What does 'woke' mean and why are some conservatives using it?

The definition of "woke" changes depending on who you ask.

January 20, 2023, 3:38 PM

The definition of "woke" changes depending on who you ask.

The term has recently been used by some conservatives as an insult against progressive values.

The term, however, was originally coined by progressive Black Americans and used in racial justice movements in the early to mid-1900s.

To be "woke" politically in the Black community means that someone is informed, educated and conscious of social injustice and racial inequality, Merriam-Webster Dictionary states.

One of its earliest uses was in a historical recording of the protest song "Scottsboro Boys" by Lead Belly. In that recording, it was used as a term about staying aware of the potential for racist violence as a Black person in America.

The term, in one of its contemporary meanings, began to gain more popularity at the start of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2014, according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

PHOTO: In this May 24, 2021, file photo, activist Maurice Mitchell speaks to those attending a demonstration by various activists in Washington, D.C.
In this May 24, 2021, file photo, activist Maurice Mitchell speaks to those attending a demonstration by various activists who are calling on President Joe Biden to not compromise on election promises regarding climate change, health care, jobs and social justice, in Washington, D.C.
Jemal Countess/Getty Images for Green New Deal, FILE

The Ferguson, Missouri, protests that year helped wake many people up to the social injustices of police brutality against the Black community following the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown.

Brown's death was shortly followed by the fatal police shootings of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and others -- which continued the growing popularity of the phrase and its use in protest and activist circles for many years to come, according to research from Ohio State University on the rhetoric of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The term has since been co-opted by some Republicans as a pejorative term this midterm election cycle to signify the identity-based social justice issues that some Democrats and progressives push for, representatives from the Democratic Governors Association and Working Families Party tell ABC News.

"Woke" has been used by former President Donald Trump, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, and several Trump-backed midterm candidates including Kari Lake and Mehmet Oz.

Woke is defined by the DeSantis administration as "the belief there are systemic injustices in American society and the need to address them," according to DeSantis' general counsel, as reported by The Washington Post.

"We reject woke ideology," DeSantis said in his election night speech. "We will never ever surrender to the woke agenda. People have come here because of our policies."

The pressure against "woke"-ness in Florida has already led to the apparent erasure of race-related content in education, including the rejection of an AP African American history course in state high schools and vows from college presidents against including some race-related content that covers "intersectionality, or the idea that systems of oppression should be the primary lens through which teaching and learning are analyzed and/or improved upon."

Identity has been at the heart of the so-called culture wars being seen across the country, as Democrats and Republicans go head-to-head on issues such as LGBTQ+ rights, racial education in schools, and more.

PHOTO: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gives a victory speech during his election night watch party at the Tampa Convention Center on Nov. 8, 2022, in Tampa, Fla.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gives a victory speech after defeating Democratic gubernatorial candidate Rep. Charlie Crist during his election night watch party at the Tampa Convention Center on Nov. 8, 2022, in Tampa, Fla.
Octavio Jones/Getty Images

For example, DeSantis himself has implemented policies in schools that have been criticized for limiting discussion and curriculum on race, systemic oppression, gender and sexual orientation with the Parental Rights in Education Law and the now-blocked Stop W.O.K.E Act. He argues these laws give parents more say in what their kids learn in schools.

"What you see now with the rise of this woke ideology is an attempt to really delegitimize our history and to delegitimize our institutions, and I view the wokeness as a form of cultural Marxism," DeSantis said in a December 2021 speech. "They really want to tear at the fabric of our society."

Across the country, hundreds of similar conservative-led legislative efforts have targeted LGBTQ+ identities and race in education.

Some conservatives have been critical of those using the phrase.

Maurice Mitchell, the national director of the Working Families Party and the Social Movement Strategist with Movement 4 Black Lives, calls conservative use of "woke" a "dog whistle."

"Because 'woke' is associated with Black people, it's been a useful club for those who want to beat those seeking justice over the head with white grievance politics to win elections without deploying explicitly racist terms," Mitchell said.

David Turner, the communications director of the Democratic Governors Association, said Republicans' use of the term can make them appear as "bullies."

"Republicans, time and again, have overstepped where they think the average voter is and where most Americans are on mainstream issues," Turner said. "This also applies to their hyper-focus on niche cultural war issues."

The Republican National Committee, Republican Governor Association and DeSantis' office did not respond to ABC News' requests for comment.