By Victor Shi
A student named Kayla Kisseadoo at New College in Florida put it best when she described her reaction to the word “Woke.” She told MSNBC’s Alex Wagner, “Woke? You mean practicing basic empathy? Valuing people who are part of your community?” Indeed, the word “woke” is not a difficult word to understand. It simply means being aware of societal injustices and wrongdoing. It means being aware of and curious about the struggles that so many vulnerable groups have endured and continue to endure. At the end of the day, like Kisseadoo said, “wokeness” means “practicing basic empathy.”
But Republicans have not only hijacked the word, but they have twisted it in its entirety. They have manipulated the word “woke” and other phrases and words like “Critical Race Theory” (also known as “CRT”) and “DEI” (short for “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion”), and they have weaponized it. Consider just a few examples of Republicans using such terms. Ron DeSantis once claimed that wokeness is what will “destroy this country if we let that take hold across these institutions more than it has.” Just the other day, a slew of Republicans blamed the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank on “wokeness” and “DEI” practices.
Simply put, words like “wokeness,” “DEI,” and “CRT” are deployed by Republicans to effectively attack anything that Democrats do. They’ll use it to denigrate students learning about real history in the classrooms. They’ll use it to attack doctors who are following science and facts. They’ll use it to demonize lawyers and the legal system for decisions that they do not like. They will use it to criticize anyone who promotes the ideas of increasing equality, equity, and justice — values that every American should share. Quite literally, Republicans will use it to describe anything and anyone who runs against their worldview.
But make no mistake about it: Republicans have no idea what such terms actually mean. Take, for instance, Republicans attempting to explain the definition of “wokeness.” In fact, the entire nation saw a glaring example of how clueless Republicans are when they employ such a term when Bethany Mandel, who is the author of a book about wokeness, couldn’t even provide an explanation of what the term means on television. Briahna Joy Gray asked her to define the term,, and she spent 15 seconds — on camera, mostly in silence —wondering what it meant. Ultimately, she couldn’t provide an explanation and went on to say that it’s difficult “explain it in a 15-second sound bite.”
Let’s be clear: this wasn’t a slip-of-the-tongue error by Bethany Mandel. Nor was it because she didn’t have enough time to explain it. The reason why Mandel couldn’t explain it is that Republicans have co-oped the term so extremely and so beyond its original meaning that there is no definition.
And Mandel is not the only one who has turned the word on its head. An organization called “Media Matters for America” found that “right-wing media can’t agree” on what the word means. For instance, according to the organization, Fox has published numerous pieces including the word “woke,” and the pieces all have varying definitions of the word. The reason why is simple: for Republicans, whether it’s “wokeness,” “DEI,” or “CRT,” they are all hallowed, catch-all terms that are meant to disparage Democrats — and, specifically, young people.
Here’s the good news, though. The Republican strategy is not working. According to a new poll, 56% of Americans view “wokeness” as a positive thing, saying that it means “being aware of social injustices.” Even better, out of all the age groups polled, it was those between the ages of 18 and 34 that had the most positive outlook on the word woke. With 64% of young people having a positive association with the term, clearly, my peers and I are not falling for the negative way that Republicans are presenting the word.
Most Americans, and especially young people, see right through the Republican war on the word “woke.” They know the GOP’s use means nothing. They know “wokeness” isn’t destroying the country, but, rather, that it is the Republican attempts to roll back basic civil rights and liberties. They know that it’s not “wokeness” or “CRT” that is destroying education but the crackdown by Republicans on what students can learn and what teachers can teach. Americans broadly, including young people are smarter than Republicans think.
Against this backdrop, Democrats, in particular, shouldn’t shy away from calling Republicans for what they are trying to do with such terms. There is been a tendency to shy away from culture war issues, but here’s what happens if Democrats do: they allow Republicans to control the narrative. They allow Republicans to turn seemingly simple, basic words into phrases that any Republican can use to attack Democrats. We all have a responsibility to make sure that Republicans don’t have the upper hand in culture war issues — because the only culture war that actually exists is the one the GOP is working so hard to foment.
It starts with more people like Briahna Joy Gray asking Republicans the simple question. As Jemele Hill pointed out, “This is why I tell journalism students that open-ended questions are better than questions that sound tough.” The question that Gray asked may have been simple, but it was effective because it put Mandel on the spot to actually explain her views. We need more reporters and anchors who ask simple, broad, and open-ended questions. And when their questions are dodged, politely asked them again, “I don’t think you answered my question. I asked…”
Equally as important, Democrats running for office shouldn’t be afraid to challenge Republicans when they use such terms. For instance, if Republican attacks a Democrat for using the word “wokeness,” push back and say what the term really means. The response can be as simple as, “When I hear that word, I think of having basic empathy.” In short, don’t let Republicans get away with redefining and then exploiting words. Get on their level, ask them questions, and tell them what the word actually means.
It’s been long said that Republicans are better at messaging than Democrats. And, to a large extent, it’s true. But as we are seeing crystal clear, through their complete takeover of words like “Woke,” “CRT,” and “DEI,” Republicans have no idea what they are talking about. Republicans pretend that they are concerned about their constituents and voters, but, in reality, it’s just another attempt to get voters to think that all Democrats are evil. Fortunately, it appears that an increasing number of Americans — especially me and my peers — are beginning to understand that it’s not Democrats who are evil but Republicans’ tactics to turn Americans against each other and target those most marginalized that are evil.
But Republicans just aren’t paying attention to us, and apparently, they will never learn. They will be in for a rude awakening in 2024 if they continue down this path. It simply won’t work.