4 Key “Woke” Terms Causing a Movement in America

Since the Declaration of Independence was penned, there have been ongoing questions about citizens’ rights in American politics.

These include who has rights and what the scope of those rights should be. With that discussion comes an ever-evolving language around justice. 

The current label for social justice awareness is “woke” or “wokeness,” a term that originated in African-American Vernacular English. According to Aja Romano, a pop culture journalist with Vox, the history of the term “woke” or “stay awake” has deep roots in African-American culture. 

Romano writes that “woke” has been used in the black community as a watchword for socially conscious African Americans regarding police brutality. It was first noted in 1938 with the release of “Scottsboro Boys,” a protest song by Blues musician Huddie Ledbetter, a.k.a. Lead Belly.

Popularized in 2014 by the Black Lives Matter movement, wokeness has since become a catchall for leftist ideology and being conscious of social justice. There are several important ideas that wokeness encompasses, but presented here are just four key “woke” concepts to be aware of.

1. Intersectionality

Intersectionality is the idea that oppressive constructs overlap and reinforce one another. The marginalization a white woman faces for being female is different from that which a black woman experiences. This is because the black woman is marginalized both for being a woman and for being black. 

According to the Center for Intersectional Justice, “an intersectional approach to discrimination and inequality seeks to identify and address processes of marginalization and exclusion within anti-discrimination efforts that focus solely on one dimension.”

For instance, an attempt to address the gender pay gap must necessarily also address the racial pay gap, or ableist pay gap, to achieve an equitable outcome for all women, regardless of race or ability. 

2. Marginalization

The original meaning of “marginalize” referred to the blank areas around text in books, where notes could be written. That’s according to a National Institutes of Health article by Ashley Pratt and Dr. Triesta Fowler.

Today, the term marginalize is commonly used as a verb meaning ‘to relegate to an unimportant or powerless position within [a] society or group,'” Pratt and Fowler said. “Much like the notes in the blank edges of a book, marginalized groups are treated as separate from the main body of society.”

Marginalization occurs across a wide range of social outgroups, including race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexuality, disability, and religion. 

Pratt and Fowler suggest three steps necessary to address marginalization. These are to learn about which groups are marginalized, listen to the people who are being marginalized, and, with that information in hand, consider ways to be more inclusive.

3. Microaggression

“Microaggressions are the everyday slights, insults, putdowns, invalidations, and offensive behaviors that people experience in daily interactions with generally well-intentioned individuals who may be unaware that they have engaged in demeaning ways,” says the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (ODEI) at the UNC School of Medicine.

An example of a racial microaggression is telling a person, “Your English is so good,” implying they aren’t truly American, according to a fact sheet on microaggressions released by the National Education Association. Saying “no homo” or “that’s so gay” are examples of microaggressions based on sexual identity. 

The ODEI offers a three-part approach to dealing with microaggressions: stop, talk, and roll. 

First, the conversation or interaction should stop long enough to assess the situation and decide if the microaggression should be addressed on the spot or after taking time to process it. 

Next, talk it out, addressing what could have been done differently. If the microaggression cannot be addressed in the moment, talk can also involve diffusing the situation to allow for later discussion in a safe environment. 

Finally, roll means to seek support, either to process and address the microaggression or to determine if it can be safely addressed. 

4. Social Privilege

Social privilege is an exclusive advantage granted, not earned or brought into existence by effort or talent. It is also an entitlement that comes from a certain elevated rank or status, according to Tulsi Achia, a clinical psychologist writing for SocialChangeLab.

Further, privilege is exercised to the benefit of the recipient and at the exclusion and detriment of others. And finally, it is often outside of the recipient’s awareness.

While male privilege and racial privilege are among the most studied, privilege can apply to many factors, including class, age, ability, and sexual orientation. 

Recognizing and taking steps to address privilege is often painful and distressing, Achia writes. Addressing privilege can negatively impact both personal self-esteem and group esteem. 

“It is threatening to deeply-held beliefs about ourselves – that any success that we have had has solely been the result of hard work, ability, and sacrifice,” she says, regarding self-esteem. 

“It is [also] a jarring realization that the benefits associated with our group’s privileged status may come at the expense of less privileged groups, thus affecting our positive sense of group self-esteem.”

But addressing privilege is a necessary part of social justice, Achi writes. “Difficult as it is to deal with the social privileges we have accrued, it has a range of important social and relational benefits!”

“There is strong research evidence showing that those of us who push through the discomfort of acknowledging our social privilege and the illegitimacy of it are more likely to accurately perceive instances of discrimination and disparity and forge meaningful and supportive relationships with diverse people who may not come from socially privileged groups.”

Why Should I Care If It’s So Distressing?

“Social justice makes societies and economies function better and reduces poverty, inequalities, and social tensions,” according to a United Nations (UN) explainer on social justice. “The social contract…has been fractured by rising inequalities, conflicts, and weakened institutions that are meant to protect the rights of workers.”

A society functions to serve those who participate in it, creating a social contract. Essentially, society is an agreement between people to abide by laws, value currency, and support governance and regulation in exchange for the benefits a cohesive society offers. When the benefits are distributed unequally, marginalized people have to put more effort into the social contract while receiving fewer or no benefits.

This creates inequality, which, as the UN says, undermines the efficient operation of a society. So, despite the discomfort, the benefits of a more equal society far outweigh the transient discomfort of those with social privilege. 


This article was produced by TPR Teaching.

Caitriona Maria is an education writer and founder of TPR Teaching, crafting inspiring pieces that promote the importance of developing new skills. For 7 years, she has been committed to providing students with the best learning opportunities possible, both domestically and abroad. Dedicated to unlocking students' potential, Caitriona has taught English in several countries and continues to explore new cultures through her travels.

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