How ‘woke’ became the word of our era

An alertness to racial injustice, a weaponised word in the culture wars, a reflection of our times … Kenya Hunt explores how the world woke up

As I write this, I’m staring at a fashion magazine with the coverline “Woke bespoke”. Next to it, a newspaper supplement features a dating diary of the search for “Mr Woke”. On my desktop is a guide to a “woke Christmas”, and in the adjacent tab is an internet rant in response to said guide demanding people and publishers leave all writing about wokeness to black writers. In another tab, an article bemoaning the “great awokening” of American politics. Meanwhile, on British television, a debate rages between royal correspondents and pundits about whether the royal family’s most polarising members, Meghan and Harry, have in fact become too woke for their own good.

But what is “woke”? Most online dictionaries define it as a perceived awareness of inequality and other forms of injustice that are normally racial in nature. A few describe the term as characterising people who are merely “with it” – as in, every cool kid you knew at uni. And increasingly, these days, many use it as a pejorative term to describe someone who is a slave to identity politics. How can all three possibly be the same? It’s a sensibility, a quality, a state of being, a feeling backed up by a set of actions, sometimes all these things at once.

To be woke is to long for a day when one doesn’t have to stay woke

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