US politics has been deluged by heated debates surrounding cancel culture, “wokeness,” and critical race theory. What do these three topics have in common? Some would say that they are all ostensibly progressive ideas that seek understanding and accountability regarding histories of oppression. Others might argue they are all facets of an illiberal and regressive left trying to shame everyone into submission. Yet if you ask most people (regardless of their political background) to define these terms, you would likely get Justice Potter Stewart “I know it when I see it”–type answers.
It’s telling that all three stem from Black communal, online, or academic discourses that got co-opted—and then caricatured—as they traveled across the political spectrum. CRT is a legal theory looking at how historic and contemporary racial injustices are embedded in laws and policies that are on their face color-blind. Though it isn’t taught widely outside of grad school, it has been accused of murdering the souls of white children. Professor Meredith Clark and writer Clyde McGrady have written about how the word “cancel“ traveled from Black digital discourse to become a mainstream buzzword about censorship and mob justice. But, in my opinion, the mutation of “woke” has been the most egregious.
“Woke” was used in the Black community to convey the need to be socially aware of anti-Black oppressive systems, ideas, etc. in order to at least safely navigate through them—and at most dismantle them. A simple analogy would be the code in The Matrix—just knowing it’s there can help a character survive. Woke could range from James Baldwin in “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?” or Laurence Fishburne’s character yelling “Wake up!” in Spike Lee’s School Daze, or Georgia Anne Muldrow saying “Woke is definitely a black experience.”
Black people have also used woke in (often, but not exclusively) Afro-centric spiritual, cosmological, or metaphysical discourse. The topics could be anything from “opening your third eye,” staying attuned to the energy of the people around you, or more charged discussions like not praying to White Jesus or what is the “correct” religion for Pan-African people to have.
Though the term was often used unironically, Black people have also poked fun at woke as well—satirizing people in our community who take it too far and become too conspiratorial, connecting vastly disconnected things to the “White Man.” Dave Chappelle’s character “Conspiracy Brother” argued that saying “Good morning” was racist. In A Black Lady Sketch Show, Dr. Hadassah Olayinka Ali-Youngman makes a completely inappropriate toast at her sister’s wedding. If you follow Black Twitter, you know there is no shortage of memes poking at the overly performative aspects of being woke.
Being woke implies that in order to survive as an African American, you need a level of social, historical, and, in some cases, spiritual literacy to understand the world; to circumnavigate the traps and arrive at the Truth. However, most people (including some Black people) were introduced to the term “woke” through media framing of progressive politics.
My best guess is that the co-option of woke started in the online attention economy with liberal journalists (I don’t use the term “liberal” as a pejorative here) who go to Black Twitter for content. News stories about “woke corporations” and headlines like “Wokeness is a problem and we all know it” started to crop up between 2020 and now. On Buzzfeed, you can find “20 Old Movies That Had Surprisingly Woke Moments.”
Academic and media elites started to focus on excesses of social awareness. But back at woke’s origin, most Black folk remain socially vigilant (I hope I don’t have to explain why). It was in the media ecosystem where “woke” started to drift away from its Black communal usage to something else. It became more synonymous with “progressive” (broadly defined) and eventually something akin to mendacious virtual-signaling. Since that happened, conservatives and critics of progressivism (across the political spectrum) have had a field day.
Representative Tim Scott said “woke supremacy” is just as bad as white supremacy. Linguistic scholar John McWhorter describes wokeness as a new religion. On CNN, anchors ask Democratic politicians if the “woke left” is responsible for election losses. In Discourse magazine, one writer asks “Was Kant the First ‘Woke Philosopher?” Recently, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said that he will push for a “Stop Woke Act” to fight the “state sanctioned racism” of CRT.
There has been a torrent of coverage of the evils of cancel culture and the moral panic over CRT being taught in elementary and high school. Others have connected all three phenomena to Karl Marx. Today, the word “woke” conjures up something between excessive, even hypocritical, political correctness and totalitarian cultural Marxism. Cancel culture is discussed as if it were definitionally something that derives from and only exists on the left—in either ignorant or ignominious disregard of the right-wing crusade to ban CRT, among other things. CRT itself has become synonymous with, to put it bluntly, reverse racist indoctrination aimed at innocent white kids.
These terms have specific origins and conventional usage in Black communities (whether in the barbershop, on Twitter, or in academia) but have all been twisted to attack the left. I’m not sure if folks connecting “woke” to Marx or Kant or whomever are being deliberately anti-Black—or if they are just reaching for anything to spark disgust toward progressive ideas. Whatever the reason, it’s exhaustingly absurd.
To be clear, language will always be appropriated and co-opted—and social media platforms allow this process to happen much more quickly. Though political journalism has long been framed in adversarial, horse-race terms, headlines that say one politician “blasts” or “slams” or “claps back” their political opponent illustrate how online terminology affects the framing of news. With the advent of Black Lives Matter, we see “Why (Insert Topic) Matter” headlines much more often than before. There will always be pathways along which language moves from subcultures to the mainstream.
But in the context of America’s racial politics, Black speech is often co-opted in ways that delegitimize the very ideas, causes, and concerns it articulates. Though this backlash isn’t all inherently racialized (except, perhaps, with CRT), it is essentially a mainstream reaction to discourses originating in Black communities that positions them as representing a kind of anti-rationality: un-American attacks on Enlightenment values, classical liberal democracy, and Western civilization. This distortion and devaluation connects to a long history of characterizing Black thought as unserious and divisive, and labeling Black progressive political advocacy as inherently anti-white. Even though critics span the left and right, their critiques are ultimately conservative—insisting that America would be more cohesive if Black progressives remained on the periphery of culture and politics.
Whether you believe that CRT, “wokeness,” and cancel culture are helpful or hurtful, we can’t have discussions about them while divorcing them from the historical and material conditions they spring from. All three are also examples of how Black discourse has been co-opted—first misappropriated by liberals, then weaponized by the right. There’s a thread of anti-Blackness here that may not always be apparent, but nevertheless runs consistently through the way all three are now discussed.