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Unpacking 'Stay Woke': The Need for Redefining the Contemporary Narrative

Feb 26, 2024
A group of toy blocks spelling the words


Terms such as “stay woke,” “woke,” “wokeness,” and even the hashtag, “#staywoke,” have become part of the mainstream vocabulary these days.

The dictionary defines “woke” as being alert to injustices in society, especially racism. To be "woke" in the Black community means that someone is informed, educated, and conscious of social injustice and racial inequality. However, these terms have been assigned different meanings as different groups appropriated them.


Stay Woke: A Brief History

The phrase "stay woke" has its roots in the African American community. It was their rallying cry urging Black individuals to remain conscious and alert regarding social and political matters, especially those concerning racial injustice.

In the 60s and 70s, "stay woke" was associated with the civil rights and Back Power movements. Again, it served as a reminder for individuals to remain actively engaged in understanding and challenging systemic racism, inequality, and social oppression.

The phrase experienced a resurgence in popularity during the 2010s alongside the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, which sought to combat police violence and racial profiling. Particularly noteworthy was its usage as a cautionary reminder following the tragic police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, in 2014. "Stay woke" served as a rallying cry against police brutality during the protests in Ferguson. It appeared on street signs and merchandise, renewing the call for individuals to remain vigilant and aware in the face of injustice.

Brown's death was followed by the deaths of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, George Floyd, and others -- which continued the growing popularity of the phrase and its use in protests and activist circles.


The Cultural Appropriation of “Stay Woke”

The term "stay woke" has, without a doubt, been subject to cultural appropriation by various groups.

Cultural appropriation refers to the adoption or borrowing of elements from a marginalized culture by members of a dominant or privileged culture, often without understanding or respecting the cultural context and significance. If you want to read more about the dangerous impact of cultural appropriation and how to avoid it, read the DEI+ issue titled, How to Avoid Cultural Appropriation.

Here is the link:

With "stay woke," cultural appropriation occurred when individuals outside the African American community began adopting the term without acknowledging or respecting its historical and cultural significance. This appropriation has led to the weakening of the term's original intent: to address systemic racism and social injustice.

As a result, the term has been misused, misunderstood, and distorted, losing its potency in addressing the issues it was initially meant to confront.


The Weaponization of “Stay Woke”

Initially, "stay woke" signified vigilance against racial injustice and discrimination. However, in today's contentious cultural landscape, the phrase is often used as a weapon in ideological battles.

Although the Black community has historically employed the term as a protest against racism and injustice, its entry into mainstream usage by individuals outside the Black community has eroded its original significance. The politicization of "stay woke" has sparked debates and controversies, as the term has been appropriated, watered down, and misused by different groups with conflicting agendas.

Today, for some, the term represents an affront to progressive ideals. These individuals have denounced the ideology associated with being "woke" and have pledged not to capitulate to its agenda. Indeed, the resistance against "wokeness" has resulted in the removal of race-related curriculum from education, the refusal to offer Advanced Placement African American history courses in high schools, and college presidents have pledged to avoid addressing systemic oppression in race-related content.

And that is not all. Schools have implemented policies limiting discussion and curriculum on race, systemic oppression, gender, and sexual orientation. Wokeness is now equated to cultural Marxism which is tearing the fabric of our society. Across the country, we are seeing hundreds of legislative efforts targeting LGBTQ+ identities and race in education.

In the article, What Does Woke Mean and Why Are Some Conservatives Using It?, Maurice Mitchell, a Social Movement Strategist with Movement 4 Black Lives, contends that "'woke' has become a convenient tool for those utilizing white grievance politics in electoral strategies, as it is closely linked with Black communities. This association allows them to advance their agenda without resorting to overtly racist language."

Today, while some consider "being woke" synonymous with being a proponent of social justice, others perceive it as an excessive manifestation of political correctness. Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam even suggested that "the true intention behind 'woke' is to create division in the world..."


Final Thoughts

“Stay woke" has expanded beyond its original context and has become more widely adopted as a catchphrase. However, the phrase demands us to become more aware of the various social, political, and cultural issues impacting our society.

We need to be informed of the power dynamics currently in place that continue to perpetuate injustice and inequality. So, before using “stay woke” or other related phrases, think of the following:


  1. Remember the historical origin of the word. It was first used as a warning to Blacks to “stay woke” against the many injustices they were facing in society. If you want to deepen your understanding in this area, read Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America's Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing, by Dr. Joy Degruy. You can no longer stay misinformed!


  1. As the phrase was appropriated by other groups, it took on many different meanings. Some see “wokeness” as a religious experience, others connect it to Critical Race Theory and even DEI. In addition, depending on your political leaning, “stay woke” can carry a positive (i.e., we are fighting for social justice) or negative (i.e., it is dividing us) Yet, for others, it is part of their weaponized discourse.


  1. Before employing these terms, ensure you are not using them in a vacuum. Ensure your actions are aiming for social justice and contributing toward a fairer society. This entails elevating your awareness of ongoing issues, committing yourself wholeheartedly, and putting in the necessary effort toward a better place for all.


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