring for others and for the environment as a detriment. The irony is that the human race evolved as the apex predator on the planet by tribes co-operating and working together to hunt, house and care for themselves and their extended families.

    Those who think they are an island and whose rights should subsume all other living thing’ are the cause of many of today’s troubles around the planet. Every dictatorship starts with a group who think they have the absolute right to rule others, without any consultation or compromise. I.e., Russia, North Korea.

  2. Angel Godsoe says:

    Taking Aunt Jemima off the pancake box isn’t correcting historical wrongs. It’s amplifying division.
    Conservative doesn’t mean anti social justice, it means preserving our resources and upholding our values.
    There IS a group (and groups) who think they have the absolute right to rule others without any consultation or compromise. They are not Woke or Conservative , but they love it when we expend energy arguing among each other.
    Right now, our country faces the very real threat of foreign interference from REAL dictators. They fashion themselves as U.N. spokespeople and international consultants who spout platitudes about making our countries “fair and safe”. They are unelected and they have infiltrated and are influencing our governments. These corporate criminals and their agendas are the real enemies, not each other. Let’s stop focusing on Left and Right and move forward on the common ground of saving our country and ,yes, our democracy and freedoms. That is what’s at stake here.

  3. Wallace says:

    The term ‘woke’ was created by the Left to use as a weapon to imply that anyone who disagrees with a certain ideology is asleep. Its a term used in the most free , fair and equitable countries on Earth by a small number of people who want to upset our system. Its a term ONLY used in the West. Do people in China, India,Pakistan,Russia, Indonesia, any African nation use this term ? ( vast majority of the worlds population)-NO THEY DO NOT– Its a term used, only in the West, where certain groups really don’t want equality- they want priority and special treatment. Its a ideology that most people know is nonsense. Its an ideology that inspired policies like Affirmative Action, which has been a dismal failure (The U.S Supreme Court just ruled that Affirmative Action in Universities is discrimination – a fact we all knew from day 1) — An ideology that is behind laws in California that allow thieves to steal 1000$ worth of items with no consequences. An ideology that to some extent, forgives criminal activity up to and including murder, based on the race of the criminal. An ideology that allows huge, destructive protests/looting, by 1 group, while covid mandates made it illegal for people to go to church. I could go on and on and on and on ….. Its funny how the author of this article turns things around and says ‘wokeness’ is a weapon used by the Right. The author is either out of touch, or lying.

  4. Wallace says:

    Also—–author of article felt a need to mention Trump — does he realize the same groups that push this woke ideology are the ones who intentionally lied to the world, for 4 long years, about Trump being a Russian asset? Also, the woke ideology, and the people pushing it, are responsible for biological males being allowed to compete with biological females in sports. A Canadian womens weightlifting record was smashed yesterday, Aug 16, by a biological male, who identifies as a female, by a whopping 200kgs. Lia Thomas , another biological male swimmer who identifies as a female, is destroying female swimmers in the NCAA . Anyone remember the Oakville high school teacher who showed up for class every day wearing fake, watermelon sized breasts and a blond wig ???? The whole world laughed/cringed at us for that nonsense. That teacher was protected by a woke school board until he was paid an enormous sum of money to resign….. There are many many stories like this. And the author of this article wonders why people mock the woke ideology ???

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