the necessity of combating celebrity activist worship in black liberation movements

October 31, 2017
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By Arielle Iniko Newton* / RaceBaitR, AFROPUNK contributor

Editor’s Note: If you not Black, this conversation ain’t for you.

The Movement for Black Lives is an extension of the prolonged fight for Black Liberation which began in the bellies of slave ships when captured Africans overthrew their European captors. Ever since, the struggle for Black survival has gone through multiple iterations as the social, economic, political, and cultural elements of American society has changed.

The staple of all these iterations are the notable Black leaders and provocateurs whose storied legacies, birthed from gossip and word of mouth, eventually became documented in the written and visual formats.

With the whitewashing of heroism, the idea of the Black Activist who fought tirelessly and humbly for the rights and freedoms of the Black underclass was not viewed as an identity which required dangerous, exhausting, and sacrificial labor but as a professional, social, and cultural aspiration.

With the growth and development of the nonprofit industrial complex alongside the commodification of the social justice industry, those who aspire to fulfill the image of the Black Activist often rely on unsavory, if not violent, practices to ensure financial health and social well-being.

Further, the professionalization and commodification of social justice as a sub-economy, particularly the Black racial justice sector, dissuades Black people from organizing with the ultimate and foremost goal of Liberation. Instead, it elevates the ravenous desire for individualized achievements and omnipresent name recognition in order to boost the likelihood for getting a well-paying job or unrivaled access to coveted resources.

Those who make a public name for themselves in the fight for Black Liberation usually or eventually become detached from on-the-ground organizing, and live comfortably in the role of an activist. I’ve seen this in myself; the more media appearances I did and panel invitations I accepted, the more I convinced myself that these actions were “the work,” and began neglecting the grassroots public engagement that brought me into the Liberation Movement in the first place. White supremacy ensures that face-to-face public engagement is awkward, trying and even dangerous, making the comfortable ego boost of things like panel discussions far more appealing.

Activists and organizers have distinct roles. Activists amplify messages and, in doing so, normalize Movement tone and culture, while organizers marshal resources towards a strategic end goal, no matter how ephemeral or palatable that goal may be.

Ideally, activists and organizers work in cohesion because organizers, especially those without expansive platforms, benefit greatly from people spreading their events, campaign initiatives, and overall ideologies and theories of change. But when celebritized activists refuse to engage with organizers or erase their work for personal gain, problems undoubtedly and predictably arise.

I’m clear that some celebrity activists did not ask for the massive attention they receive. The combination of luck, happenstance, and speciality in a singular area translates to an upswell in viral attention due, in part, to their relative marketability. It is here I think of Shaun King, whose proximity to whiteness meant that his grassroots investigative reporting led to a formidable journalistic career, and Deray McKesson, whose conspicuous blue vest was a go-to for liberal-leaning mainstream media professionals who needed an eloquent and well-presenting frontliner to challenge the racist and inaccurate coverage of Ferguson.

Celebrity activists exist in a delicate realm in that their heightened visibility allows for the normalization of fringe social justice movements, but their responsibilities disallow them to provide deepened analyses that are championed by grassroots organizers.

Chopped into sound bites, celebrity activists’ messages are reduced to glossy snapshots that often erase the intersectional work that non-platformed organizers do. As we’ve seen, this contention leads to distrust and dissolution of necessary relationships. When self-interest becomes paramount above the collective Liberation of an oppressed and fractured community, this is inevitable.

It’s unclear if Movement hierarchies are a natural byproduct of mass popular uprisings or a deliberate white supremacist design. Regardless, they are prevalent. And we must combat them rigorously.

I draw from myself in how I approach those who are celebritized. When critical of them, I try to be honest about whether my suspicions of their actions come from a place of Love or envy. I consider if I am genuinely concerned about their practices, or if I’m envious of their access.

The temptations of capitalism and the myth of scarcity are usually the underpinnings of my envy, and when they arise, I work to unlearn them.

Next, if I believe my concerns are valid, I hold that accountability is impossible with people I do not know personally. Any public criticism is not me holding a non-acquaintance “accountable,” but more an insight to provide an alternative perspective within the Movement. My article about Luvvie highlights this point. In writing against her anti-Black comments, I did so with the intention of introducing a perspective that contextualized how dangerous her position was.

My process for dealing with celebritocracies and other oppressive social hierarchies is the result of trial and error. I’ve fucked up many times over. In understanding who I am and what my character strengths and flaws are, I’ve worked (and am working) to circumvent strains in relationship that are avoidable should I remain rational and reasonable in this fight for freedom.

This post is in partnership with RaceBaitR.com

*Arielle Iniko Newton is an editor at  @RaceBaitR, an organizer within the Movement for Black Lives, and the founder of the Black Giving Fund. She’s the host of the RaceBaiting, the first RaceBaitR podcast. As Head Girl of Ravenclaw, she is an unapologetic mermaid, abolitionist, and radical militant freedom fighter.
Follow her on Twitter at @arielle_newton or send her an email at arielle@racebaitr.com.



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