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What is Woke?

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Right-wing media is peppered with the word. Outside that world, in real life, where people are just getting through their day, going to work, endlessly driving kids somewhere, walking the dog, grocery shopping and cooking dinner, the word can invoke insomnia or what the baby does at 3 a.m.

But if you happen to tune into Fox News or hear something about Florida Governor Ron DeSantis on the news, it won’t take long to figure out “woke” is an insult, replacing the clunkier “politically correct” smirk used to describe people who object to welfare queen jokes.

“Woke” originated in Black American vernacular sometime in the 1960s and has been used in a variety of media to indicate someone alert to injustice and police brutality. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “woke” as “alert to injustice and discrimination, especially racism.” So how is that an insult?

Conservatives appropriated this cultural word as a kind of inside joke making fun of progressive values such as tolerance, education, concern about the climate and racial reckoning. But once the word escaped into social media they used it primarily to annoy liberals, who annoy them by ignoring it as just another in a long string of insults going back to Rush Limbaugh’s “feminazis.”

Nowhere is the word used more than in Florida where DeSantis is on a mission to rid his state of all things “woke,” as if he has nothing better to do. He just signed the silly-sounding “Stop WOKE Act,” with WOKE an acronym for Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees. The Act prohibits instruction in schools that might make people feel they bear a personal responsibility for historic wrongdoings because of race, sex or nationality. The fact that no one teaches that way did not seem to hinder DeSantis’ crusade.

The Stop WOKE Act also bans the 1619 Project and Critical Race Theory in schools just because it supposedly triggers the “libs” although it’s not actually in schools below the college level. And just to make sure people in Florida are free to be jerks, DeSantis banned mandatory training in racial and LGBTQ sensitivity for workers. So now Florida kids no longer have stacks of books to hide behind if some unwoke insensitive person with the one thing DeSantis refuses to ban, an assault rifle, shows up in their school.

Shevrin Jones, D-Florida State Senator, calls woke “the new “n” word. Jones is an openly gay Black man who got elected to the legislature in 2020. He says DeSantis is abusing and bastardizing the Black American word for political purposes. Others say it’s used by people who want to be victims without the devastation of being an actual victim.

The victims of the “Woke” world talk of cultural elitism that doesn’t include them, of white replacement theory, of a “woke” society that’s to blame for everything from mass shootings to lower military recruitment and a woke mob that’s coming for their gas stoves.

“Woke” is so overused now in right-wing media there isn’t really a cohesive political ideology behind it anymore. Talk show hosts on Fox News or talk radio often pitch their shows as revealing the latest “woke liberal fantasy” because it makes money for them. “Woke” is the dog whistle they use to draw in listeners, even if the latest “woke liberal fantasy” is just a rehash of an old complaint, a cherry-picked comment by the President or some nonsense a Twitter fruitcake said. “Woke” is used constantly in right-wing Facebook and Twitter comments as a linguistic weapon by people who really don’t have the ability to say what they’re actually talking about.

So what should “woke” people, those who care about others, believe in diversity, tolerance, racial reckoning, LGBTQ rights, education, climate change, abhor censorship and value new ideas do about the polarization this latest insult creates? What they’ve always done: rise above the jabs, ignore the transient insults of division and be the hope people just trying to get through their day welcome.

Words come and go. The right will get tired of this one soon and find some other insult to stoke division and feel supremely clever about while distracting their constituents from their irresponsible lack of action on issues that really affect them, like health care, housing and gun safety. Until the right gets out of the entertainment business and back into legislating expect the next word to be even worse.