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Alex Beam

Not woke and never will be

Offred (Elisabeth Moss) and Ofglen (Alexis Bledel) in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” set in the oppressive Republic of Gilead. George Kraychyk/Hulu

Out in the world, it is hard not to stumble across the modish adjective “woke.” I heard comedians Sarah Silverman and Pete Holmes trying to out-woke each other in a recent “You Made It Weird” podcast. Holmes explained that “dating [current girlfriend] Valerie has helped me get woke to how I was raised by snobs.”

“Woke” is even cropping up in the pages of the august New York Times. Columnist Jim Rutenberg recently published a round-up of “woke,” “near-woke,” and totally “un-woke” TV shows. “The Handmaid’s Tale” is pretty woke, or socially aware. Jimmy Fallon isn’t — Stephen Colbert is. The flopola Pepsi ad that depicted Kendall Jenner animated by some nebulous street demonstration has been ruled so un-woke that it has been put to sleep.

What does “woke” mean, and where does it come from? Woke entered the lexicon alongside the Black Lives Matter movement, depicting “woke” people as those who had woken up to the system of oppression that envelops people of color. By the magic of cultural appropriation — this used to be called linguistic fluidity — woke entered the mainstream vocabulary, though wokeniks like Silverman and Holmes are always careful to acknowledge the word’s African-American roots.


In a prissy blog post, the Oxford Dictionaries notes that “woke has been racially sanitized for a mainstream audience. . . . As a result, woke itself can no longer perform the function of promoting and indexing black consciousness and liberation. The appropriation of woke has lulled it into a complacent, apolitical slumber where, ironically, it simply means ‘awake.’ ”

Of course you are wondering: Am I woke? If so, how woke? I have devised a simple question-and-answer test to determine your overall level of social awareness, and how readily you might be accepted at of-the-moment kombucha klatches in Cambridge.

1. Do you use the word “intersectionality” a lot, even if you aren’t exactly sure what it means? If yes, you are progressing well along your journey to wokefulness.

2. Did you throw the novel “Who Killed Piet Barol?” against the wall when you discovered that Eton-and-Oxford educated (white) author Richard Mason had created several black Xhosa protagonists and major subplots in his book? Congratulations! You are so woke!


(You are also an idiot for not having finished one of the best novels of the past year, but never mind that. Appearances above all.)

3. If you agree with some professors at the University of Virginia that president Teresa Sullivan should stop quoting UVA founder and slave owner Thomas Jefferson in her speeches, then you are so woke that you may never sleep again. Maybe we should get rid of the Bill of Rights while we’re at it — yet another Jeffersonian embarrassment.

The real purpose of woke is to divide the world into hyper-socially aware, self-appointed gatekeepers of language and behavior, and the rest of humanity. I’m so unwoke, it’s startling. I don’t like to be told whom to quote and what books to read.

I’d say wake me up when it’s over, but on second thought — don’t bother.

Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @imalexbeamyrnot.