Being awake to the distortions of ‘woke’ in popular culture, political discourse

"Woke" by Flickr user Mikel Agirregabiria, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

By Rev. Paul Graves

I know this little column won’t put to bed (pun definitely intended) the controversies about “woke” and “wokeness.” But I want to weigh in on it. On one sinister level, it’s a destructive distraction encouraged by people who are, for some unexplained reason (at least to me), afraid to let history be seen in its full array.

Being “woke” was popularized in 1962 as African American street slang by Black novelist William Melvin Kelley. His explanation of “woke” spoke clearly that history, Black history especially, needed to be identified and affirmed. His description is reflected in how the Oxford English Dictionary defines “woke.”

Today, “woke” is a heavily wounded word. It’s been distorted by well-meaning and mean-meaning people who toss it around like a rugby ball – then run after the player with that ball. Folks, it simply means becoming aware. Awake, if you will.

National politicians and brash-speaking people of all kinds throw “woke” at people they distrust, even hate, thinking that word will shut them down. Too often, that happens. But be of good cheer.

Being “woke” is actually an exceptionally good thing! It means you are ready to confront a fuller truth about whatever issue is being avoided. It means you can stand the truth. It might even mean you are able to be attentive, aware, awake enough to see through, and stand up to, another person’s effort to intimidate you.

“Attentive,” “aware,” “awake” are words that find a home within the contemplative environment of a healthy spiritual tradition – Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, almost every spiritual tradition you can think of. We humans flourish within as we nourish our souls with truth-telling about ourselves, about the God we worship, about the world we nourish.

Be attentive, aware and awake to your fuller identities. We have deprivations, yes, but we also have multiple capacities to be loving enough to pursue justice for others. Always embrace those fuller identities as an essential step in whatever spiritual journey you’re on.

First, a little truism: You can only see what you are told to pay attention to. Now, consider why it is that people disrespectfully throw “woke” around like they’d throw a plate of spaghetti against the wall.

Why do they not want you/us to not be “woke,” attentive, to basic historical facts, or the moralistic evils in certain books? Why do they want to project, even impose, their fear of facts onto others?

Why are some people petrified to name the elephant in the room? I suggest it’s because until you name the elephant in the room, you have no chance to housebreak it.

And people who fear being “woke” don’t want that job. They seem eager for the chaos that not being housebroken brings with it.

So why are they not willing to pay attention to facts? I’m honestly not sure. Why do they settle for “alternative facts?” Again, I’m really not sure.

What I’m more confident about is that they’re trapped in some kind of deprivation that doesn’t let them be aware that there is, more to their lives than they settle for. I’m particularly puzzled by those who proclaim themselves Christians but whose behavior is so far away from the ethical practices and attitudes of the Gospels’ version of Jesus.

Be awake, folks, to the distortions being “unwoke” imposes on others.

Be awake to how your inner tussles weave almost seamlessly with your outer actions and spoken attitudes. Don’t let others stay “unwoke.” Whatever happens, your inner spirit and outward actions will thank you for staying awake.

The Rev. Paul Graves is a retired elder member of the Pacific Northwest Conference of The United Methodist Church.


  1. I wonder how awake “Woke” is to healthy conversation, questions and engagement? Woke works when there is compassion for people, their history and contexts. Tt is a problem when the expectation is that everyone should think and operate like them as is they have a corner on the truth. This kind of hubris is troubling for me. It shuts down community instead of opening it up to build bridges of understanding.

  2. Thanks, Paul, for making the contemporary meaning of “woke” so easily understandable, and an attribute to nurture rather than avoid. I can be proud of being open to the truth about our country’s history–some of which calls for confession, and some gratitude.

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