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OPINION: ‘Wokeness’ is not a bad thing, and people need to stop staying it is

This story was originally published in the Herald Oct. 4 newsmagazine.
Emilee Arnold

For years, far-left politicians in Washington, D.C. have been on a relentless campaign to dispose of everything the United States holds dear for the promotion of radical ideas, ideas that are corrupting the nation’s children each day in their schools, on- line and even in the home. America’s future is being ruined, and this has to be stopped now before the country goes to hell in a handbasket.

Or, that’s what many want you to believe, at least.

Wokeness has been something that has been in the political lexicon for decades, with some sources, like Vox News, tracing the term back to the 1920s. According to an October 2020 piece from Vox titled “A history of ‘wokeness,’” “The earliest known examples of wokeness as a concept revolve around the idea of Black consciousness ‘waking up’ to a new reality or activist framework and dates back to the early 20th century.”

The term saw a resurgence in popular use following the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. According to Vox, “Black citizens [of Ferguson] took to the streets nightly to protest the police shooting death of Michael Brown. As they did so, they urged each other to ‘stay woke’ against police actions and other threats.”

In this context, being woke simply meant staying aware and being aware of one’s surroundings and the happenings in their community. For Black America throughout much of the nation’s history, this has been necessary for their survival, and that is not something we should take lightly.

Over time, wokeness came to be used by a wider group of Americans to mean, as defined by Merriam-Webster, “aware of and actively attentive to important societal facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice).”

For years, this definition remained fairly consistent. By 2017, the term by this definition had begun to be used throughout popular culture by all different types of activist groups, including women’s rights activists that organized the 2017 Women’s March.

When I first became aware of the term, this was the definition I associated with it. Being woke was nothing to be ashamed of and being woke was being aware of the greater social and political tides of America.

The increased use of “woke” coincided with a milestone political event that has changed the political land- scape in the United States for nearly a decade be felt for decades to come – the 2016 Presidential Election and the election of Donald Trump.

Trump’s election and his four years in the White House caused a drastic shift in American politics that pundits should have seen coming. In the years leading up to the 2016 campaign, farther-right ideals began to become more and more popular with Conservatives. Many political scientists and researchers point to different beginnings to this increase, but I see the catalysts as the 2008 Presidential Election, the rise of the Tea Party and the elevation of personalities like Sarah Palin and Ron Paul, the father of current Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, into prominent places in the national political discourse.

The 2008 election opened the door for the oftentimes controversial views and fiery rhetoric of Trump and his supporters to become mainstream in the following year. As Trump’s presidency went on, the rhetoric only got worse, and his supporters only supported him more.

Somewhere in the craziness, Trump and his right-wing supporters co-opted “woke” to mean something dark, something that attacks the values of many Democrats in Kentucky and across the nation. This has been exemplified in politicians like Florida Ron DeSantis, who once declared that “Florida is where woke goes to die” and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft, who ran for the GOP nomination for Kentucky Governor but was defeated by Daniel Cameron in the party’s primary earlier this year. A key pillar of Craft’s campaign was combatting woke through making sure “transgender ideologies” and critical race theory was not indoctrinating Kentucky’s children in the classroom.

Something that many opponents of wokeness – and people in general – have failed to agree on is a definition of the term.

On March 15, 2023, Daniel Cameron, the current GOP nominee to unseat Andy Beshear, defined woke in a thread of Tweets. He wrote: “‘Woke’ is political correctness on steroids. It’s government and corporate enforced political correctness. It’s thought control that says one person is evil and another person is good based on skin color alone. It rewards your identity and not your work. ‘Woke’ is deeply un-American and it’s being taught to our kids every day in our schools as gospel. As Governor, I’ll end this nonsense in Kentucky.”

At a campaign stop in Bowling Green just before the GOP Primary in May, I had the chance to ask Ambassador Craft to define woke, to which she responded: “To me, woke is what we are experiencing right now. It’s something when it goes against the grain of the culture that you’ve been raised with. Family values, values of freedom of democracy, of being aware that we’re losing family. And I can’t let this happen.”

The differences in these definitions are striking. Cameron was able to string together a line of Republican talking points that encompasses everything the Democratic Party stands for – no doubt an intentional choice– while Craft gave a definition that championed returning to traditional values that many Americans no longer feel a need to ascribe to.

Woke and wokeness mean different things to different people, and this illustrates the conflicting definitions and understandings of the term across the nation. Here on the Hill, I was able to find different definitions, too.

Sydney Reeves, a biology major from Goodlettsville, TN, told me that wokeness is “making an active effort to be considerate of how your actions affect others.”

Anna Purdy, a criminology and sociology double major from Nashville, TN, said that being woke is “being alert to racial prejudice and overall discrimination.”

There is no one definition of woke. It means different things to different people, sometimes making them believe it is a bad thing while making others believe it is a good thing. Normally this discourse would not be a bad thing, but it has been taken to something beyond anything recognizable by the far right.

The scary thing, however, is that the co-opting of “woke” and the incessant attacks on Democrats for being “woke” works. It attracts votes from the base of the Republican Party while genuinely speaking to the fears of many Kentuckians and Americans.

I don’t want to discredit these anxieties. Sticking to “traditional values” is something Conservatives have championed throughout American history. People are afraid of change and of losing control, and they want to hold onto as much as they can. The world is a totally different place than it was 50 years ago, and it will look completely different in just 10. The rapid speed of change can be scary, and those fears are valid.

What is not valid, however, is using that fear to stoke fear in others – especially young people. Those resistant to change look upon children and young people as incapable while trying to scare them into contentment. Young people try to affect change while older generations try to scare them into curbing this ambition and civic involvement because of their inexperience and youth.

My generation has long been criticized for being too sensitive or too indecisive, yet at the same time we are criticized for being too vocal and for fighting for what we believe in. Young people have been at the center of demonstrations supporting minority rights, LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, gun control, climate change action and more. When we take action, people in power make fun of us and ignore us while spreading hate and disunion every single day.

Wokeness is far from a bad thing. Being woke means advocating for equal rights for minorities, women, members of the LGBTQ+ community and every other American. Every American citizen deserves their chance to live a happy and healthy life. There is no asterisk on the American Dream, and we must make sure that every American is treated fairly and given the opportunities to succeed.

In Kentucky, Cameron is trying to paint Beshear as a member of Joe Biden’s woke mob who is doing the president’s bidding, but that’s far from the truth. Beshear is running a campaign for Kentucky that is based on Kentucky values while Cameron campaigns as if he is running for a national office and/or for the approval of Donald Trump and his entourage.

Kentuckians care about issues that affect their daily lives: the economy, the opioid epidemic, law enforcement and public safety, to name a few. Wokeness, as Daniel Cameron has defined it, warps the political landscape in the commonwealth because it focuses the narrative on and lifts up ideals that attack people for being who they are and who they want to be while harming and politicizing public education beyond something than it actually is.

There is only one way that you can fight against those who misconstrue wokeness for radicalism: vote. Voting is the most important thing you can do in preserving this great American experiment in democracy, and we must vote not just in this election, but every election, because only through that can we all affect real change.

Anti-wokeness can be dangerous, but it doesn’t have to be. All you have to do is vote.

Commentary editor Price Wilborn can be reached at edwin.wilborn835@ Follow him on X @ pricewilborn.