What Does It Mean To Be 'Woke' In Wyoming? Depends On Who You Ask

Wyoming, and America, is waking up to “woke,” a powder-keg buzzword that’s become a fuse to provoke those who lean politically blue. Some use the word as a weapon while others embrace it as a rallying cry.

Leo Wolfson

May 29, 202311 min read

What is woke 5 27 23
(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Wyoming, and America, is waking up to “woke,” a powder-keg buzzword that’s become a fuse to provoke those who lean politically blue or red to see black.

But what is “woke?”

That’s a question many are asking as the phrase takes on newfound popularity in pop culture.

Often used in political discussions, many conservatives use “woke” as a derogatory term to call out what is seen as overly politically correct progressive policies and social movements.

Dr. Frederick Douglass Dixon, assistant professor of African American and Diaspora Studies and the Black Center Studies director and at the University of Wyoming, said “woke” also is a word that’s been appropriated by the left, finding it oxymoronic to say a white liberal is an ally.

"That's as oxymoronic as a third twin or being just a little bit pregnant or a good Christian slave owner," he said.

The term “woke” has expanded from conversations of race in recent years into the financial sector as companies and groups embrace or oppose environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) scores. Opponents of the practice call using ESG policies in making financial decisions “woke” investing.

Republican presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has further brought “woke” into the mainstream conversation, frequently using it to criticize progressive social policies.

The term also has been used to describe the LGBTQ movement, as allies of the movement have proudly proclaimed to be “woke,” and opponents have used the same labeling in a negative context.

Origins of ‘Woke’

When asked what it means to be “woke,” Douglass Dixon referenced 64 years of previously unrecorded slavery from the 16th century as one of “the great unknowns” in human knowledge and part of the detriment that comes from failing to recognize accurate history.

“In these 64 years, there’s a scientific process that changes a human into a productive slave, from what we call ‘to the womb to the tomb,’ working from can’t see morning to can’t see night,” he said.

Before one can understand “woke,” he said, one must also consider millions of African Americans put into an apathetic slumber about their true identity based on free labor and free land obtained from Native Americans.

“It’s still a very huge part of Black community in America and beyond,” he said. “You have to ask yourself, to get to woke, how we’re we put asleep?”

But an awakening happened around the mid-20th century that evolved into the modern woke movement, Douglass Dixon said, adding that it has elicited a negative response and intervention from a ruling regime, finding it “too close to getting to the truth.”

“The term woke in itself is a response to this rise of unconsciousness, this rise of understanding. Not just who we are, but who the enemy is,” he said.

Thomas Kelly, a professor at the American Military University and a 2022 Republican candidate for Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction, said he’s always considered “woke” a term to describe more progressive viewpoints, but believes these and the word itself have been hijacked. 

 “The far left has picked up progressive causes and pushed them so far left that there’s no such thing as a classic liberal,” he said.

Douglass Dixon said there aren’t many terms that rise to mainstream cultural prominence, but the meaning behind the term “woke” has changed since it was first used. 

He said the removal of the word’s original meaning and replacing it with a negative connotation “is business as usual and par for the course” in a Western society of “white superiority.” The professor believes there is no limit to what will be done to retain this power in America.

He mentioned how slaves were forbidden from reading, and how his namesake, the social reformer and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, was quoted as saying “knowledge makes a man unfit to be a slave.”

Douglass Dixon drew a comparison between this statement and recent actions taken by DeSantis, who blocked Florida students’ access to an AP course on African American studies.

“That’s very similar to saying you cannot read and we’ll put in a legal sense,” Douglass Dixon said. 

Label Of Honor For Some

Douglass Dixon said he also believes white liberals have played a hand in using the term to diminish the role of slave traders, owners and those who created Jim Crow laws, and said many of those who consider themselves to be social justice warriors are portraying a false narrative of being “woke” that’s built on a foundation of working within the status quo.

“That becomes problematic when you say that you are a liberal,” he said. “That’s problematic when you say you are a social justice advocate, an ally.” 

Kelly said he mostly agrees with this perspective.

“The idea of woke, going back generations, had the idea of being awake to the way the system worked against Blacks decades ago before the Civil Rights Movement,” he said.

Kelly said there is particular disagreement on this issue felt by conservative African Americans who don’t support the transgender movement being compared to the African American Civil Rights Movement.

Whether the appropriation is purposeful or not, it does expand the original meaning of woke to be aware of African American history and racism.

Wide, Wide World Of Woke

During a Wyoming Democratic Party dinner in April, Party Chairman Joe Barbuto told the audience he was “proud to be woke.”

“If you’re not woke, it probably means you're asleep, it means your eyes are closed,” he said. “I’d rather have my eyes wide open. I’m proud to be woke and I’m proud to be a part of a party that understands everything that comes with that.”

Kelly defines the woke movement as incorporating “hardcore leftist” and somewhat Marxist ideals that embrace censorship in the name of justice.

“But it goes beyond censorship,” he said. “It is, rather than the power of government for censorship, it is the power of shame and boycotts and vilification and misrepresentation to basically scare people into being canceled so they don’t oppose it.” 

He believes the University of Wyoming has gone too far in the “woke direction” by shutting down certain conservative viewpoints. 

Kelly mentioned the ongoing debate of a sorority at the school admitting a transgender member as an example. The University banned a church elder from campus who had called out the transgender student by name on a sign. 

“The University of Wyoming has gone over to the dark side,” he said. “A place that’s supposed to be a place of higher learning, higher thought and where people go to have their values and beliefs challenged so they can expand and grow, (has turned into) to a place where this is how you’re supposed to think or else.”

Douglass Dixon feels similar pressures, but from a different perspective.

He believes the entire U.S. higher education system is based upon a white-dominant narrative of history. Douglass Dixon finds that those who cling to the white supremacy draw roots from a 19th century conference, which he said was assembled to ask the question, “What should be done with the presence of the troublesome Negro for maximum exploitation?” 

“In essence, the perceived or practical presence of a ‘woke’ black person is problematic to America's status quo,” Douglass Dixon said. 

Major brands like Target and Bud Light have fallen under controversy recently because of some of these issues. Bud Light recently partnered with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney, sparking pushback and declining sales. The beer brand slightly walked back from its partnership, drawing backlash and criticism from LGBTQ+ groups.


Over the course of culture war debates, pejorative terms like “book banners'' and “pedophiles” are routinely used by both sides to describe each other. Kelly said terms like “liberal,” “politically correct,” “fascist” and “Nazi” have been used to weaponize opposition to basic progressive and conservative politics. 

 “The language gets so extreme there’s no way to actually talk about the issues,” he said.

State Rep. Clark Stith, R-Rock Springs, believes both sides are guilty of making assumptions about the other. He saw this flare up during discussion of a bill in the 2023 legislative session that would have made it illegal for doctors to perform transgender surgeries on minors.

“The woke left would say that if you are against minors undergoing gender transition surgery, then you must be bigoted against people who are transgender,” Stith said. “That has puzzled me.”

Kelly said sources on both the left and right have started using charged terms to describe things they don’t like as a pejorative buzzsaw.

 “It kind of loses its meeting then and we lose sight of true woke policies, which are very illiberal,” he said. “The word has become so generalized for anything people on the right don’t like that it’s kind of losing meaning.”

Even liberal commentator Bill Maher lambasted the woke movement during a podcast late last year, saying “woke and liberal are two different things” and “freedom should be a liberal thing.”

"We've gotten to a point where you can't even approach an issue, certain issues, without the mob coming after you,” Maher said.

Stith finds the “woke” movement as placing a priority on identity over being reasonable and relying on facts. He supports Affirmative Action based on income, not race.

“I think Affirmative Action based on race is just racism,” he said.

Stith believes conversations about race are not monolithic. He wants Wyoming to oppose the mainstream “woke” movement because he believes it unfairly includes the identity of a speaker as adding to the power of his or her statement.

“The identity of the speaker gets wrapped up in the statement as though things should be true based upon who says that,” he said.

Woke In Wyoming

The term is commonly used by members of the Wyoming Legislature, but Kelly sees “woke” used most in the Cowboy State during school board battles over the teaching of critical race theory, and the presence of books in school libraries covering race, sexual and LGBTQ issues. 

Secretary of State Chuck Gray believes the woke movement calls for an obliteration of American society as we know it and is rooted in critical race theory and Marxism.

He said it has a significant impact on ESG investing, which he describes as “clown show ideas” that are “being forced onto our country, and state, at an alarming rate.”

“ESG investing is an attempt by the radical left to destroy the coal, oil, gas and agriculture industries by denying capital and investment, which is an attempt to prevent these industries from being able to thrive,” he said.

On May 2, Gray’s office initiated a rulemaking process to fight ESG and protect consumers, which was followed by state Treasurer Curt Meier releasing a draft change the next day in its policy regarding Wyoming investments. The State Loan and Investment Board will review these policies in June. 


During a recent presentation on the topic of “woke” in Thermopolis, Kelly said a sense of collective guilt filled the bipartisan room when he asked how many of the attendees had come to conclusions that those who disagree with them are “stupid or evil.” 

“Everyone dropped their heads,” he said.

After receiving some initial catcalls and interruptions demanding that he define “woke,” the presentation went smoothly thereafter. More than two hours after the meeting attended by Democrats and Republicans had concluded, people were still chatting about the topics Kelly had discussed.

Kelly said the sun will likely set on the popular use of “woke” someday, but its connotation is here to stay.

“The use of the word will fade out, the ideological struggles will still be there,” he said. “We’ll go on to a new buzz phrase.”

Contact Leo Wolfson at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com

Share this article



Leo Wolfson

Politics and Government Reporter