View all newsletters
Sign up to our newsletters

Support 110 years of independent journalism.

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.

You might also enjoy listening to A year inside GB News.

Podcast listeners can subscribe to the New Statesman for just £1 a week for 12 weeks using our special offer. Just visit newstatesman.com/podcastoffer.

How to listen to Audio Long Reads

1. In podcast apps

Audio Long Reads is available to listen on all major podcast players, including Apple PodcastsSpotifyGoogle PodcastsYouTube and more.

Either click the links above to open in your preferred player, or open the podcast app on your device and search for “Audio Long Reads”.

Follow or subscribe in your podcast app to receive new episodes as soon as they publish.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU

2. On the New Statesman website

The podcast is also available to listen right here on the New Statesman website. Bookmark https://www.newstatesman.com/podcasts/audio-long-reads, where we will publish new episodes every Saturday morning.

3. On your smart speaker

If you have an Amazon Echo, Google Home or Apple HomePod, ask it to “play the latest episode of Audio Long Reads from the New Statesman”.

The command will also work on other smart devices equipped with Alexa, Google Assistant or Siri.

Content from our partners
Individually rare, collectively common – how do we transform the lives of people with rare diseases?
Future proofing the NHS
Where do we get the money to fix the world's biggest problems? – with ONE

Topics in this article : , ,
Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU