Right-wing media can’t define “woke.” But that doesn’t stop them from using it.
A conservative pundit's gaffe earlier this week, which went viral, is emblematic of a larger theme in right-wing media — pundits can’t seem to agree on what “woke” really means. But that doesn’t stop right-wing media from constantly resorting to the meaningless line of attack.
On March 14, prominent conservative pundit Bethany Mandel appeared on The Hill’s online show Rising, where co-host Briahna Joy Gray asked, “Would you mind defining woke?” Claiming she dedicated an entire chapter in her new book Stolen Youth to “wokeness,” Mandel stuttered through a few false starts and was ultimately unable to produce a concrete answer: “This is going to be one of those moments that goes viral. I mean, woke is something that’s very hard to define.” The next day on Twitter, Mandel finally produced a definition.
According to author Bijan C. Bayne, the word “woke” finds its roots in Black nationalism, and it originally meant “recognizing racial subjugation committed by Whites.” But the right has distorted the original meaning of the word, transforming it into an anti-Black dog-whistle and catch-all term for progressive ideas and, more recently, corporations that they don’t like.
In contemporary right-wing media logic, nearly everything can be traced back to “wokeness.” If a corporation fails, like the recent Silicon Valley Bank collapse, it’s because it was a “woke” company. On the other hand, if a project succeeds, like Top Gun Maverick, it’s because “they didn’t wokeify it.”
Despite reflexively returning to “wokeness” and “anti-wokeness” as the organizing principle of all aspects of modern culture, right-wing media seemingly can’t agree on what the word even means. From a “catch-all term” that describes “the most insane things,” to “racism in and of itself,” here are just a few of the many disparate attempts by right-wing media at defining the word “woke” as they use it:
- On his “LIVE FREE” tour, Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk said “woke” is used to “describe the most insane things” that people are “forced” to believe. Despite actually providing a somewhat accurate definition of the word (though seemingly mocking it), he nonetheless said that “woke” is instead a “catch-all term. You can like it, you can not like it.”
- On Fox News’ The Five, Fox contributor Johnny Joey Jones claimed that “wokeness is racism in and of itself.” He also said, “The word racism is almost extinct now because we can't discern true racism from wokeness.”
- Right-wing podcaster Dave Rubin opened up his March 15 show saying, “Woke is basically the desire for equity. Equal results. Rather than equality, which is equal opportunity … through a racialized or sexualized lens. And then the subsequent destruction of everything we knew to be true.” The day prior on Newsmax, Rubin repeated there is a “racial” and “sexuality” version of “woke,” without explaining what those “versions” of “wokeness” are.
- During an appearance on CNN’s State of the Union, “anti-woke” crusader Vivek Ramaswamy claimed that “wokeness” “divides us on the basis of race and sex and sexual orientation.” He also provided a “neutral” definition of the word, claiming that it “refers to becoming alert to invisible societal injustices … then being called upon to act on those injustices using whatever potential legally means are necessary, including the market, to do it.”
- In a tweet thread, far-right author James Lindsay acknowledged that “most of you can’t define Woke” but “know what it is (tacitly.)” Lindsay provided his definition of woke in another tweet: “For the gente, Woke means you believe social reality is contoured by illegitimate power dynamics set up by advantages classes in society to maintain their advantage together with awakening to the need to change that and your unique role in doing so.”
- Senior writer at The National Review Dan McLaughlin defined “woke ideology” by conflating it with “‘anti-racist,’ intersectionality, social-justice warriors, the ‘successor ideology,’” and saying it “frames its analysis of virtually everything around group identities rather than individual humanity.” McLaughlin then put the onus on “critics of using the terms such as ‘woke’” to provide “a more precise terminology for the ideology these terms describe.”
- FoxNews.com has published a number of pieces with a definition of “woke,” some of which provide differing definitions:
- In 2017, FoxNews.com provided the Oxford English Dictionary's definition of “woke”: “Now chiefly: Alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice; frequently in stay woke (often used as an exhortation).”
- In 2018, FoxNews.com posted a clip from a Fox News Radio show where Tom Shillue — along with Jaimie La Bella and Derek Richards — struggled to define “woke.” Eventually, they were able to come to the conclusion that “wokeness” is “more than politically correct … it is like socially and racially aware.”
- In 2021, FoxNews.com published two articles with different definitions of “woke” in the same year. In June, the outlet said, the term “now chiefly means ‘alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice,’” while in December, it said, “many people now interpret woke to be a way to describe people who would rather silence their critics than listen to them.”
- In 2023, FoxNews.com published an opinion piece from host Greg Gutfield where he mocked “wokeness”: “If you define woke, it's someone who's awake, perhaps with an angrier consciousness.”