On June 14, 1862, the New York Times published an editorial titled “The Mystery of Negrophilism.” The essay questioned the origins of white Americans’ “extraordinary interest in the negro” and called the “passion for the American negro” an “entirely abnormal…phenomenon.” During the Antebellum period, Southerners pathologized Northern whites’ intolerable friendliness—their “liking negroes”—as “negrophilism.” They chided abolitionists as “negro-maniacs” obsessed with “negro interest.” It was untenable for citizens of a slaveholding nation to harbor human affection toward enslaved descendants of Africa—a continent, the author wrote (purportedly quoting then–Secretary of State William Seward), that “nature had fortified against civilization.” White enslavers positioned enslaved Black people as chattel partly by excluding them from the emotional bonds that facilitate civil society.
“Negrophile” sentiment had the power to make Black suffering legible and, as a result, Black American humanity legible too. In the white South, where Black flesh demarcated a non-human species, negrophilia was a deleterious liberal ideology that reimagined the natural (white) order of the world. For White Americans to espouse sympathy towards un-sympathizable Blacks, and acknowledge their suffering, was to blaspheme against a long-held doctrine that justified chattel slavery by excluding Black people from fellow feeling: Black suffering is permissible because it is deserved. The South’s paranoia around negrophilism spurred violent inquisitions that snuffed out traces of “negrophile” doctrines like abolition from the crevices of Southern life. Negrophiles were prosecuted, flogged, and ostracized. Negrophile educators were exiled from schools, and “negrophile books” were banned throughout the South or sent to the pyre.
Contemporary supporters of so-called “woke” doctrines have endured the same treatment—but referring to white Americans as negrophiles is unacceptable by today’s social standards, which forbid any suggestion of the “N-word.” The right has supplanted the epithet with what it now derides as “wokeness,” reviving the Southern notion of negrophilia as a righteous fixation on race. As a pejorative, “woke” isn’t too distant from its predecessors: race agitator, nigger-lover, negrophile. A “woke” white person—a negrophile—threatens to indoctrinate fellow whites into liberal obsession with racism. The irony was captured in 1962 by a self-proclaimed “negrophile”: “One wonders whether this term in either its genteel or vulgar form would ever be applied to another human being except by somebody who was, perhaps, subconsciously, a negrophobe.”
Frantz Fanon, a psychologist from the French Antilles, described negrophobia in his Black Skin, White Masks as “a neurosis characterized by the anxious fear” of Black people or, by extension, of Blackness at large. “In the phobic, affect has a priority that defies all rational thinking,” Fanon writes, “For the object, naturally, need not be there. It is enough that somewhere it exists: It is a possibility.” As Fanon suggests, negrophobia is irrational; it must be tirelessly manufactured.
Conservatives’ fanaticism around “wokeness” also has no anchor in logic, no real definition, and must also be fabricated ad nauseam. Like the southern phobia around negrophilism, the phobia of wokeness is malicious, yet sensible—for the anti-woke, who are paranoid that a society saturated with racial sympathy would turn on a “negro axis.” The possibility of a Black sociopolitical orientation, as Fanon said, causes “fear and revulsion.”
Republicans felt the world tilt along a “woke” axis after the global wave of support for the Black Lives Matter movement in response to George Floyd’s murder in 2020. The collective grief over Floyd’s death triggered racial sympathy across the globe, and the effects were evident in the United States. A year and a half after Floyd’s death, more than 30 states had passed close to 150 police reform and oversight laws. Protesters of police brutality burned financial institutions and police stations. In Oregon, protesters against predatory lending erected barricades to prevent the eviction of a multiracial family from a home they’d lived in since the 1950s, and set up an “autonomous zone” in Portland.
“George Floyd’s death was documented by a video that was both viscerally upsetting and morally unambiguous,” writes Jennifer Chudy, a professor of political science at Wellesley College and author of the forthcoming book With Sympathy: Rethinking American Racial Politics. “It left scant room for individuals to fill in the gaps with their own narratives, which so often happens in response to police killings of Black Americans.”
Chudy notes in her op-ed that even Republicans reported strong support for Black Lives Matter after Floyd’s murder: “For a party often characterized by its racial insensitivity and antagonism toward racial minorities, this increase in support was striking. But perhaps even more striking is its rapid decline.” After Black linguistic innovations armed the country with terms and ideas that situated Floyd’s death within a wider, structural plight, Republicans swiftly entered negrophobic revulsion, becoming locked into the “wokeness” obsession they claimed to despise.
Starting with attacks on critical race theory, a method to analyze the way anti-Blackness is maintained in American law, the right initiated a successful campaign to loot Black language of terms that rendered structural racism legible—and inspired “negrophile” sympathies. The conservative punditry demonized critical race theory as an “existential threat to the United States” and conspired to “abolish” CRT-related training in all sectors of American life. As I wrote for MoJo in 2021:
From 2012 to 2019, critical race theory was mentioned on Fox News only four times. From June 2020 to May 2021, it was mentioned in 150 broadcasts. By July, it was 250 times a week. Christopher Rufo, a Manhattan Institute fellow who started banging the CRT drum on the network, was quite frank about how and why he’d engineered the upward trend. “The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’ We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans,” he tweeted in March.
After conservatives like Rufo obscured real definitions of critical race theory and abstracted “woke” from its Black vernacular origin as a watchword for awareness of racism’s prevalence, they used it to foment right-wing wars on trans rights, socialism, “neo-Marxism,” and any arguably pro-Black policy (like workplace anti-discrimination training).
Seizing and repurposing “wokeness” allowed conservatives to conjure the woke threat in all their grievances, but the specter of omnipresent, apocalyptic wokeness made it impossible to define in plain terms—and their fanaticism manifested in a need for wokeness everywhere, in everything, all of the time.
“Would you mind defining woke?” Briahna Joy Gray, co-host of The Hill’s Rising, asked the avowedly anti-woke conservative author Bethany Mandel during an interview last March. Mandel had based her new book, Stolen Youth, on the premise that “woke ideology is upending American childhood,” so it followed that she wouldn’t struggle to define it. “So…I mean…woke is…sort of the idea that…um…” Mandel stammered before trotting out a glib response. “It is, sort of, the understanding that we need to totally reimagine and reduce society in order to create hierarchies of oppression. Um. Sorry, I—it’s hard to explain in a 15-second soundbite.”
To Mandel’s credit, she articulated negrophobes’ central fear: reimagining an anti-Black society. The same phobia plagued open segregationists. In the 1950s, Georgia Gov. Eugene Talmadge attempted to remove educators who advocated “communism or racial equality” from the state university system and launched an inquisition to purge “negrophile books” from Georgia schools. State officials banned 23 books they found “subversive or opposed to Southern views on the Negro question and evolution.” “We are going to get rid of that book and all books of that kind,” Talmadge said in reference to one, We Sing America, that contained drawings of white and Black children playing together.
Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has picked up the torch of Talmadge’s efforts to thwart negrophilism. DeSantis, who has based his presidential campaign on exterminating “wokeness,” helms the new anti-woke brigade: he’s branded Florida as the state where “woke goes to die,” and has tirelessly used his administration to scour any trace of “wokeness” from Floridian life, instituting a regime of censorship that criminalizes methods of protest, banishes “woke” books from academic institutions, and makes it illegal to cause “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any form of psychological distress” by, for example, teaching that white people were responsible for chattel slavery in America.
In describing the aims of wokeness, DeSantis endows it with the power to topple the foundations of American life: “The goal is to delegitimize the founding of this country, the principles that the founders relied on, our institutions, our Constitution, to tear basically at the fabric of our society,” DeSantis said in a speech last year. “This wokeness is dangerous, and we’ve got to defeat it on all fronts.”
DeSantis’s fearmongering rhetoric around wokeness is kin to Southern admonishments about negrophilia. An 1859 article in North Carolina’s Salisbury Banner, titled “Negrophilism—Its Effects,” captured Southern anxieties that “northern endemic negrophilism” had poisoned literature, “nullified the laws of Congress,” and “nullified the Constitution.” Negrophilism, the Banner wrote, “corrupted public sentiment”; Negrophiles spread abolitionist doctrines, violated fugitive slave laws, and sympathized with the aims of John Brown’s then-recent raid on Harpers Ferry. The epithet survived for a century, as “negrophiles” became those who advocated for the Civil Rights Act, supported affirmative action, and protested white supremacy.
“Most of the racial demonstrations about the country are urged on and agitated by liberal ‘Negrophiles,” wrote one Harry Whildden, Sr. in a 1963 Tampa Bay Times article, “Negrophile Hurts Negro Progress”: “According to these Negrophiles, the only problem our country and the Negro people have is civil rights.” The critique that public discourse concentrates on white supremacy at the expense of other causes of Black suffering has resurfaced throughout history, albeit in more genteel terms. In 2021, New York Times columnist Bret Stephens wrote about the detrimental effects of what he called a “relentless form of race consciousness” in an essay titled “Why Wokeness Will Fail.” According to Stephens, the “woke” movement is doomed because it seeks to “reject and replace our national foundations” with the idea that “racism is a defining feature of every aspect of American life.”
Even before Republicans co-opted “woke,” appeals to raise awareness of Black suffering repelled white Obama voters. In a 2016 Times article, Nikole Hannah-Jones recounts a conversation with Gretchen Douglas, a 53-year-old white Iowa woman who claimed to have been a lifelong Democrat—until Obama’s remarks about Trayvon Martin’s death prompted her to become a Republican and Trump voter. “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” Obama said after 28-year-old George Zimmerman killed the 17-year-old Martin. Douglas felt the president was “stirring up tensions.” Obama had committed the cardinal sin of asserting Black suffering as his own; his empathy triggered Douglas’ aversion to what the right now simply calls “wokeness.”
For “anti-woke” negrophobes, the sin of discrimination, the terror of police brutality, and the regimes of violence that saturate American history all pale in comparison to the suggestion that we change the collective thinking behind those horrors.
The problem does cut both ways. Black people are met with polarized reactions, whether phobic or philic, and white Americans can pervert allyship into an unhealthy, paternalistic focus on Black suffering and Black protest aesthetics—only to disregard both when they lose political currency. That only highlights the prevalence of racism, revealing how easily any white obsession with Black politics can move into negrophobia.
The fundamental mendaciousness of “anti-wokeism” is the pretense that Black Americans could somehow oppose systemic racism without triggering white anxiety. As long as the presence of Blackness sparks white phobia, there is no appropriate way for Black people to have legible and viable sociopolitical demands. In American political discourse, all race-consciousness becomes an antagonistic force, a pathology—the contagion once called “negrophilia,” now called “wokeness.”