What’s ‘woke?’ Here’s what some Kentucky politicians say

Term has roots in Black community but has gotten new context in recent years

By McKenna Horsley, Kentucky Lantern

LOUISVILLE — At the end of Kentucky’s first gubernatorial debate on March 7, four Republican candidates were asked a lightning round question — define “woke.”

A lot of Americans have wondered about that definition. “Woke” was a contender for Merriam-Webster’s most looked-up word of 2021 when “vaccine” generated the most dictionary searches. 

In 2023, Kentucky Republicans have raised “woke” to prominence in the governor’s race, one of only three in the U.S. this year.

Both Attorney General Daniel Cameron and former United Nations Ambassador Kelly Craft have unveiled policy plans taking aim at what they say is “woke” ideology in Kentucky schools. 

“Woke” has also gotten play in this year’s legislative session, usually when Republicans are denouncing what they see as a dangerous offshoot of “woke” thinking, especially in education or LGBTQ rights. 

During the debate, however, Somerset Mayor Alan Keck used the question to distinguish himself from his Republican competitors. 

First quipping that it’s what he texts his wife first thing in the morning, he then called for a stop to “calling people names.”

“But you know why it’s used so often? It’s because it polls well. People tell folks to say it, and while those definitions are good,” he said, referring to the other candidates’ answers, “I don’t know how that’s going to move Kentucky forward. I don’t see it bringing people together.”

Lead Belly, coal miners and the history of ‘woke’

Woke’s roots in Black American vernacular go back at least 100 years when the word served as a reminder to stay alert to oppressive systems and also to the physical threat of racial violence.

In 1938, legendary bluesman Lead Belly used the word while recording a ballad about the Scottsboro Boys, Black teens wrongly accused of raping a white woman and sentenced to death in Alabama. “I advise everybody to be a little careful when they go down there,” said Lead Belly of the Deep  South. “Stay woke. Keep your eyes open.” 

The Scottsboro boys were eventually freed after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned their convictions. 

In 1940 in West Virginia, the Negro United Mine Workers launched a strike against discriminatory pay in the coal industry. Speaking about the discovery that they were paid less than their white counterparts, a Black union leader said, “We were asleep. But we will stay woke from now on.”

Fast forward to 2013 and the acquittal of the white killer of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin and the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement. 

As demonstrators took to the streets to protest a succession of police shootings and killings of Black men and youth, “woke” took on new relevance as they reminded each other to “stay woke” to physical risks during demonstrations and also to larger systemic injustices.

The word spread to encompass other progressive causes, was embraced by white activists, and became a pejorative used by conservatives to describe what they see as extreme liberal views and political correctness.

‘Woke’ on today’s campaign trail

University of Kentucky political science professor D. Stephen Voss said “woke” has become a code word that can quickly show a politician’s stance. Even if the definition is not concrete, when voters hear a candidate use the word, it can evoke their own connotations and beliefs.

Another example of political shorthand, he said, is “Obamacare” to mean the Affordable Care Act, used first by opponents and also by supporters as shorthand for the 2010 law that expanded access to health care.

Political consultant Tres Watson, a former spokesperson for the Republican Party of Kentucky, said “words are real estate and it’s limited” when creating and designing messaging for mailers or a script for an ad. 

“If you can use a term like ‘woke’ that … your target audience, in this case, conservative Republican primary voters, are going to understand that you’re taking a stance against a broader array of things by just using one word.”

In the Republican gubernatorial primary, using the word woke is a way for candidates to check off a box and say they are “against the woke agenda and move on to the next things,” Watson said. 

What candidates say:

  • During the March 7 debate, Attorney General Daniel Cameron said most Kentuckians recognize the word as “far-left trying to indoctrinate our system” in areas like the economy and education.  Kentucky needs “a leader that’s going to fight back and push back against this stuff and” respect the values of “the majority of men and women and children of our 120 counties.” During a Feb. 13 campaign stop in Bardstown, he said “woke” is the “far-left’s agenda to destroy the values of Kentucky”  in classrooms, big banks and the Biden administration — a “different way of looking at our society and pitting people against each other in a way that I don’t think is healthy or productive to the forward progress of our nation and our commonwealth. You need a strong governor who will push back against this nonsense. … It’s coming from the far left and then its coming from these big government zealots in my view, and I want to be a governor that stands up for the values of the folks here in the Commonwealth,” he said.
  • Former United Nations Ambassador Kelly Craft was invited to the March 7 debate but chose not participate. During a Feb. 16 campaign stop in Louisville, Craft was asked to define “woke” and said: “I believe the leftist agenda of woke is actually the degradation of our common sense of our conservative — of actually values, of children being children and allowed to have a childhood, of taking away parent’s rights to be involved with their children, and you know, furthermore, for children to have the right to have their parents involved in their decision making.” 
  • Auditor Mike Harmon said “woke” is “more about indoctrination and cancellation.” Harmons said, “We can have a conversation. We have a right to disagree and that’s what our country was based on, disagreements, but wokeness is if you don’t agree with everything that we believe, you’re gone. We’re going to find something and we’re going to make sure you’re gone.” 
  • Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles responded to the “woke” question during the debate by saying the word has been around for a while, though more people have heard it during the last few years in reference to “the potential pushing of agendas, particularly, social agendas, outside of the normal scope of conversation. … I think that we talk about it a lot in education, where it’s CRT (critical race theory), whether it’s about pushing social justice
  • issues, but I think if you look at the textbook definition of it, it’s somebody who’s aware of social injustices.”

Answers analyzed

When it comes to Quarles’ and Keck’s debate answers, it’s important to remember their overall strategies. Watson said he doesn’t view either as the furthest right candidate in the race. 

“The people on the far, far right … a hard core Trump supporter, probably has a much more broad and conservative view of the woke agenda than like a Ryan Quarles or an Alan Keck would have,” Watson said. 

Voss said that Keck’s criticism of  “those who harp on the word ‘woke’” sends the “message that his focus is not going to be on cultural conservatism.” 

Quarles’ answer also showed him taking “the sort of middle ground between what Keck did and” other opponents, “which is trying to send a signal that he’s not obsessing with cultural conservative political stances by what he does talk about,” Voss added. 

“Part of why politicians are going to struggle to define the thing is we want, when they have a term, for it to be a matter of kind— something is either woke or not, or something’s either inside woke or not inside woke — but as some of the definitions we’ve gotten from these politicians indicate, it’s really more a matter of degree,” said Voss.

Speaking out against “woke” is likely to have more appeal for voters in a Republican primary than to the larger group who’ll be deciding in November between a yet to be decided Republican nominee and Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, whose opponents criticize him as woke.

Asked by reporters on Feb. 23 to define the work, Beshear likened it to name calling. 

“Woke is apparently the new name calling that is used against, I guess, anyone who disagrees with the person using it,” the governor said. “It’s unfortunate. It’s an attempt to create, I guess, a them versus us, and it doesn’t help. 

Like Keck, he said he was raised to not call others names. 

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