OKLAHOMA CITY — The word “woke” is getting thrown around a lot in Oklahoma this election year, but not everyone agrees on its meaning.
When Jacob Rosecrants first heard the word “woke,” he said he had to look up the definition.
Rosecrants, a Democratic state lawmaker from Norman and a former teacher, said “woke” used to simply mean the state of being awake. He also said “wokeness” wasn’t an issue in schools as educators relied instead on human kindness when working with marginalized student populations.
“Being woke has been kind of taken over,” he added.
Rosecrants said the word is used to represent diversity and embracing the idea of inclusivity, but now some are attempting to vilify it by saying it represents the ‘cancel culture’ and the indoctrinating of children.
“What you have to realize about all of this is that it’s massive fearmongering,” Rosecrants said. “It’s trying to put a spotlight on something that may or may not be what it is that people say it is.”
Still ‘woke’ and ‘wokeness’ have become political buzzwords and talking points, bandied about freely by politicians on both sides when discussing controversial social issues, particularly those affecting public schools.
April Grace, a Republican candidate for state superintendent, who has worked in education for 30 years, said the issue of what’s “woke” or not goes back to the fact that people aren’t sure how to define it, and that people use the term in different ways.
“Because of that, it probably does create divisiveness in some situations,” Grace said. “And I think it’s mostly because everyone’s maybe defining it a different way. So if we’re talking about addressing social issues, then social issues need to be left out of the classroom as much as possible. We need to be focused on academics.”
Lawrence Ware, associate director of the Oklahoma State University Center for Africana Studies, said he defines ‘woke’ as a state of awareness with regard to the way marginalized people have been treated in the past. He extends that to also include people of color, the disabled and LGBTQ+.
He said it’s supposed to mean “you have ‘woken up’ to it.”
“However, the way political people have taken it and use it is derogatory,” Ware said. “Especially Republicans, who use the word as almost a dog signal to let their constituents know they will not be making policy decisions the way folks they consider to be ‘woke’ would make policy decisions.”
Ryan Walters, the state’s secretary of education, said he disagrees with Ware’s definition, and said that’s not the “wokeness movement” he’s experienced.
“’Wokeness’ is this belief that you need to change drastically society,” Walters said. “It is an attack on the family unit. It is an attack on the values that have made America great. It is an attack on America and American exceptionalism.”
Walters also said there’s absolutely a movement to “push wokeness in Oklahoma schools.”
A Twitter video posted by Walters titled “In Oklahoma our schools will not go woke” has garnered over 125,700 views. The Republican, who has since filed to run for state superintendent of public instruction, is focusing a pillar of his campaign platform on keeping “wokeness” out of public schools.
“There are reasons for some of our values,” he said. “There’s a reason why things have been done in certain ways.”
In his role as secretary of education, he recently sent a letter to Stillwater Public Schools board members accusing them of choosing “radicals over your students, ideology over biology and ‘wokeness’ over safety,” regarding existing district policy that does not prohibit someone from using the bathroom of the gender they most closely identify with.
John Cox, a Republican candidate for state superintendent of public schools, said he’d define ‘woke’ as the influence of social issues upon schools and within the classroom.
“And there’s just been a big push to get that back out of the classroom and just focus strictly on instruction,” Cox said.
While he believes there is “wokeness” in schools, he disagrees that Republicans are using the term in a derogatory manner.
“I think they’re just passionate about trying to get those social issues out,” Cox said. “Since I work in public schools, I know a little bit more about how it works inside, so I don’t put any blame on them at all for coming out pushing that issue because in the long run we’re just going to try to get back to what we’re supposed to be doing.”
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach her at [email protected]