The Foundation of Being Woke: How Black Intellectual Elitism is Ruining the Politically Conscious Movement

This past week, I made the usual rounds on Facebook when my attention (and cursor) stopped on one of my friend’s statuses:

Asan and the word woke

A couple of days later, I found this status on another friend’s page:

Being woke

I was relieved. In so many words, both posts they said exactly what I was thinking in regards to the Woke Era. To piggyback on Siete’s perspective, the word “woke,” its meaning, and its importance was significant initially because there was an influx of Black youth educating themselves on how oppression affected their communities, thus deciding to get involved. The Black Lives Matter movement plays a role as it encouraged Black people—women in particular—to demand equality and equity for our people and future generations. As the year wore on, though, the connotation of the word eventually lost its originality due to cultural appropriation. But what’s most unfortunate is the fact that being politically aware developed a negative reputation by breeding intellectual elitism within the Black radical community.

To place the matter into perspective, it’s important to understand what the term “woke” means. According to Raven Cras, it’s defined as “a cultural push to challenge problematic norms, systemic injustices and the overall status quo through complete awareness.” She further explains that Being woke refers to “a person being aware of the theoretical ins and outs of the world they inhabit. Becoming woke, or staying woke, is the acknowledgment that everything we’ve been taught is a lie (kind of/mostly).”  In other words, being woke is about being knowledgeable politically—especially as a person of color (Black folks in particular).

This trend of being woke—or doing the work to earn the label occurred in the beginning of 2016. Facebook newsfeeds were inundated with Black radical blogs, opinion articles, memes, videos, other forms of media. Black women used politically correct one liners to clap back at fuck boys and hoteps for their misogyny, homophobia, and disregard for them. There was footage of young Black, Brown, and White activists shutting down entire highways during rush hour to protest on behalf of Black people murdered by corrupt cops. We all rooted for Baltimore Public Defender Marilyn Mosby when she vowed to fight for Freddie Gray by prosecuting the six police officers who severed his spine.

Many of us began to finally recognize that we as Black people mattered. Our pain and struggles mattered. Some activists such as Jasmine Richards rose to dominance in the BLM movement, earning accolades for their work on the street. Online activists earned Woke points as well by using their social media pages as a political platform. It seemed that a quarter of the year was a Black Liberation Renaissance during which educating one’s self became increasingly commonplace.

Yet with self-education came this unspoken requirement to continuously display knowledge about Black struggle, to know and understand terms such as heteronormative, intersectionality, colorism and what they entail—which is important if you are a Leftist activist. The problems arose, however, when knowledge was eventually used to determine a person’s level of intelligence, when politically conscious radicals began throwing the side eye to anyone who either failed to grasp the concepts of political discussions, challenged the ideologies of a radical Leftist organization or asked a question the group assumed the person should already have the answer to.

The latter actually happened to me. A Facebook friend posted an article featuring a video of actress and comedienne Leslie Jones embracing Kate McKinnon. The majority of the commentators stated that Jones desired White acceptance as a dark skinned woman. Out of interest, I asked why dark skinned people strive for White acceptance– particular dark skinned women. I truly wanted to understand, considering that I’m surrounded by dark skinned women who appreciate and love themselves. A commentator mentioned colorism and how she herself experienced it as a light skinned person. I pointed out that I knew what colorism is and what in involves, but wanted to know what it was about White acceptance that was so desirable among dark-skinned women.

I was hoping for a thought-provoking conversation about colorism and learn information that I didn’t realize. Instead, it was assumed I don’t know what it is because of the question I asked. I was told by another commentator that my responses were “veering all over the place.” Even when I attempted to clarify, my explanation was met with unjustified animosity. So I ended up deleting my thread attached to the response because I wasn’t in the mood to argue on someone else’s personal page.

Looking back on that exchange, I was pissed off for a few reasons. For one, the commentators are light-skinned, so the question wasn’t theirs to answer (in fact, that’s like a White person intervening in a conversation about Black folks and saying “Well we are oppressed too!”). Secondly, I retreated knowing that my question and comments were coherent enough for them to understand, so I shouldn’t have backed down. But it’s the ASSUMPTION that I don’t know or understand something that bothered me. This is what many White teachers, students, and professors have done, writing me off as unintelligent and unteachable. When other Black people try to do this, it’s even more jarring because I expect the intellectual elitist attitude from White people and not from members of my own community.

Which is why it’s safe to argue that the two commentators placed my identity as a Black woman under scrutiny. Intellectual elitism made the level of “wokeness” synonymous with Black identity and overall worthiness of the self, to comrades, and to the community. If I can’t quote Assata Shakur verbatim or were to disagree with the political tactics of Black Lives Matter activists, does that mean I’m coonish? If I bop my head to Mumford & Sons, but don’t know the words of Erykah Badu’s “Call Tyrone,” does that mean that I’m not supportive of socially conscious Black creatives? Because I don’t sport a dashiki with a matching head scarf or not completely educated on African history, does this imply that I am simply too colonized to stay in the Woke Squad (I’ve had Black intellectuals whom I considered friends literally stop talking to me because I wasn’t smart enough for them)?

I know these questions seem ridiculous, but they’ve crossed my mind every time I interact with Black people. My Imposter Syndrome tends to reveal itself psychologically due to the feeling of “not being Black enough.” Intellectual elitism within Black radical circles further compounds my anxiety because it reminded me of my grad school days when I had to deal with White professors questioning my intelligence.

And I’m not alone in my assessment. Canadian freelance writer Septembre Anderson  argues that intellectual elitism actually reflects White superiority. Using Black Lives Matter-Toronto’s Freedom School as an example. Anderson writes:

Septembre Anderson

Though Anderson speaks for Toronto, the substantial importance on intellectualism is also evident within the Black radical environments in the United States. Most Black radicals (myself included) are either college students or alumni with access to a wealth of information available through university libraries and research databases. While some Black scholars use these resources, they tend to overlook the fact that not everyone in the community is an academic. Inviting folks to a reading group to study and discuss Feminism is for Everybody is awesome, but it’s not going to help an impoverished family maintain even the most basic necessities. No offense but bell hooks’ quotes cannot pay the electric bill, so non-academic Black folks not participating in a reading group doesn’t indicate disinterest or lack of intelligence. It just means that their highest priority is keeping the lights so Momma, the partner and the baby ain’t sitting in a dark house.

And not every Black person is neurotypical, either. Neurodivergents with Attention Deficit Disorder, Auditory Processing Disorder, Dyslexia or other types of learning disabilities process complex information much more differently and  that sometimes involves reading a paragraph numerous times, reading slowly, needing assistance with understanding the material and so on before it registers. Though normal to the neurodivergent, the non-disabled radical could (or would) misinterpret those learning methods as an inability to learn. However, that is not the case and neurodivergents employed skills that bring innovation to the cause. So to display any impatience and frustration towards someone with a disability—especially a person of color—for not quickly understanding the literature presented is both elitist and extremely ableist.

It also perpetuates scientific racist ideologies introduced in the 1800s. White psuedo-scientist Samuel George Morton argued that the brains of Black Africans were smaller than those of their White counterparts, concluding that the former were unintelligent and incapable of learning. Though this theory has since been disproved, the intelligence of Black people continues to be rejected by White-dominated educational institutions, corporations, and even the greater society.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that every Black activist is an intellectual elitist or that Black Lives Matter is the foundation of it. And knowledge is extremely important for radical Leftist work. But being “woke” is not some pat on the back or a badge of honor earned for memorizing an Audre Lorde poem.  It’s about continuous self-education and using the knowledge to uplift and empower oneself while working alongside fellow comrades.  I therefore hold accountable the Black folks in the radical scene who use intellectualism to measure a fellow activist’s worth as a human being.  To do so is the antithesis of the BLM movement and the equity we activists are fighting for. And if this snobbery continues, it will eventually annihilate us as a political collective.

 

 

 

 

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