Wokeness: A brief history

Tarika Powell
4 min readFeb 16, 2023

Black self-love and the shaming of white allies

Photo: Johnny Silvercloud, Flickr.com (Creative Commons)

Anti-Blackness is one of America’s best-selling products, and it is foundational to the socioeconomic hierarchy of our society. Fighting anti-Blackness, then, is viewed as a threat to both capitalism and whiteness, because whiteness has always been defined in opposition to Blackness.

Anti-woke politics have become the prevailing ideology of the right wing because being “woke” has always been about combating anti-Blackness, and anti-Blackness is central to the perpetuation of the status quo of inequality in America.

The Origins of Being Woke

Anti-Blackness, or anti-Black racism, is defined by the Center for Anti-Racist Research as the “systemic denial of Black humanity and dignity,” through “beliefs, attitudes, actions, practices, and behaviors [that] devalue, minimize, and marginalize the full participation of Black people.” Economic analyses of anti-Blackness such as the 2019 publication, “The anti-Blackness of global capital,” argue that anti-Blackness is “not a mere result of global capital but actually scaffolds the ground on which capitalism stands.”

Due to the ubiquity of anti-Black racism, we all internalize anti-Blackness to some degree. It’s drilled into us beginning in childhood via the media we consume, the way we see society treat Black people, and through many other messages. Anti-Blackness is present in indigenous communities, Latine communities, Asian communities, and even in Black communities. (See examples and resources here.) It is closely related to colorism, which prioritizes proximity to whiteness based on skin tone and other physical features.

Understanding the role of anti-Blackness in our lives, and removing it from our behaviors, is what Black people have long called becoming “woke.” This was always an internal journey that was externalized through changed politics, choices, observations, and behavior. The journey entailed reading texts that were not taught in schools, tracking down the works of Black writers and documentarians (many of which were hard to find before the internet), and grappling with ways in which you had internalized anti-Blackness even though you were Black. The word existed long enough in the culture for “stay woke” to be a decades-old in-joke among Black people before the right wing even caught on to the lingo.

So long as being “woke” was confined Black folks, it could be vilified as “Black identity extremism,” and criminalized through law enforcement to suppress and nullify it. Being woke as a Black person was literally classified as domestic terrorism, and wokeness was used as a pretext for federal agencies to monitor Black Americans.

But there was no widespread political and social movement against being woke until white people started doing it.

Wokeness as “Race Betrayal”

Wokeness did not become an obsession of the right-wing until non-Black people started claiming (and misusing) the term as a signifier of their support for a variety of social movements. The backlash to “wokeness,” then, can partially be understood as anti-Blackness, and partially as backlash to non-Black people becoming aware of the role of anti-Blackness in American life.

When the word “woke” is applied to a white person by another white person, I don’t hear much difference between that term and the phrase “n — — r lover.” In American history, this racist term was used to shame whites who had intimate relationships or platonic friendships with Black people, as well as those who supported causes for Black equality such as abolition and the Civil Rights movement. Both “woke” and “n — — r lover” serve the same function: they employ name-calling to shame white poeple for undermining the marketability and success of anti-Blackness, and for allegedly “betraying” the white race.

Wokeness as Mental Health Shaming

A Twitter search for the terms “wokeness” or “woke mob” will demonstrate that “woke” is often described by right wing opponents of anti-racism as a mental illness. This also has deep historical roots. The abolitionist John Brown, who killed several white slavery sympathizers and attempted to incite a slave uprising in 1859, has been branded as “insane” ever since. There’s no actual proof that Brown was insane. He did not exhibit a set of symptoms that would support a modern mental health diagnosis. Neither was his violence atypical of skirmishes of the time period.

What was atypical, and what made people call John Brown “crazy,” was that he was willing to fight to end slavery before the Civil War normalized that stance. Texts and medical analysis of the time period, such the book Humbugs of New York, painted “ultra-abolitionism” as inherently crazy, maniacal, or unstable. But (as evidenced from the variety of sources I’ve linked to here), Mr. Brown’s mental health has been researched by individuals across the political spectrum — the man was not mentally ill.

Pathologizing white people who divest from anti-Blackness is necessary for maintaining white supremacy and deterring anti-racist movements. And because anti-Blackness is such a popular commodity, the phrase “woke” can be used as an umbrella term to sell opposition to other identity-based movements as a package deal.

By understanding the history of wokeness, and anti-wokeness, we can understand why the right wing invests so much into being anti-woke.

It’s important for the rest of us to not participate in making “woke” an insult, as tempting as it may be. Ultimately it only serves to make it seem shameful, or even deranged, to question anti-Blackness.

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Tarika Powell

Environmental policy expert living with PTSD. Writes about environmental policy, mental health, DE&I, and abuse culture. https://tarikapowell.com