Be Glad You Are Woke

Philip Kotler
9 min readJan 5, 2024


Be Glad You Are Woke!

Philip Kotler

For a long time, we classified people politically as being radical, liberal, conservative or far right. The competing ideas of each group are fairly clear to citizens.

Today we have a new political language in classifying people. You are either woke, anti-woke, or a mix (sometimes woke, sometimes anti-woke).

What is “Woke”

The term “woke” first arose with Black Americans in their search for places to safely eat or find hospitality. The United States was deeply segregated and black people “had to know their place.” Most restaurants and many hotels were for “whites only.” A black person would be safe if he was “woke”, that he knew where he can’t eat or stay. He is “awakened.”

In today’s usage, woke describes people who want to improve racial equality, women’s rights, gay rights, and other social justice causes. Woke people vary between those who are “woke” mainly in their mindset and those who are actively undertaking woke actions. The latter group are the real woke activists. They wouldn’t let certain statements go unchallenged, such as bad jokes about an ethnic group, an unfair stereotype, an injustice against someone.

Celebrities such as Stanley Tucci, Aaron Paul, and Aly Raisman said they would take responsibility and action for the following incidents:

They said this in the wake of police brutality and the killing of George Floyd in May 2020. They circulated the ‘I take responsibility’ campaign on social media, in the press, and in the blogosphere.

All said, woke people see themselves as fighters for social justice and energized by progressive ideas.

The “Woke/Anti-Woke” Culture War

The word “woke” has become a fighting term in today’s culture wars. Ron DeSantis, Florida’s governor, boasts about being “anti-woke”. DeSantis aims to eliminate “wokeness” in Florida. In seeing too many college professors as “woke,” he helped change New College from being a well-respected intellectual school into more of an ordinary college with an athletic emphasis. DeSantis presses for banning books that talk about racial injustice, abortion rights, gay rights or other social issues. There are already over 600 banned books. DeSantis doesn’t want people to say “gay” or professors to teach “Rosa Parks.” He said “I recognize that the woke mind virus represents a war on the truth, so we will wage a war on the woke… We will fight the woke in education; we will fight the woke in corporations, we will fight the woke in the halls of Congress!”

To fight “woke indoctrination,” DeSantis signed his “Stop Woke Act,” setting limits on what can be taught about race in schools and workplace training. He has also banned DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) initiatives at Florida public colleges, claiming that “DEI is better viewed as standing for discrimination, exclusion, and indoctrination.” When asked by a reporter to define woke, he exclaimed: “It’s a form of cultural Marxism. It’s about putting merit and achievement behind identity politics, and it’s basically a war on the truth.” DeSantis sees woke is the new “Communism” or “Socialism,” or the new “Clinton” or “Obama.”

Most people don’t seem to define woke in that way. In a USA Today poll (March 2023), 56% of Americans, including most Independents and a third of Republicans, believe the term means “to be informed, educated on, and aware of social injustices.” Only 39% think it means “to be overly politically correct and police others’ words.” Furthermore, 56% of workers support DEI and 60% of Americans won’t work for a company that doesn’t speak out against racial injustice.

Yet the War on Woke threatens to strip LGBTQ Americans of their hard-won human rights. The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) has tracked nearly 500 anti-LGBTQ bills across the country that restrict gender-affirming medical care, ban instruction about sexual orientation or gender identity in primary schools.

Let’s switch to Elon Musk. In a recent interview, he was asked why he is “anti-woke.” He said he doesn’t like people who take it as their mission to change other people’s attitudes and behavior. In buying Twitter (he renamed it X), he aimed to enlarge the opportunity for free speech and the right of people to say what they believe. Musk recently created an alternative ChatGPT model that he called Grok, designed to be “anti-woke” in that its answers to prompting questions will be freer of woke influence.

Organizations such as the Heritage Foundation and the Federalist Society are busy raising money to fight “woke mindedness” before the 2024 election. These organizations believe that “woke” thinking is bad for business, bad for religion, and bad for government.

The Complaints of Anti-Woke Critics

Attacks on “wokeness” is a growing theme in Republican politics. While many Republicans admit that American society still carries layers of oppression, inequality, racism, homophobia and sexism, Republicans don’t like the “heavy handed” way woke people try to dismantle these oppressions.

The best insight came from the Guardian newspaper that described “Anti-woke as a way to rebrand bigotry.” It attempts to make bigotry look respectable. Anti-woke can be seen as an attack on affirmative action, multiculturalism and diversity, equity and inclusion. Those is power want to maintain their control over historically excluded groups.

Anti-woke groups counter by arguing that woke actions infringe on free speech, remove a focus on merit and excellence in hiring, and expose school age children to inappropriate materials. Anti-woke critics find other faults in Woke-ism. They see celebrities using “woke” to gain more attention, visibility and fans. They characterize wokes as “snowflakes,” soft-headed in their thinking and actions. They accuse wokes of not wanting to dig deeper into the complexity of social problems. Wokes simply want to mouth popular indictments on social issues. Wokes are white people who “got it wrong while trying to “do right.” Woke persons are self-serving, insincere, and manipulative. All of this is repeated to give more ideological coherence to the anti-woke movement.

Right‐​wing agitators warn that some progressive states and cities inject “social justice” ideology into many classes including math and science. They charge that company programs of “diversity, equity and inclusion” now promote more polarization and bitterness, rather than understanding. They warn that reducing police presence would increase crime. Clearly woke excess can end up driving more voters to turn right.

Liberals and progressives need to control these excesses to avoid strengthening right‐​wing anti‐​woke backlash.

Is Wokeness Good for Companies?

Many companies have adopted a wokeness mindset. They want black Americans to have equal opportunities. They favor diversity and want to hire black Americans and others from marginal groups. They approve of gay and trans Americans. ‘Woke’ becomes a badge of honor for brands that helps differentiate them from other competitors.

There are two reasons why companies go “woke.” First, the company perceives that its customers and prospects are people who favor wokeness. Second, the company wants to hire millennials (born between the 1981–1996) and Gen z (born between 1996 and 2012) employees who want to work for companies that have “good values.” It is no longer enough for a company to make excellent products and services while ignoring social problems. Nike in 2018 chose to sponsor the Black American athlete Colin Kaepernick who had been expelled from professional football for showing his solidarity with the #BlackLivesMatter (BLM) movement.

Companies are keenly aware of the growing interest of the public in social justice. Here are some findings:

Yet companies need to be careful. Their wokeness must not be “window-dressing” only. Their wokeness must be sincere and authentic. Even then, anti-woke groups might attack companies that espouse racial equity and gayness. They might call for boycotting woke companies or at least not buying their brands. Recently Target, Bud Light and some other companies were singled out for being woke and their sales fell. No company wants to be a victim of “cancel culture” (the mass withdrawal of support from public figures, celebrities, brands or companies who have done things that are not socially accepted). As a result, some woke companies slowly reduced mentioning their causes.

Cultural wars are generally not good for business. Disney’s CEO Robert Iger has had to fight Governor DeSantis and spend huge amounts defending his company and not give up on hard-fought-rights for Americans.

Companies don’t want government to dictate how to run their business or what customers and employees they can welcome. Companies need to be clear about their values with their customers and employees. Some companies are anti-woke because they largely cater to anti-woke customers. Companies need to review their values, their customers and their political campaign contributions. They must each consider whether being work or anti-woke will affect their business in the long run.

Is wokeness good for religion (Christianity)?

One would think that religion (especially Christianity) would embrace wokeness as being consistent with values of equality, kindness, and helping others. Yet Owen Strachan of Grace Bible Theological Seminary takes aim at wokeness. He sees wokeness as shaming white people for their “whiteness.” They are shammed into either being silent or compliant. In his Christianity and Wokeness, Strachan explains why wokeness is inconsistent with the biblical Christianity and could cause irreparable harm. He says that the Gospel of Jesus Christ, not wokeness, is the answer to the challenges. Tommy Nelson, senior pastor of Denton Bible Church in Texas, said this about Strachan’s book: “The best thing I have ever read on wokeness. We have a Marxist disease that is plaguing our country. Men and women must speak up, and Owen Strachan has done so clearly and concisely. His book will be required reading for my church.”

My view is that Strachan is extreme in his view that woke people are enemies of Christian religion. I would expect the views of other Christians, including religious Jews and Muslims, would look more kindly on woke people and woke causes.

Is Wokeness Good for the Government?

Americans are apprehensive about the 2024 election, inflation, political division, and the nation’s future. Many Republican politicians would describe America’s problem differently: It’s wokeness. Mike Pence attacked “woke capitalism” as a nefarious scheme through which “the woke left is poised to conquer America.” The “War on Woke” is taking form in several policy areas including DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion), ESG (Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance), legislation banning teaching of American history about slavery, and anti-LGBTQ legislation. The Chronicle for Higher Education lists 37 anti-DEI bills that have been introduced in 21 states. Four have become law.

Supreme Court decisions for or against diversity and affirmative action can affect the pool of highly qualified future workers and business leaders. There might be a large wave of reverse discrimination suits and litigation.

ESG aims to create sustainable investing is another attack target. In 2023, Republican states introduced 99 anti-ESG bills. Seven have already become law. DeSantis in Florida signed a law barring state officials and pension funds from promoting ESG goals.

Republicans have also pointed out a “woke military.” They have attacked DEI programs in the Armed Forces. According to Senator Ted Cruz, the “woke cancer” perpetuated by “Dem politicians and the woke media” is creating a “woke, emasculated military” and “turning them into pansies.”

Under previous President George W. Bush, Republicans had pivoted away from endless culture warmongering. Bush ran as a “compassionate conservative.” But the War on Woke has lit a vicious streak in the Republicans party. They are happy to rail against Disney and Bud Light for promoting LGBTQ inclusion. Cruz was happy when Target removed its Pride displays for fear of right-wing violence. He hoped that it would “make a real impression on [other] executives…we want to stop corporate America from going woke.”

The Growing Difference Between the Two Political Parties Views of Governing a Nation

American government is run on a two-party system. The Democrats are liberal, the Republicans are conservative. In the past, they would work out their differences state-by-state in a contentious but fairly consenting way.

How different the two parties are today! The Republican Party is anti-woke. When they take over a state, they introduce harsh social regulations. They stigmatize LGBTQ persons, they abolish women’s right to an abortion, they ban books, they won’t allow college professors to teach certain ideas, they make it harder for citizens to vote, they gerrymander districts to reduce minority representation.

When Democrats win in a state, they are busy working for the Common Good. They are woke and support women’s rights, the rights of LGBTQ citizens, workers’ rights to organize a union, they increase voting rights, raise wages to at least a $15 minimum, and expand tax credits for low-income families.

The two parties have a deeply different theory about the purpose of government.

Every nation needs to examine what it is contributing to improving the lives of its people. All citizens need opportunities if they are to earn a livelihood and realize their potential. A good government will try to mitigate social injustices to increase the Common Good and the well-being of its citizens. Wokeness is an intrinsic feature of a humane nation. Anti-wokeness is an effort to preserve bigotry. Be glad, reader, you are woke!



Philip Kotler

Philip Kotler is the S.C. Johnson and Son Distinguished Professor of International Marketing, Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University (emeritus)