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The concept of ‘being woke’ has become front and centre in many conversations about inclusion & diversity, evoking a range of reactions which may also include scepticism.  Cheryl Carty, Inclusion & Diversity Consultant at Inclusive Employers, explores the origins and meaning of the term, and addresses the evolving conversation around it.

Understanding what it means to be “woke”


Over the past two years, I’ve heard the word woke said more than I’ve heard my name pronounced correctly, which is no joke!

‘Woke’ is a term that originated within the African American culture. It refers to a state of heightened awareness and consciousness. It implies being actively informed about and sensitive to issues such as racism, sexism, discrimination, and other forms of social injustice. It involves recognising and challenging the existing power structures and working towards creating a more equitable and inclusive society.

If you have family or connections that originate from the African diaspora, you will likely be used to hearing the term woke.

Woke has become a term that is used more commonly in commercial settings. We read about it in the newspapers, see it on TikTok, sing to it while listening to radio/mobiles, and it’s not a new concept to all cultures – for example, it has been cited in Hip Hop and RnB genres for years.  I remember when I was helping to assemble a staff network for Black employees, and when we were thinking of a name for the group, the term woke came up. That was over seven years ago.

Today, the word can evoke a range of reactions, including fear and scepticism. Why is this?



Some people see the concept of being woke as extreme or overly sensitive.  They sometimes believe that individuals who identify as woke are overly reactive or far too quick to find offence, leading to a fear of being judged or criticised for unintentionally saying or doing something inappropriate.



Others feel that the term has been associated with certain political and ideological learnings which link to progressive or left-leaning groups. Because of this association, there are those with fear and distrust towards those with different political beliefs who view the word ‘woke’ as representative of ideologies they disagree with.

Resistance to change


We all know that change can be uncomfortable, and the woke movement can challenge societal norms, traditional power structures and ingrained biases.  People resistant to change may feel threatened or afraid of losing their perceived privileges or advantages, leading to a fear or usage of the term woke.

Cancel culture


Something new to add to this list is cancel culture and the backlash it can create.  The idea of cancel culture involves publicly criticising and boycotting individuals or entities for perceived wrongdoing, which has been associated with the woke movement. Again, the association with the term can lead to fears of being targeted, ostracised, or losing one’s reputation or livelihood due to a perceived misstep or difference in opinion.

Misunderstanding terminology


Like any term or movement, woke can be misinterpreted or misrepresented in media or popular culture. This can lead to confusion, stereotypes, and fear based on inaccurate or incomplete information.

It’s important to note that all the reasons listed above do not apply to everyone, and opinions on the term woke can vary widely.  Some individuals fully embrace the principles and goals associated with being woke, while others may be critical or sceptical of the term for different reasons.

One of the most famous uses of the term in recent years is its link with the Black Lives Matter movement, particularly following the high-profile police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. The incident sparked widespread protests and discussions about racial inequality and police violence, and the term “woke” became prominent within the movement as a call to awareness and activism against systemic racism.

The phrase “stay woke” became familiar as a rallying cry and reminder for individuals to stay alert and informed about social injustices. It was used to encourage people to recognise and challenge the deep-rooted biases and inequalities that persist in society.

Since then, the term has expanded beyond the Black community and has been used in various social and political discussions – for example, discussions around feminism, LGBTQ+ rights, indigenous rights, immigrant rights, disability rights and other movements that seek to address different forms of discrimination and power imbalances. Woke can be applied to individuals or groups who actively raise awareness, promote equity, and advocate for social change in these areas.

“Stay woke was used to encourage people to recognise and challenge the deep-rooted biases and inequalities that persist in society.”

How do different generations feel about the term woke?


While it’s impossible to generalise a whole generation’s feelings about any one topic, especially when there is so much diversity within each one of these groups, the information below can provide us with a sense of changing sentiments happening through generations.

Baby Boomers – 1946 to 1964 approx.


  • Generation actively engaged in social justice causes (fought for civil rights, recognised the need for progress on issues of inequality). Those who embrace the concept of being woke, may see it as an important tool for addressing systemic problems and promoting an inclusive society.
  • Those who are dismissive about it, may see it as a passing fad or as overly sensitive. May hear sentiment such as “political correctness gone wrong” and what they perceive as an excessive focus on social issues. Worry that it promotes a divisive or overly confrontational approach to social issues, hindering dialogue and understanding.
  •  Some may be uncomfortable with the rapid shifts and evolving language associated with being woke. This discomfort may stem from a resistance to change or a sense of nostalgia for the values and beliefs of their time.

Gen X – 1965 – 1979 approx.


  • Grew up during social and political change (movements for civil rights and gender equality).  A reflection of own idealistic aspirations for a just and inclusive society, also recognising the need for pragmatic solutions and compromise.
  • As a result, many may show an expression of empathy towards marginalised groups and a commitment to taking action to address systemic inequalities and injustices.
  •  Value critical thinking, independent thought, personal authenticity and self-awareness.
  •  Some may show scepticism towards trends and movements, questioning the extent of its impact and effectiveness. May worry about perceived excesses of political correctness—concerns about stifling freedom of speech and overreactions or criticism in societal discourse.

Millennials –1980 – 1994 approx.


  • Many are actively engaged in social justice causes & advocate equality, inclusivity, and awareness of systemic issues, seeing it as a way to raise awareness about social injustices and to challenge power structures.
  • Value genuine understanding and empathy, self-education, active listening, and challenging their own biases and assumptions.
  • May be critical of performative forms of activism.
  • Many prioritise tangible actions and meaningful change over empty gestures or virtue signalling.

Generation Z – Born 1995 – 2012 approx.


  • Generation characterised by individuals who actively seek to challenge societal norms, promote equality, & fight against various forms of discrimination. Keep informed, stand up for marginalised communities, and effect positive change.
  • Many are committed to amplifying marginalised voices and advocating for policy changes that promote equality and inclusivity. Commitment to social awareness, empathy, and active efforts to address societal issues.
  • Recent research show that some may see the concept of ‘woke’ as overused, diluted, or even misused to the point where it has lost its original meaning. It is a concept subject to varying interpretations and criticisms that could lead to performative or shallow activism without meaningful action.

Age diversity presents challenges relating to understanding differences because every generation thinks differently, is interested in different issues and motivated by different things, but it can be easy to forget this in the workplace. 

Consider inclusion training for intergenerational workforces
Manager supporting a co-worker

How to foster inclusion – whether you identify with the word ‘woke’ or not


Embracing “woke” is a personal and subjective decision, as the word can mean different things to different people.  However, here are a couple of tips on how you can navigate and foster inclusion:

Educate Yourself


Take the time to learn about various social justice issues and the experiences of marginalised communities. Read books, articles, and academic papers written by diverse authors. Engage with different perspectives and seek out resources that can help deepen your understanding of systemic inequalities and social justice movements.

Listen to and amplify marginalised voices


Actively listen to the experiences and perspectives of marginalised individuals and communities. Amplify their voices by sharing their stories, work, and perspectives, particularly when they speak about their own experiences of oppression or discrimination.  It is essential to prioritise their narratives and recognise the privilege of your own perspective.

Examine your own privilege


Reflect on your own privilege, whether it’s related to race, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic status, or other aspects of your identity. Understand how your privilege may impact your perspectives and interactions with the world. Recognise that being woke involves acknowledging and challenging the systems that grant certain individuals advantages over others.

Engage in self-reflection


Regularly examine your own biases, prejudices, and assumptions. Understand that being woke is an ongoing process of self-reflection and growth.  Question your beliefs, challenge stereotypes, and be open to unlearning and relearning.  Recognise that personal growth requires humility and a willingness to confront uncomfortable truths about yourself and society.

Speak up and take action


Use your voice and platform to raise awareness about social justice issues and advocate for positive change. Speak up against injustice, discrimination, and inequality when you witness them. Engage in online and offline conversations that promote empathy, understanding, and equality. Support organisations and initiatives that are working towards social justice.

Foster inclusion


Strive to create inclusive spaces and environments in your personal and professional life. Advocate for diversity and equal opportunities.  Challenge discriminatory practices and actively work towards creating a more equitable society.  Embrace diverse perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences, and seek to understand and learn from them.

It is good to remember that navigating and fostering an inclusive perspective is a lifelong journey that requires ongoing education, empathy, and self-reflection.  It’s important to approach this process with an open mind, humility, and a willingness to grow and change.

Sources and resources

Grow your team

When you become an Inclusive Employers’ Member you grow your I&D team.

Your account manager works with you to understand your goals, your challenges and achievable next steps.

Do you need more support for your inclusive culture to thrive?

Learn about membership today

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