The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What does ‘woke’ mean? Whatever Ron DeSantis wants.

Florida: Where woke goes to be defined

Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during the Republican Jewish Coalition annual leadership meeting at the Venetian Las Vegas in Las Vegas on Nov. 19. (David Becker for The Washington Post)
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Gray Rohrer of the news outlet Florida Politics was in the courtroom last week as staffers for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) were asked an interesting question: What does “woke” mean? The federal court in Tallahassee where the question came up doesn’t allow for recordings, Rohrer told The Washington Post, but he jotted down the offered responses in his notebook.

Ryan Newman, DeSantis’s general counsel, said the term referred to “the belief there are systemic injustices in American society and the need to address them.” Taryn Fenske, DeSantis’s communications director, said that “woke” was “a slang term for … progressive activism,” adding that the term also referred to a belief that there were systemic injustices in the United States.

Both Newman and Fenske can be called correct for linking the term to the idea that racism is embedded in American systems like the law and the economy. But Fenske’s description of the word as having become a slang term does a much better job of encapsulating how the expression is actually used — and why they and DeSantis were in that courtroom in the first place.

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“Woke” entered common usage alongside “Black Lives Matter” and “critical race theory” over the past decade. The movement to draw attention to the disproportionate killing of Black people at the hands of law enforcement was centered on drawing attention to systemic racism, an idea that is a component of critical race theory. Being “woke” in this context meant being alert to the ways in which racism can be subtle.

This was necessarily inextricable from politics, but the extent to which it became entwined with partisanship was remarkable. Discussions of systemic racism (including some clunky, opportunistic ones) sat alongside an increasing sense among White Americans, particularly Republicans, that there was an effort underway to erode their own power and position.

The emergence of a new series of Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020 led to Joe Biden’s presidential candidacy being opportunistically interwoven with race and perceptions of crime. Soon after he was inaugurated president, Fox News began focusing heavily on the purported threat of critical race theory in schools — or, more vaguely, the threat of America getting too “woke.” You can see the surge in mentions of “woke” on Fox News below.

That initial effort was heavily driven by a right-wing writer named Christopher Rufo. In March 2021, he was overt about his intent.

“The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory,’ ” he wrote on Twitter. “We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.”

In other words, the goal was to make “critical race theory” a shorthand for common frustrations for “Americans,” here obviously meaning mostly White Americans. Over the next 20 months, this same outcome — turning the phrase “critical race theory” into a catchall phrase for ridiculous stuff — became reality for “woke.” Instead of meaning something like being aware of systemic biases, an idea considered ludicrous to people trained for decades to identify racism only at its most overt, the term “woke” was applied to a broad range of things that were generally embraced by the political left. It became, as Taryn Fenske put it, a slang term.

Consider how DeSantis himself has used it. He was a bit late to the effort, certainly, but he made up for lost time. Over the past 20 months, he has described the following things as “woke”:

  • The NCAA, for saying that it would not hold events in states that passed laws (as Florida did) governing the participation of trans athletes in sports programs.
  • Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, for expressing opposition to the policies of Israel.
  • “Woke” corporations in general.
  • Disney specifically, for opposing a bill that would restrict mentions of same-sex relationships in schools.
  • Certain math books, for purportedly using “critical race theory” in problems.
  • Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren — whose lawsuit against being removed from his post led to the testimony of DeSantis’s aides.

Last year, DeSantis championed an egregiously on-the-nose piece of legislation called the “Stop W.O.K.E.” Act. Roughly centered on the use of “critical race theory” — under its inflated, toxic new definition — it limited what schools, universities and private businesses could teach students or employees.

“I think what you see now with the rise of this ‘woke’ ideology is an attempt to really delegitimize our history and to delegitimize our institutions,” DeSantis said then. “And I view the wokeness as a form of cultural Marxism.”

This was meant literally, in part. A new training regimen on U.S. history meant to elide the insidious influence of “critical race theory” was derided by teachers as inaccurate and for downplaying slavery. But it was also meant in the abstract. “Woke” means accommodating the ways in which America is changing and in which non-White and non-cis Americans are incorporated into the public conversation. DeSantis and other Republicans understand that the narrow understanding of “woke” and “critical race theory” are less useful than broader ones in which those terms are slang references to something like “dumb stuff the left wants that undermines the way things have always been.”

When DeSantis easily won reelection last month, he carved out a part of his victory speech to address “wokeism.”

“The woke agenda has caused millions of Americans to leave these jurisdictions” — ones run by Democrats and “leftists” — “for greener pastures,” he insisted. “We have maintained law and order. We have protected the rights of parents. We have respected our taxpayers, and we reject woke ideology.”

Channeling a MAGA version of Winston Churchill, he continued with a rousing bit of rhetoric: “We fight the woke in the legislature. We fight the woke in the schools. We fight the woke in the corporations. We will never, ever surrender to the woke mob.”

“Florida,” he pledged, “is where woke goes to die.”

Easy to accomplish when it means whatever you want it to mean.