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.

 

 

 

 

The Current Narrative: The Case of Fred Barley, Casey Blaney, and White Saviorism

 

Picture this:

Barnesville, Georgia.  Summer of 2016.

A young man bikes a long distance to a college campus to register for the required courses associated with his major.  Unfortunately, incoming and current students are unable to move into the dorms until next month, so the man decides to camp on the campus grounds until he is able to gain access to housing.

The aspiring student lives in a tent with impunity until he is approached by two police officers responding to a call about someone camping on college property.  The man provides a candid explanation to the police, who are now so moved by his perseverance that they offer him adequate, but temporary shelter.  His story is then shared throughout the community and even across the country, which leads the student to receive support, resources, employment.  Of all the gifts received, however, the large sum of money donated to him through a crowdsourcing fundraiser that surprises him the most. The young man is grateful, humbled, and overwhelmed by the generosity and promises that the gifts received will not be wasted—especially the money.

Then, to his dismay, he discovers that the donation money is frozen due to the actions of a supposed ally with ill-intentions.

This is exactly what happened to Fred Barley, a 19-year-old Black homeless man of Conyers, Georgia.  About a few weeks ago, Barley used his little brother’s bike to ride six hours from his hometown to Barnesville to register for courses at Gordon State College.  Because the dorms were unavailable until August, the medical student decided to sleep on campus grounds in a tent until the dorms opened.  Struggling with unemployment, Barley searched for possible work within the area in hopes to find something to generate much needed income.  At night, he retreated to his tent equipped with two gallons of water and two duffel bags.

Barley did this until one Saturday evening when he was approached by two officers responding to a call about someone camping on school grounds.  When he explained to the police what he was doing and why, the two officers paid for a hotel room for him to reside in for a few days.  The wife of one the cops then posted Barley’s story on the Barnesville Community Facebook page.  Moved by his determination, kind strangers from all over the country donated to him the necessary commodities such as clothes, shoes, food, a car and other items.  In addition, Good Samaritans contributed money to Success for Fred, a GoFundMe campaign constructed and launched by Barnesville resident Casey Blaney.

Now Blaney was one of the people who read about the aspiring medical physician on the community Facebook page and decided to assist him.  Through her efforts, the  GoFundMe campaign ultimately raised over $184,000 within twelve days (which is beyond awesome).  Barley expressed gratitude to the public in a video upon hearing the good news, stating that the money wouldn’t go to waste. Though overwhelmed and obviously exhausted, he also displayed sincerity when stating that the funds would finance his education and housing expenses.

So it was a shock to all involved when Blaney froze the fundraiser, explaining the cause with this status in the Success for Fred Facebook page:

Casey Blaney 4

To counteract the accusation, Barley posted the following on his Facebook page:

Fred Barley

When I read the above message, I immediately recognized the hurt and honesty in Barley’s words. That alone earned Blaney’s accusation the side eye as the timing and lack of specifics raised fuchsia flags.   So I began investigating further, following new information while examining old articles and posts to get to the bottom of what happened between Blaney and Barley.

What I noticed first hand was Blaney’s consistent display of White Saviorism. Also known as the White Savior Complex, it is when White people literally use their resources to “rescue” people of color—usually impoverished Black youth.  This trope often rears its ugly head in Hollywood films such as Dangerous Minds and The Blind Side, but it is also common among White people who feel that their assistance is necessary in order for a disenfranchised group to thrive in society.

In the case of GoFundMe controversy, Blaney played the role of the White Savior who “rescued” Barley, a homeless young Black man with aspirations of becoming a doctor.  She recalled her initial meeting with Barley in the following Facebook post:

Casey Blaney

Casey Blaney 2

Casey Blaney 3

So according to Blaney, the student asked her and her husband to assist him in finding employment, which they have done.  She was going to walk away from the situation (and Barley) but decided that him having a job at the local pizzeria was clearly not enough.  So with that in mind, Blaney created the fundraiser because, as a good Christian, she felt compelled to bend over backwards on his behalf.

Keep in mind that Barley told her that he needed assistance seeking employment, asking for nothing else.  Though Blaney and her husband used their social capital to secure a position for him at the pizzeria, it was she who decided to go beyond Barley’s request.  Her resolve and the actions that followed are typical of White Saviors who believe that they know what is best for those they are supposedly assisting. On the surface, it looks like they are “going above and beyond” to support members of the disenfranchised.  But in reality the White Savior feels that the former is oblivious to their own needs.  By going beyond what was requested of her, Blaney overstepped her boundaries to the point of undermining Barley’s ability to advocate for himself, a clear example of paternalism.

Her depiction of Barley in the post was also something worth pointing out.  According to her account of their meeting, the young man was either soft-spoken as if ashamed or overly excited about her reaching out to him.  Blaney even shared that Barley wished to meet her family, seeming extremely eager to do so.  To me, her assessment of Barley resembled an offensive Black character in an Old Hollywood film: when distraught, he bowed his head and mumbled respectable words, but when grateful thanked the White woman for her kindness before breaking into a figurative song and dance.  That’s because Blaney’s description of him is not only offensive and overly dramatic, but deeply rooted in White superiority as it contributes to the narrative of the White Savior Christian saving a person of color from savagery and the latter expressing gratitude for it.

Speaking of which, Blaney mentioned her Christian faith a few times, stating that God prompted her to reach out to Barley in order to help him.  Again, this is the same rhetoric spoken by White missionaries traveling to Africa or other foreign countries to “save” the natives from their troubles.  To put it into context, Blaney acted like a missionary doing God’s work during her interaction with Barley, almost describing him as completely helpless without her aid, forgetting that he is a student capable of caring for himself despite his homelessness. She further employed her faith and religious practices to portray herself as a big hearted woman to her support network on Facebook, using the fact that she launched a fundraiser for a Black man to prove that 1) she is a good woman and 2) she is not racist, therefore making her Christ-like.

Blaney is actually no different from Leigh Anne Tuohy, the legal guardian of Michael Oher, the Black teen on which The Blind Side is based.  Suffering from the White Savior Christian Complex, she also came under fire in 2014 when she posted a picture on Facebook of herself with two Black teens.  She mistakenly assumed that the young men were struggling financially, so she took upon herself to approach them to assist (sounds familiar, right?).  The result was a shit storm of accusations of racism and illegalities regarding posting photographs of minors on social media without parental consent.  The Tuohy debacle only happened because, like many drunk on White Saviorism, Tuohy was primarily concerned with perpetuating her image as the kind-hearted,  God-fearing, colorblind Christian who adopted a Black teen who ultimately needed rescuing.  And because Oher required her assistance, then so did the Black teens she randomly encountered in a fast food restaurant.

The disregard of boundaries and erroneous assumptions on the part of the White Savior tends to lead to unnecessary controversy.  The unwilling participants involved are then placed in the awkward position to dispel the former’s supposed heroism on Facebook.  Thus the White Savior is either embarrassed (as in Tuohy’s case) or extremely resentful at the person they “helped” for attempting to exert their autonomy.  Blaney’s accusation came only after Barley declined her request to place the donated funds into a trust without the opportunity to choose his own trustee and attorney.  According to the Georgia state’s Trust Fund Laws, the receiver of the trust wouldn’t have been able to make any changes to the document without the permission of the trustee and settlor (the person creating the trust).  Since Blancy and her husband are relocating to Hawaii in a few weeks, it would be illogical for her to choose the trustee and settlor because she will no longer live in Georgia. And given that the $184,000 belongs to Barley anyway, recruiting his own attorney and settler was necessary to protect his investment.

So what’s the problem?

Here’s my theory:  Blaney wanted control over the student’s donations to fund her family’s move to Hawaii.  Because they’ve established a close relationship, she hoped he’d willingly comply with her requests to place the trust under her name. Doing so will allow her to either withhold the money from Barley or use it to manipulate him in some fashion.  Whichever the pendulum would’ve swung, Blaney would have positioned herself to take full advantage of this man’s current circumstances regarding lack of housing and low socioeconomic status.

Despite his circumstance, Barley is indeed a student entering his second semester of college, making him educated enough to understand the legalities associated with having a trust and recruiting a trustworthy trustee, settlor, and/or beneficiary.  And Blaney, the White Savior who constructed the GoFundMe campaign on his behalf (and out of the “kindness of her heart”), was not assigned any one of those positions.  Translation:  she wasn’t counting on this homeless Black boy using his common sense. The sudden swift of power and control both surprised and angered her, considering that “she is the reason why countless strangers so much as wrote his name on their checks.”

So since Barley gotten too big for his britches, Blaney did what any self-entitled White person would do:  employ her privilege, power, and social capital to undermine the student by alleging that he possibly fabricated his story to swindle otherwise kindhearted individuals out of over $184,000.  To conceal her true intentions, she took to Facebook to generate support from her fellow Christians and strangers alike:

Casey Blaney 6

As for Barley, he is placed in the position to defend himself against the sudden onset of accusations of fraud.

The infuriating part is that this nonsense occurred at a period where the lives of Black people (Black men and boys in particular) are at greater risk.  The Black Lives Matter movement placed many White people on edge and the latter are utilizing various industrial complexes (mostly law enforcement) to protect themselves. This “investigation” against Barley made him a target for White counterparts believing that he cheated them out of money.  Granted, the young man continues to generate countless supporters (one even orchestrated a Change.org campaign demanding GoFundMe to release the 184K to him), but Blaney’s accusation could make him yet another hashtag.

The good news is that Barley finally was awarded the donation money.  The attorneys on both parties reached an agreement due to lack of evidence supporting Blaney’s accusations.  But let’s be honest here:  She had no proof to begin with.  The fact that she didn’t even put up a fight confirmed my suspicion that she planned to steal the money—possibly to fund her family’s move to Hawaii.

When Fred Barley shared his story with the world, he thought he found an ally in a sweet hearted woman who bent over backwards to support his education.  What he encountered, unfortunately, was a White Savior who attempted to undermine his intelligence, disregard his autonomy, and assassinate his character.   Her incessant need to render Barley emotionally and spiritually feeble, and to keep up appearances on social media resulted in unnecessary drama that could have negatively impacted Barley’s future.