London (CNN)If 2020 renewed calls for racial equality as Black Lives Matter protests exploded throughout Europe, 2021 brought in the backlash as parts of the political establishment waged a so-called "war against woke."
The 'anti-woke' crusade has come to Europe. Its effects could be chilling
Stripped of its original meaning of a person being awake to progressive issues, "woke" has been appropriated from the Black vernacular and turned into a political lightning rod in the West's culture wars. It is now used pejoratively by lawmakers and pundits from both left and right, criticizing the perceived excesses of social and racial justice movements.
The politicization of the word, which has seen degrees of success in the United States, has bolstered political resistance to calls for more equality in Europe. The amorphous term has also been interpreted differently, depending on where it is deployed.
In the United Kingdom, woke is used to "describe anything that could previously [be] described as 'politically correct,'" Evan Smith, a visiting fellow at Australia's Flinders University and author of "No Platform: A History of Anti-Fascism and the Limits of Free Speech," told CNN. The term is "used to describe a broad range of ideas [and] movements concerned with social justice," including anti-racism, intersectional feminism, trans rights and critical histories of the British empire, he said.
Cultural institutions and academics have been targeted by members of the ruling Conservative Party for supporting those movements. In September, Prime Minister Boris Johnson's spokesperson accused a charity set up in the name of Winston Churchill of trying to "airbrush" the "giant achievements" of the former wartime leader.
The charity's mistake? Being accused in rightwing tabloids of being "woke," for changing its name from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust to The Churchill Fellowship and acknowledging that Churchill's views on race would not be accepted today.
"The Prime Minister has always been clear that whilst it's legitimate to examine Britain's history and we should aim to educate people about all aspects of our complex past, both good and bad, and not erase them," the spokesperson said at the time according to PA Media. "We need to focus on addressing the present, and not attempt to rewrite the past and get sucked into the never-ending debate about which well-known historical figures are sufficiently pure or politically correct to remain in public view."
These anti-woke government interventions have power. They "sharpen the public's sense of moral purpose and help to galvanise voters in a country they perceive to be under siege," wrote Nesrine Malik in the left-of-center newspaper, the Guardian, in October. "They include the defunding of academic institutions and museums, and even interfering in the appointment of senior personnel at the BBC."
Many in the French establishment view "woke" as a heinous US import of theories on race, post-colonialism and gender, which they say pose a risk to French values and identity, Samuel Hayat, a politics research fellow at French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), told CNN.