Woke Is Just Another Word for Liberal

What many conservative critics of wokeness actually oppose is the pursuit of equality.

Illustration of the Dred Scott decision with "WOKE" stamped on it
The Atlantic; source: Library of Congress

The conservative writer Bethany Mandel, a co-author of a new book attacking “wokeness” as “a new version of leftism that is aimed at your child,” recently froze up on a cable news program when asked by an interviewer how she defines woke, the term her book is about.

On the one hand, any of us with a public-facing job could have a similar moment of disassociation on live television. On the other hand, the moment and the debate it sparked revealed something important. Much of the utility of woke as a political epithet is tied to its ambiguity; it often allows its users to condemn something without making the grounds of their objection uncomfortably explicit.

A few years ago, I wrote, “Woke is a nebulous term stolen from Black American English, repurposed by conservatives as an epithet to express opposition to forms of egalitarianism they find ridiculous or distasteful.” This is what people mean when they refer to “woke banks” or “woke capital,” when they complain that the new Lord of the Rings series or the new Little Mermaid is “woke” because it includes Black actors, or when they argue for a “great unwokening” that would roll back civil-rights laws. Part of the utility of the term is that it can displace the criticism onto white liberals who are insincere about their egalitarianism, rather than appearing to be an attack on egalitarianism itself. In fact, woke has become so popular as a political epithet that providing an exhaustive list of definitions would be difficult. It is a slippery enough term that you can use it to sound like you are criticizing behavior most people think is silly, even if you are really referring to things most people think of as good or necessary.

This is not the only way that the term is employed—although it is almost always used as a pejorative now, whereas originally it could be sincere or ironic. Some commentators have used it as a shorthand for toxic dynamics in left-wing discourse and advocacy. “Wokeness refers to the invocation of unintuitive and morally burdensome political norms and ideas in a manner which suggests they are self-evident,” Sam Adler-Bell wrote in New York magazine. “At other times, it means we express fealty to a novel or unintuitive norm, while suggesting that anyone who doesn’t already agree with it is a bad person.”

Adler-Bell is describing a real phenomenon in left-of-center communities, but right-wing opposition to woke discourse is less about the mode of expression than its content. Suffice it to say, though, that no ideology is so pure or benign that it renders its adherents incapable of being cruel, selfish, or self-aggrandizing—especially in a social-media panopticon where everyone is seeking to raise or protect their own status, often at the expense of others.

Mandel herself later offered this definition of woke on Twitter: “A radical belief system suggesting that our institutions are built around discrimination, and claiming that all disparity is a result of that discrimination. It seeks a radical redefinition of society in which equality of group result is the endpoint, enforced by an angry mob.” The right-wing pundit Ben Shapiro offered a similar description.

I like Mandel’s definition because it makes the concept seem so reasonable that it requires a few modifiers and a straw man about mob enforcement to evoke the proper amount of dread in the reader. If you describe the ethnic cleansing of Muslims in Eastern Europe in the 1990s, you don’t need to add that it was “radical” to get most people to understand that it was bad. But the claim that “American institutions are built around discrimination” is just a straightforward account of history. And if few of the people who are caricatured as woke would argue that all disparities result from discrimination, most of them would agree that many key disparities along the axes of class, race, and gender do. But either the history, policy, and structure of the American economy matter or they don’t.

To claim the reverse, that people who are rich or white or male are just better than everyone else—to object to “equality of group result” as a goal, as if it’s absurd to believe that people from across the boundaries of the biological fiction of race could be equal—reveals a prejudice so overt that it practically affirms the “woke side of the argument. The “radical redefinition of society” that many of the so-called woke seek is simply that it lives up to its stated commitments. And one really could, I suppose, describe that as radical—the abolition of slavery, the ratification of women’s suffrage, and the end of Jim Crow were all once genuinely radical positions whose adoption redefined American society.

Those transitions were only possible because, as Mandel’s definition inadvertently concedes, the ideology she opposes is grounded in fact. The United States could not have been created without displacing the people who were already living here. Its Constitution preserved slavery, which remained an engine of the national economy well into the 19th century. Among the first pieces of federal legislation was a bill limiting naturalization to free white people. Yet not even all white men could vote at the nation’s founding—property requirements shut out many until around 1840—and universal white male suffrage (sometimes including noncitizens!) was paired with the explicit disenfranchisement of Black men, even in some northern states. The nation was nearly rent in two because the slave economy and the social hierarchy it created were precious enough, even to men who did not own slaves, that they took up arms to defend the institution of human bondage with their life. After the Civil War, the former Confederates reimposed white supremacy and subjected the emancipated to an apartheid regime in which they had few real rights, a regime my mother was born into and my grandparents fled. For most of the history of the United States, Black people could not vote and women could not vote; American immigration policy in the early 20th century was based on eugenics and an explicit desire to keep out those deemed nonwhite; the mid-century American prosperity unleashed by the New Deal that conservatives recall with such nostalgia was stratified by race.

I could go on, but I think you get the point. These things are real; they happened. To believe that the disadvantages of race, class, and gender imposed lawfully over centuries never occurred or entirely disappeared in just a few decades is genuinely “radical” in a negative way; to believe that creating those disadvantages was wrong and that they should be rectified is not. The idea that no one ever succeeds based on advantages unrelated to their personal abilities is likewise radical, and also ludicrous. But you can, perhaps, understand why one of the richest men in the world would consider the opposing idea—that where many people end up in life is the result of unearned advantages—to be a “woke mind virus” that should be eradicated. That kind of thinking leads to higher marginal tax rates for people with private planes.

Some people so deeply resent the implication that they possess any unearned advantage that, in Republican-run states all over the country, the same folks who were recently shrieking about free speech and oversensitive snowflakes are busy using the power of the state to ban discussions about factual matters that might hurt their feelings, such as descriptions of racial segregation in the story of Rosa Parks. The irony here is that by framing everything they don’t like as a symptom of pervasive oppression against white people or Christians that must be rectified by the state, they have themselves adopted the inverse of the logic they decry as “wokeness.” They believe that America’s demographic majorities are the targets of broad institutional discrimination, which is unjust not because such discrimination is morally abhorrent but because it is targeted at the wrong people.

Then there is the irony that the most zealous among the so-called woke and anti-woke form different denominations of the same religion, following high priests of racial salvation preaching parallel dogmas, one of which says that you need only read certain books or say certain words to attain salvation, and the other of which grants absolution to parishioners for their reflexive contempt for those they despise. Only one of them, however, has become the established church in certain states, deploying the power of the state to enforce its dogma.

You need not adopt either faith. Accepting the reality of American history and the persistence of discrimination does not mean that every egalitarian proposal is correct, nor that every egalitarian argument should be heeded. It does not necessarily mean that we should ban the SAT in college admissions or never refer to “women” when discussing abortion rights. Calling something racist or sexist doesn’t mean that what you are describing is racist or sexist. Conversely, something that appears to be race-neutral can be implemented in a discriminatory fashion, or even adopted with that intention. But if you do accept the reality of our past, then you probably think we should try to level the playing field in some way. The merits of specific arguments or proposals are separate from that underlying principle. Whatever woke might mean, however, it is clear that the objections of the militantly “anti-woke” find the egalitarian idea itself to be worthy of contempt.

To say that traditional hierarchies are just and good, well, that’s simply conservatism. It has been since the 18th century. And to say that those hierarchies do not reflect justice and that people should be equal under the law—all the people, not only propertied white men—well, that’s more or less just liberalism. But if you don’t like it, you’d probably call it woke.