Too Woke
Credit: John Darkow, Columbia Missourian / CTNewsJunkie via Cagle Cartoons / ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Barth Keck

Little did Carmen Quiroga know she was stoking a political fire when she opened her breakfast restaurant in Coventry last month. But stoke a fire, she did, thanks to the name she gave the establishment: Woke Breakfast & Coffee.

“I’m a Mexican,” said Quiroga, who immigrated to America with her husband in 2005. “I don’t know anything about what ‘woke’ means to some people.”

She found out rather quickly, however, when some local conservatives were upset with the politically charged moniker. As Republican town council member John French explained, the name might “put off people with more center and center-right views who don’t have the backstory [behind the restaurant’s origin].”

Thankfully, all of the attention has been a net positive for the now thriving breakfast eatery. As Quiroga told The Hartford Courant, “Everybody knows my name now. They say we love your food and everyone’s going to support us.”

The story might not have had such a happy ending if it had taken place in, say, Florida where concern about “wokeism” is particularly high. Last April, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the Stop Woke Act, which “specifically targets employers who include training on critical race theory or racism” and “limits how teachers and other educators teach public school students about race, privilege, oppression and the founding of America.”

So just what does this seemingly incendiary word “woke” mean, other than its traditional definition as the past tense of the verb “wake”? And why is it causing so much controversy?

The answer lies in the word’s history of “linguistic appropriation” whereby conservatives hijacked its newfound meaning from liberals and weaponized it against them. Think of how the original meaning of “politically correct” – “an idealistic, decent-minded, but slightly Puritanical intervention to sanitize the language by suppressing some of its uglier prejudicial features” – has been turned into a pejorative meaning “invasive leftism or thought-police liberalism.”

“Woke” has endured a similar fate. While the term gained wide popularity after the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, as a “cautionary watchword of Black Lives Matter activists on the streets,” this particular connotation has been around much longer.

“The earliest known examples of wokeness as a concept revolve around the idea of Black consciousness ‘waking up’ to a new reality or activist framework and dates back to the early 20th century,” explained culture writer Aja Romano. “In 1923, a collection of aphorisms and ideas by the Jamaican philosopher and social activist Marcus Garvey included the summons ‘Wake up Ethiopia! Wake up Africa!’ as a call to global Black citizens to become more socially and politically conscious.”

The phrase “stay woke” similarly appeared in Huddie Ledbetter’s 1938 song “Scottsboro Boys” that describes the systemic injustice faced by nine Black teenagers accused of raping two white women in Scottsboro, Arkansas.

But something happened around 2017 as pushback against the term surfaced, explains Romano, quoting Boston Globe columnist Alex Beams: “The real purpose of ‘woke’ is to divide the world into hyper-socially aware, self-appointed gatekeepers of language and behavior, and the rest of humanity.”

It wasn’t long before an increasing number of conservatives mocked the term, turning it into a rallying cry against what they perceived as social-justice efforts gone too far. Witness Florida’s Stop Woke Act.

Lest Connecticut residents believe the “woke” controversy here is limited to a restaurant in Coventry, look no further than HB-6384. Proposed by five Democratic legislators, this bill would ban the term “Latinx” in state documents due to its “offensive nature to native-Spanish speakers and the state’s Puerto Rican population.” Originated roughly 20 years ago as a “gender-neutral word for people of Latin American descent,” the word is commonly used as a nonbinary term for people within the Latin LGBTQ community.

While the term “Latinx” lacks acceptance among many of the people it is supposed to represent, others say an outright ban is counterproductive and simply wrong.

“Basically, [HB-6384] is an attack on the movement to really open up to diversity in this country,” said John Lugo, community organizing director of New Haven-based Unidad Latina en Acción. “Banning the term is like, I think, a violation of the First Amendment.”

Critics of the bill, in fact, point to Arkansas governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders who announced within hours of taking office an executive order to ban “Latinx” from state documents “to keep the radical left’s agenda out of Arkansas.” Is Connecticut trying to emulate Sanders’ restriction of free speech, those critics ask?

Wherever one falls in the debate over “Latinx,” the most constructive action from this point is to do just that: debate rather than ban. If that’s not the very definition of “woke” – conscious consideration and discussion of an essential issue – I don’t know what is.

Barth Keck is in his 32nd year as an English teacher and 18th year as an assistant football coach at Haddam-Killingworth High School where he teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition. Follow Barth on Twitter @keckb33 or email him here.

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