I know when I am being referred to as a Black person by a white person, specifically as the N-word, when I hear it…
When Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers referred to the woke mob in an interview, he was referring to Black people. Make no mistake, that’s exactly who he was referring to. I know because the term “woke”, defined and used in the context of being enlightened about America’s white supremacist social order in all its iterations, didn’t come from white folks. It came from us.
However, “woke” and just about every other term Black folk have reconfigured and adapted to provide us with a level of affirmation and empowerment are gentrified and sprinkled with raisins on top by white folk. We’re who Aaron Rodgers, Bill Maher, (angry) white parents and conservative politicians are talking about when they refer to “wokeness.”
Woke is just another term that’s been hijacked by white folks to refer to us… along with “bae”, “fleek”, and “bye Felisha”. Thankfully, white folks don’t define who we are and how we are to be identified. We’ve been woke as long as they’ve been sleep. Woke as a uniquely Black term is as old a concept as Black consciousness, dating back to the early 20th century. In 1938, “stay woke” appeared in a song about the Scottsboro Boys by Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter.
Nevertheless, woke is co-opted by whites, manipulated into a pejorative term about Black folks — a stand-in for the N-word.
Black culture is one of making lemonade out of lemons.
From the English language, Black folk have taken the language of our oppressors made some damn good lemonade. Our vernacular, which is a dialect of standard American English, is seasoned with a variety of cadences that tell the stories of our elders and ancestors, from the mountains of Black Appalachia to the sunny skies of California’s Black enclaves.
When Black folks develop and modify language, it’s to express a sentiment, convey a feeling, or display an emotion uniquely from a Black place of mind to be received specifically in a Black space of being. In the 1962 New York Times article, “If You’re Woke, You Dig It,” author William Kelley expresses how Black vernacular terms and phrases are subject to white appropriation and it’s because oftentimes when traveling on the mainstream road from place to space, our lemonade splashes alongside that mainstream road and white appropriation germinates.
It’s not that we intend on spilling our lemonade, made from the sourness of white supremacy. Rather, Blackness just has too much drip… see what I did there?
Some white folks get a taste of that lemonade and attempt to recreate it from the residue from either their lips or off the ground. That’s why when our language is appropriated by white folks, it sounds bad. Like HBO’s appropriating of “Dem Thrones” for the world to consume, affectionately created and used by Black consumers of “Game of Thrones.” Others take the language as well as the culture to take credit for as well as commodify it, whereby Black folks see none of the profit—only white folks. That’s why Black TikTok users boycotted dancing on the app.
Other white folks are drenched—loathing that they can’t drink from our cup—desiring to drench us with their regurgitated beverage. That’s why their use of woke is as vomit.
Aaron Rodgers knew what he was saying when he used the phrase, as do other white people who say it. Books are banned from school and elections are won because of their co-opting the term. In the words of Lee Atwater, “By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger.’”
But in 2021, you can “say woke.”
Rann Miller is director of anti-bias and DEI initiatives as well as a high school social studies teacher for a school district located in Southern New Jersey. He’s also a freelance writer and founder of the Urban Education Mixtape, supporting urban educators and parents of students in urban schools. You can follow him on Twitter @UrbanEdDJ .
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