Using “accessible language” just so you can “educate” marginalized people you deem ignorant is still elitist
By Hari Ziyad
September 15, 2017
Social activist spaces have a terrible problem: they are elitist.
In general, those of us who have been a part of or have even simply seen activists in action within these spaces are easily able to admit this issue. We seem to understand that accessibility barriers created by academic jargon and theory with no consideration for practical application is ultimately unhelpful in getting anyone free.
We admit this, and so we push for more “accessible language,” push to be more welcoming to those who do not have the physical or educational advantages that these spaces privilege. However, I have noticed that we sometimes make this push alongside a type of patronizing that is just as elitist as not using accessible language in the first place.
We want those without highly specialized education to be able to take part in the conversations about their lives, but only if they don’t threaten our leadership over those conversations.
I recently came across an introductory chapter to what is a very illuminating book called Afro-Pessimism: An Introduction, republished as an article by the Belli Resource Center. The chapter is a short overview of a burgeoning school of thought within Black Studies and the academy in general that posits there is an irreconcilable chasm between Black people and civil society/humanity (I have published some work in academic journals engaging with the vein). The content in the chapter is, I think, very useful, and I am excited to see more people confronting these ideas. However, there was one section that stood out to me for how cringe-worthy it was to read:
“[A]longside the valuable theoretical offerings of Afro-pessimism, this reader was also motivated by a desire to contribute to the efforts of bringing these writings out of the ivory towers of the academy, the place from which all these writings originated. We wish to remove the materials from this stifling place and see them proliferate among those in the streets and prisons. The topics discussed here may have origins in a place of lofty theory, but they deal with the constant realities of millions of people. We therefore find it imperative that these theories directly inform the practices of everyone desiring a life other than this one—while not simply resorting to the empty gesture of empathy.”
At first glance, this seems commendable. It’s true that there would be more people working with these theories if their presentation wasn’t always so heady (the introduction itself might still be quite hard to understand for layfolks, mind you), and that would be a fantastic thing. But what is not true is that the topics Afro-Pessimism covers “have origins in a lofty place of theory.” Further, though it may be imperative “that these theories directly inform the practices of everyone desiring a life other than this one,” it is just as imperative—if not moreso—for the practices of everyone desiring a life other than this one to inform these theories (and I believe some of the authors featured in the book would agree with me here).
As demonstrated by this paragraph, for many of the people who push for more “accessible language,” education goes primarily in one direction: from those who have access to the academy to those who do not. Within this pattern, “the streets and prisons” can be understood to be worth only as much as can be informed onto them and where they can be led, not what they can inform and lead.
It’s great that we ask ourselves how our ideas could better resonate with common people, but not if we don’t ask ourselves first how might the ideas of common people be better supported through our work.
As I learned growing up in a poor family of 19 siblings in Cleveland, OH, it is regular hood Black folks who created radical Black thought and action. It is regular hood Black folks who are the first to put their lives and bodies on the line for Black liberation, demonstrating the utmost dedication to freedom that is required—as exemplified recently in the uprisings of Ferguson and Baltimore. And they often do so with full awareness of the retaliation they face, regularly killed and locked away their whole lives for resisting.
What can Afro-Pessimism learn from them? What might it mean to spend the energy we might use making “our” spaces more welcoming to instead figure out how to support the spaces already being created by them? The streets and the prisons have already illuminated the irreconcilable chasm between Blackness and civil society, have already shown us how there is no such thing as justice under whiteness, no such thing as police reform, no such thing as voting for Black liberation, and the streets and the prisons have stopped asking for all of that long ago. We just never listened. And using “accessible language” now without listening is no different.
Concerning oneself more with getting layfolks to listen to you than with listening to layfolks is certainly not unique to Afro-Pessimism nor to this book chapter. In fact, I believe what makes the ideas of Afro-Pessimism so intriguing is that they are so obviously informed by the work on the streets and the prisons, and I still recommend you reading the book (it’s free here). I also believe that those of us who are more theoretical in our approaches have a necessary place in this work—as long as it doesn’t preempt the work in practice poor Black people without “access” live every day.
Not seeing poor Black folks as the primary agents of their own liberation is universally alluring because it is supported by all of civil society at all times. It is an idea that is easy to succumb to because it is supported by a genocidal state that can only protect humanity by stifling the lives of all Black people and what they have to offer the world. The issue isn’t one of accessibility, but of how we go about destroying what makes access enticing in the first place. And to do that, we have to be able to be led by the people who gave up on access a long time ago.