Fourscore and three years ago, Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter—a self-titled “musicianer” who was heralded as a “Bad Nigger” who “makes good minstrel” by Life magazine—explained how he came to create one of the first racism* carols. Named after nine young Black men who had been falsely accused of raping two white women, “Scottsboro Boys” was a protest and a warning to Black people about the evil that awaited anyone who dared traverse the borders of Alabama. At the end of the song, he told the story of meeting two of the wrongly convicted men and—just before the recording faded into silence—the legendary singer coined a phrase that would become a clarion call to Black America until white people discovered it eight decades later.
“I advise everybody to be a little careful when they go down through there,” Lead Belly said of Alabama. “Just stay woke. Keep your eyes open.”
Black translation: The systemic or individual oppression or vilification of a racial group, intentional or otherwise.
White Translation: An intentional and malicious attack that severely damages someone of another race (Unless it is done to white people, in which case it does not have to result in any appreciable damage). Also, any use of the word “white people.”
In 1940, a West Virginia activist conceded that his fellow strikers in the Negro United Coal Miners had been lulled to sleep with discriminatory practices, but promised they would “stay woke longer.” Long before White America became authorities on what Martin Luther King Jr. would have wanted, Black people reminded each other to “Dream, but stay woke.” Childish Gambino and Erykah Badu sang about staying woke. One of my best friends hosted “The Stay Woke Show.” Staying woke had nothing to do with progressive ideas or politics; it was about white people.
Then, white people found out about it.
“Think of ‘woke’ as the inverse of ‘politically correct,’* wrote Times columnist Amanda Hess in 2016. “If ‘P.C’ is a taunt from the right, a way of calling out hypersensitivity in political discourse, then ‘woke’ is a back-pat from the left, a way of affirming the sensitive. It means wanting to be considered correct, and wanting everyone to know just how correct you are.”
Black translation: The intentional use of language or actions to ensure that one does not offend the sensibilities of traditionally marginalized or ignored groups.
White translation: The slight inconvenience of pretending to care about the feelings of people you don’t give a damn about
Hess was not wrong. However, she failed to mention that her definition was created by and for white people, in direct opposition to the term’s original intent—a warning to Black people about white people. By co-opting and transforming “woke” into a beacon for self-congratulatory allyship, white wokeness had been reversed-engineered into the actual thing that Black people needed to stay woke about.
Now, people on both the left and the right have suddenly put forth the premise that “wokeness” is causing the problems that Black people were trying to stay woke about. It’s why CNN Senior Weeping Correspondent Van Jones explained that Democrats have become “annoying and offensive.” It’s why Maureen Dowd wrote “Wokeness Derails the Democrats.” If Dowd truly understood the meaning of wokeness, she would have found an article her newspaper published fifty years ago about a word that originally served as a warning about people like Van Jones and Maureen Dowd.
To be fair, most Black Americans are accustomed to people who wear flip-flops to church borrowing phrases from the Black Lexical Universe. If Black people felt angst every time a white person told their “bae” how the party was so “lit” that they had no choice but to “turn up,” we’d be cursed with high blood pressure and low life expectancies (I know what you’re thinking, but income inequality, employment discrimination and equal access to medical care might have a little more to do with those health disparities). Still, the constant plundering of Black culture is not what concerns many people. We can see right through the Jedi mind trick that repurposes and transforms our attempts at self-preservation into a tool for Black-bashing.
Perhaps the best example of this Caucasian abracadabra is the successful campaign to redefine Critical Race Theory.* Most Critical Race Theory scholars have now given up trying to explain how the 1619 Project has nothing to do with an obscure law school theory. The tears of white women won that battle when legislatures started passing laws that redefined CRT. They don’t care that CRT examines issues through the lens of structural, not individual, racism. They made up their own definition.
Black definition: The work of Black legal scholars that examines the law through the lens of race in the same way that every other class in law school examines the law through the lens of whiteness.
White definition: A social studies curriculum that turns Black people into victims and white kids into villains by teaching them that Black kids can’t achieve things because America is a racist country.
Ironically, the ability of the white majority to influence the way history is taught actually proves CRT’s point. The success of the anti-CRT movement is a textbook example of the structural and systemic advantages enjoyed by those gang-banging Karens at the school board meeting. Their disingenuous reinterpretation protects whiteness by not exposing their kids to the truth of American history while having no effect whatsoever on the legal scholars who teach actual Critical Race Theory.
See? No harm, no foul.
It really is a neat trick. The gimmick is often used by mathematicians and birthday party magicians. First, you introduce a logical premise into the argument (12,304 x 79 = 948,302; or, we all agree that racism is bad and no one likes bad things). Once the audience accepts the premise that you made up, all you have to do is make up more stuff based on the exact same premise. (Therefore, 948,302 ÷ 79= 12,304. Therefore, white people are actually fighting racism.)
Bloomberg’s chief Caucasian correspondent Meghan McArdle once wrote about how I should be careful who I call a “white supremacist,” explaining that most people think of white supremacy as “an apartheid system like Jim Crow, and ‘white supremacists’ as angry people running around in sheets and hoods. The Root’s looser use of ‘white supremacy,’* to describe something considerably less explicit than advocating a race war, has become increasingly common.”
Black translation: A system or ideology that preserves the social, political or economic power of white people over non-white people.
White translation: Like racism, but intentional and supersized.
“The term was popularized by academic race theory, where it seems to have largely replaced previous terms of art like “institutional racism” or “systemic racism,” she continued. “Now it is migrating out of the ivory tower and into everyday discourse, puzzling the millions of Americans who are used to an older, narrower meaning.”
Did you see it?
Most people couldn’t see McArdle’s arm moving when a white dove with an entirely new definition of white supremacy flew out of her supposedly empty hat. It’s almost as if dictionaries and history don’t exist! As if W.E.B. Du Bois didn’t literally create the American form of sociology by quantifying white supremacy using data, statistics and demographic information. Maybe McArdle doesn’t know this because Du Bois is Black. Or maybe she is so averse to facts that she refuses to live in truth, reality or math. There is an actual definition of white supremacy. And 12,304 x 79 = 972,016.
How could anyone disagree that the life of any human being actually matters? The activists who first used the phrase “Black Lives Matter”* probably assumed it was the most innocuous protest chant ever created.
Black translation: Black Lives Matter
White translation: An organized terrorist* group that believes only Black lives matter. What about white lives? Why not all lives? Plus, we should acknowledge the lives that don’t actually exist, like the blue ones.
Yet, through the wonderful technique of white magic, what initially began as a self-affirming slogan about the humanity of America’s most marginalized demographic was somehow transformed into a “divisive” watchword that antagonized the very people who neglected the value of Black lives. That’s why it’s easy to believe that peaceful demonstrators, Muslims and Antifa are terrorists,* while the people who used force and violence to overthrow the government on Jan. 6 are misunderstood patriots.
Black translation: Anyone who uses violence or the threat of violence as a means of coercion.
White translation: Anyone who uses violence or the threat of violence as a means of coercion (excluding the Founding Fathers, slave owners, lynch mobs, segregationists, right-wing extremists, people at school board meetings, policemen, people who believe they have the right to cough COVID in classrooms, insurrectionists and white people in general)
Individually and on its own, this insidious phenomenon would only be noticed by what McArdle calls “lexical activists” like me. But these distorted definitions have been historically used as a battering ram to beat back any potential progress for non-white people. And it has been going on for too many years to be dismissed as a trend. When civil rights workers chanted “Black Power,” it became synonymous with violent anti-whiteness. “Jihad” means any meritorious struggle...until it was repurposed for the war on terror. “White people” originally meant white people until white people redefined it as “all white people.”
To be fair, Black people have never bought into the idea that white tongues have the power of linguistic metamorphosis; it is white people who are the targets of this philological fear-mongering. They truly believe that social studies teachers are hypnotizing innocent children with pro-negro propaganda. They really think the gays and the atheists are coming together to cancel Christmas and fill their bathrooms with transgender child abusers. They are terrified that peaceful protesters are going to defund the police, burn down all the nice white neighborhoods and steal all their votes, finally ensuring that white lives don’t matter.
But they shouldn’t worry; sticks and stones, remember? Maybe they should be more aware of the insidious danger of white supremacy.
If only there was a term for that.