We asked conservatives at CPAC what ‘woke’ means. Their replies were revealing

Many conservative struggle to define the word that has become a right-wing boogeyman, finds Eric Garcia in National Harbor, Maryland

Monday 06 March 2023 14:00 GMT
A man in a booth selling hats at CPAC 2023, at the National Harbor, in Oxon Hill, Maryland
A man in a booth selling hats at CPAC 2023, at the National Harbor, in Oxon Hill, Maryland (AP)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


The fact is that conservatives don’t like the concept of “woke” these days.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, the potential Republican presidential candidate, has repeatedly said that his state is where “woke goes to die”. Former president Donald Trump has talked about generals being too “woke”.

Mr DeSantis did not attend the Conservative Political Action Conference just outside Washington last week. But plenty of others focused on “wokeness”.

Presidential hopeful Nikki Haley said that “I’m running for president to renew an America that’s proud and strong, not weak and woke.” Senator Tommy Tuberville of Alabama held a talk on the first full day of the conference entitled “Sacking the Woke Playbook”.

“Today, they are being indoctrinated with all this woke — transgender athletes, CRT, 1619,” Mr Tuberville said in reference to allowing transgender athletes; critical race theory, the niche legal theory that many conservatives have used as a catch-all to describe education about Black history and racism; and the 1619 Project, the project by The New York Times led by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones that chronicles the impact of slavery in the founding and present day of the United States.

Black Americans largely adopted the term “woke” going back as late as the 1940s as a phrase meant to be aware of racism around them and became a staple of African American Vernacular English (AAVE). But plenty of activists at CPAC had a different definition.

Marleen Laska, a conservative activist from Pennsylvania who attended the conference, has a broad definition of what “woke” meant.

“That’s a loaded question,” she said. “It covers so many things. It incorporated all the stupidity that is going on with the country.”

She specifically cited environmental and social governance investing practices.

“The children and in the schools and trying to make the transgender, and it came to so many things ... which is wrong in this country,” she told The Independent, also criticising including rainbow pride flags in classrooms.

“To me the word ‘woke’ is the antithesis of everything that America was founded on,” Marie Rogerson, an executive director of program development at Moms for Liberty based in Florida, told The Independent. “It’s anything for me that’s anti-American, anti-common sense, anti-really in the sense of education, what education was meant to do.”

Ms Rogerson said Mr DeSantis’s war on the concept of “woke” was necessary to help the state thrive.

“Killing ‘woke’ means, it’s like a garden, you’re getting rid of the weeds so that the things you actually want to grow, can,” she said. “In the instance of Florida, he’s talking about industry and our economics and our education. And all those things that we want to thrive can actually thrive because we’ve choked the weeds.”

Donald Trump Jr insults Senator John Fetterman's condition in CPAC rant

Ms Rogerson said people did not need to use the word “woke” to discuss racism.

“I think there’s a better way to say it,” she said. “Racism exists. I don’t think it’s a, you know, depending on the area and what we’re talking about, it could be a major problem, it could be a minor problem. I don’t think it’s necessary to say ‘stay woke’ to be concerned about any racism that exists in America. Woke means more than just racism.”

Ms Rogerson’s colleague Sheila Armstrong, who works with the group’s Philadelphia chapter, had a slightly different definition.

“So the word ‘woke’ is, they’re using it wrong. To be woke is when you recognize that maybe what you was doing was wrong,” she told The Independent. “Me being a Black woman, a lot of this slang and terminology they try to use is coming out of our community. But they use the terminology wrong. So for a person to be woke, that means you recognizing what you do is wrong. Just because you’re woke is right. That’s where the confusion is.”

Angelo Veltri, northeast regional director for Young Americans for Liberty, had a similarly vague description for what the word meant.

“‘Woke’ to me means that you are basing your reality off of fiction and your feelings rather than actual facts,” he told The Independent. “‘Woke’ is more of the sense of like, if you feel a certain way, then you must be true, and they typically adhere to their truths rather than the truth as a whole. And it’s leading toward this woke postmodernism in a sense. Woke communism, where they’re trying to take over based on people’s feelings rather than actual factual evidence.”

Kate Ng contributed to this report

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