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A brief history of “woke”: how one word fuelled the culture wars – Audio Long Reads

From Suella Braverman to Elon Musk, war has been declared on liberalism. How did one word come to mean so much – and so little?

By Stuart McGurk and Chris Stone

Speaking in the House of Commons on 18 October, the Home Secretary Suella Braverman denounced the opposition to her proposed Public Order Bill as “the Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati”. The next day, she posted her resignation letter on Twitter. 

It had been a busy 24 hours in the war on woke. On TalkTV, Piers Morgan had bemoaned the rise of the “ultra-woke”. In New York, Elon Musk was finalising the paperwork for his takeover of Twitter, after his ex-wife Talulah Riley urged him to “fight wokeism” on the platform. Donald Trump Jr launched another platform for “non-woke” businesses – and in the Commons, Keir Starmer (who had been advised to avoid woke issues) faced a Conservative front-bench who had stoked them relentlessly. 

How did we get here? How did this headline-friendly, hashtag-neat, four-letter word that still officially means “alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice” come to mean so many things that it now means almost nothing at all? In this deeply researched, illuminating and often funny article, the freelance writer Stuart McGurk takes us from the word’s origins in the 1960s (the US novelist William Melvin Kelley’s 1962 essay “If You’re Woke You Dig it”) through protest movements, corporate co-option, backlash, to its present day use as one-size-fits-all insult. He reveals how the word became a powerful weapon in a war, and was co-opted by the right: a way to win a debate by not having one. Though, some would argue, that’s what the woke were doing all along.

Written by Stuart McGurk and read by Chris Stone.

This article was published in the New Statesman magazine and online on 7 December 2022. You can read the text version here.

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