Peaceful protest for George Floyd, New Castle, Pennsylvania, June 2020. (Photo credit: Dreamstime)

Certain politicians in the United States and Canada have surged in popularity in part by decrying “wokeness” in our society, “woke ideology” in our universities and the “woke agenda” of non-conservative governments. What exactly they mean by “wokeness,” though, can be hard to pin down.

The language of “woke” grew out of the Black experience in the US, all the way back in the 1930s. Originally it had the idea of being aware of — and on guard against — the violence and systemic injustice experienced by Black people in American society.

More recently “woke” language has been used to mean being aware of systemic injustice generally, as experienced by any historically marginalized or disempowered group — Black people, Indigenous people, women, impoverished people, LGBTQ+ people — and the ways these different dimensions of the human experience of marginalization or disempowerment intersect with each other.

Still more recently, this language of “woke” has taken on other connotations. It now evokes for many people ideas of a nefarious agenda by powerful but out-of-touch “progressives” or “leftists” or “elites” — those people who live in coastal cities or teach in liberal universities, or who work for global organizations like the United Nations — to weaken the fabric of our society, take away our freedoms and destroy free-market capitalism.

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Michael Pahl is Executive Director of Mennonite Church Manitoba. He writes a blog about religion, which is where this article was first published.