The term “woke” has seen various shifts in usage and connotation over the years.

Broadly speaking, to be “woke” means to be alert to social and political injustices, especially those related to race and identity. It’s often used to describe someone who is very aware of, and active in social justice issues.

As you run through this article you will also see the term “allyship” which is simply the active support for the rights of a minority or marginalised group without being a member of it.

Origins of the Term Woke

The term’s origins lie in Black American English. “Woke” in this context is derived from the past participle of “wake,” meaning to awaken from sleep.

The idea is that someone is awakened or enlightened to the realities of social and political issues, especially as they relate to race.

One early recorded use of “woke” in this context was in the 1962 song “Keep On Pushing” by the Impressions, where Curtis Mayfield sang, “Keep on pushing, like your leaders tell you to / I’ve got my strength, and it don’t make sense not to keep on pushing… A lot of people won’t get no supper tonight; a lot of people going to suffer tonight.”

The idea of “pushing” through the difficulties of racism and the Civil Rights Movement, of remaining awake to the struggle, can be felt in this early usage.

Another notable mention is from the 1971 play “A Black Mass” by Amiri Baraka, where the term “stay woke” is used in reference to being alert to racial prejudice.

Contemporary Usage of the Term Woke

The term gained broader attention in the 2010s, especially after the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement. Erykah Badu’s song “Master Teacher” from her 2008 album “New Amerykah Part One” featured the refrain “I stay woke,” which contributed to the contemporary revival of the term.

In the mid-2010s, “woke” became a more general term to describe heightened awareness to all kinds of social justice issues beyond just racial justice, including feminism, LGBTQ rights, environmentalism, and more.

However, as with many terms associated with social awareness or political activism, “woke” has also been co-opted and sometimes used pejoratively. Critics or skeptics of certain social justice movements or ideas might use “woke” in a dismissive or mocking manner, referring to what they see as overly progressive or politically correct attitudes. This pejorative use often refers to “woke culture” or “woke politics.”

Like many terms connected to cultural and social movements, “woke” has seen shifts in its usage and connotations, and its meaning can vary based on who is using it, and in what context.

The Woke Concept Can Go Too Far

The concept of “woke”, as with many cultural and social phenomena, is a matter of subjective interpretation. While the core idea of “woke” — to be aware of social and political injustices — is broadly positive, its application and interpretation can vary, leading to debates and criticisms.

Some argue that the idea of being “woke” can go too far in the following ways:

1. Virtue Signalling: Some argue that people adopt “woke” stances mainly to showcase their moral superiority rather than because of a genuine concern for social justice. This performative “wokeness”, often dubbed “virtue signalling,” can dilute genuine advocacy and turn social justice into a trend rather than a sincere movement.

2. Cancel Culture: This refers to the boycotting or “canceling” of individuals, often celebrities, who have said or done something deemed offensive or problematic. Critics argue that cancel culture does not allow for growth, forgiveness, or nuanced conversation and can be overly punitive or based on misinformation.

3. Oversimplification of Issues: The desire to categorise issues as strictly “good” or “bad” can lead to a black-and-white worldview, ignoring the nuances and complexities of social and political issues.

4. Suppression of Free Speech: Some contend that the push to be “woke” can inadvertently suppress free expression. They argue that fear of backlash can discourage individuals from sharing unpopular or dissenting views, leading to a form of self-censorship.

5. Reduction of Identity to Politics: There’s a concern that “wokeness” can reduce individuals solely to their racial, gender, or other identities, overlooking their unique experiences and individualities.

6. Interpretation as Elitism: Some see the “woke” movement as dominated by academics, celebrities, and social elites who might be detached from everyday struggles and who use jargon that’s inaccessible to many.

7. Echo Chambers: As with many social movements, there’s a risk of only interacting with like-minded individuals, leading to echo chambers where dissenting or alternative viewpoints are not considered or are actively silenced.

8. Overemphasis on Symbolic Gestures: Critics argue that some “woke” actions, such as changing brand names or posting on social media, might be superficial gestures that don’t address deeper systemic issues.

It’s important to note that not everyone agrees on when or if the “woke” movement goes too far.

The criticisms listed above are representative of some common concerns, but many advocates of social justice would counter these points with arguments about the necessity of drastic cultural shifts, the importance of allyship, and the transformative potential of these conversations.

In any debate around cultural and social movements, it’s essential to approach discussions with an open mind, a willingness to listen, and a commitment to understanding the diverse range of perspectives involved.

Examples of Where ‘Woke’ Has Added Value and Contributed Positively to Society

Here are two notable examples where the concept has added value and contributed positively:

1. Black Lives Matter (BLM) Movement:

The BLM movement emerged in 2013 after the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer. It sought to address systemic racism, especially as it pertains to police violence against Black individuals. Over time, BLM has grown into a global movement that addresses broader issues of racial injustice.

Positive Contribution:

Awareness and Education – The movement has brought significant awareness to the systemic racial biases present in many institutions, especially the criminal justice system. Many who were previously unaware or dismissive of these issues have since become more informed and empathetic.

Policy Changes – The persistent protests and advocacy have led to tangible policy changes in various cities and institutions, such as bans on chokeholds, increased use of body cameras, and redirection of funding towards community services.

Cultural Shift – The movement has sparked a broader cultural conversation about race, privilege, and systemic injustice. Many organisations, from corporations to schools, have since initiated diversity, equity, and inclusion programs.

2. MeToo Movement:

The MeToo movement, which went viral in 2017, highlighted the widespread prevalence of sexual harassment and assault, especially in the workplace. While the phrase “Me Too” was coined much earlier, in 2006 by Tarana Burke, it gained massive traction in 2017 when allegations against several high-profile figures in the entertainment industry came to light.

Positive Contribution:

Breaking the Silence – The movement empowered many survivors to come forward with their experiences, breaking the stigma and silence that often surrounds victims of sexual misconduct.

Accountability – Many individuals who had previously abused their positions of power faced professional, legal, and societal consequences for their actions.

Structural Changes – Organisations around the world were pushed to review and strengthen their policies around sexual harassment, leading to safer workplaces.

Many institutions initiated training programs, established clearer reporting mechanisms, and fostered environments where such issues could be openly discussed.

Both movements epitomise the essence of “woke” culture: they bring light to societal injustices, push for change, and emphasise the value of collective awareness and action. They serve as examples of how heightened societal consciousness can lead to substantive positive change.

Notable Examples of Where ‘Woke’ Was Used in a Negative Way and Did Not Contribute as Intended

While the term “woke” originally emerged as a commendation for social awareness, it has also been co-opted and sometimes used in ways that diverge from its intended positive connotations. One of the most notable manifestations of this shift is when “wokeness” becomes intertwined with “cancel culture.” Here’s an example:

The Controversy Surrounding J.K. Rowling:

J.K. Rowling, the renowned author of the “Harry Potter” series, expressed views on Twitter and in essays that many interpreted as transphobic. Rowling’s comments touched on issues related to gender identity and biological sex, and they sparked a massive backlash.

Negative Aspects of the “Woke” Response:

Amplified Polarisation – The discourse around Rowling’s comments quickly became polarised. Many who labeled her as “transphobic” dismissed all further statements from her, while her defenders often dismissed the concerns of the transgender community.

Absence of Nuanced Discussion – The controversy overshadowed a potential nuanced discussion about gender, identity, and the challenges faced by the transgender community. Instead, it became a fierce battle of “taking sides.”

Threats and Extreme Backlash – While many critics of Rowling’s statements were measured and constructive, others resorted to threats and highly aggressive behaviour. Rowling reported receiving death threats, showcasing the dangerous extremities of cancel culture.

Generalisation and Stereotyping – As the debate raged on, some began to stereotype and generalise all individuals who advocate for social justice as intolerant or overly aggressive, even though many within the “woke” community were seeking constructive dialogue.

While the intention behind many who criticised Rowling was to advocate for the rights and recognition of transgender individuals, the manner in which the controversy unfolded exhibited some of the pitfalls of “wokeness” when it becomes entangled with cancel culture.

The scenario highlighted how complex discussions can become oversimplified, how individuals can become vilified, and how the opportunity for productive conversation can be lost.

The Impact of “Woke” on Human Resource Functions in Corporations

Some of the notable impacts include these:

1. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Initiatives:

Corporations have increased their efforts to create diverse and inclusive workplaces. This has led to the formation of dedicated DEI teams or hiring of Chief Diversity Officers.

Companies have started to implement unconscious bias training, aiming to reduce bias in decision-making processes, especially in recruitment and promotions.

2. Recruitment and Talent Acquisition:

Companies are making efforts to diversify their talent pools, ensuring representation from various backgrounds, genders, ethnicities, and other identity markers.

There has been a rise in “blind recruitment” processes where identifying information is removed from applications to combat unconscious biases.

3. Employee Resource Groups (ERGs):

Many large corporations have established or expanded ERGs (sometimes called affinity groups) that cater to specific demographics, such as LGBTQ+ employees, women, or ethnic minority groups. These groups provide support, networking opportunities, and can advise the company on DEI matters.

4. Workplace Policies and Culture:

Corporations are revisiting their workplace policies to ensure they are inclusive, covering areas like gender-neutral restrooms, parental leave (that is inclusive of all genders and family structures), and religious observances.

Many companies have implemented stricter anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies, reflecting a zero-tolerance stance.

5. Communication and Branding:

HR departments often collaborate with marketing and PR teams to communicate the company’s values and stances on social issues externally.

Some companies have faced backlash for perceived performative allyship, where their public statements don’t align with internal practices. As a result, HR functions are under pressure to ensure internal practices match external messaging.

6. Learning and Development:

Corporations have incorporated modules on cultural awareness, equity, and social justice in their training programs.

Leadership training often now includes elements related to leading diverse teams and fostering inclusivity.

7. Employee Engagement and Feedback:

Companies are conducting regular surveys and feedback sessions to understand employee sentiments around DEI initiatives and to identify areas for improvement.

Whistleblower policies and mechanisms are becoming more robust to allow employees to raise concerns without fear of retaliation.

8. Stakeholder Accountability:

Investors, customers, and other stakeholders are increasingly holding companies accountable for their DEI practices. HR departments, therefore, play a crucial role in collecting, analysing, and reporting diversity metrics.

9. Supply Chain and Procurement:

Some corporations have started to emphasise DEI in their supply chains as well, choosing to work with diverse suppliers or ensuring that their partners adhere to specific DEI standards.

In essence, the “woke” movement, along with broader societal shifts, has driven many large corporations to reevaluate and reinvent their HR practices to foster more equitable, inclusive, and socially aware workplaces.

The Negative Impacts of “Woke” on HR Functions in Corporations

Some potential negative impacts on HR functions in large corporations include:

1. Performative Allyship:

Corporations might adopt DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) initiatives more for public relations or marketing purposes than genuine commitment. This can lead to superficial changes without addressing deeper systemic issues.

Employees and the public can become cynical about corporate intentions, feeling that companies are just “checking boxes” rather than making authentic changes.

2. Risk of Tokenism:

In efforts to diversify, companies might hire or promote individuals from underrepresented groups primarily to showcase diversity rather than basing decisions on merit alongside diversity. This can be detrimental to both the individuals (who might feel they are only valued for their identity) and the corporation (which may miss out on genuinely qualified candidates).

3. Suppression of Dissent:

Some employees might feel that they cannot express disagreements with certain DEI initiatives or topics for fear of being labeled as insensitive or facing professional consequences, leading to a stifling of open discussion.

4. Polarisation and Division:

While DEI training aims to foster understanding and unity, poorly executed training can unintentionally create divisions or reinforce stereotypes.

Some employees might feel that such trainings are accusatory or that they are being blamed for systemic issues.

5. Overemphasis on External Perception:

Companies might prioritise how they are perceived externally regarding DEI over making meaningful internal changes, leading to potential misalignment between a company’s public image and its internal culture.

6. Potential Legal Implications:

If not carefully crafted and implemented, certain DEI initiatives could be seen as discriminatory themselves or could lead to lawsuits. For example, hiring practices that overtly favour one group over another based purely on identity might run afoul of employment laws.

7. Resource Allocation Concerns:

Some argue that the resources spent on certain DEI initiatives might be better used elsewhere, especially if the initiatives are not effectively driving meaningful change.

8. Generalisation and Oversimplification:

In an effort to be “woke,” corporations might oversimplify complex cultural and social issues, leading to generalised or stereotyped views that don’t capture the nuances of individual experiences.

9. Backlash:

As companies adopt more “woke” stances, they might face backlash from segments of their employee base or the general public who disagree with certain positions or feel that the company is being insincere.

It’s important to note that many of these negative impacts arise from missteps in the implementation of “woke” principles rather than the principles themselves. A genuine and well-informed approach to DEI can mitigate many of these potential issues.

More Information

For more information about the work of this author, visit [add link] where you’ll discover one of the most significant professional development programs in the world today covering topics of leadership, influence, business execution, and lean six sigma.

Share This