Why Black Celebrities and Influencers Are Not Leaders of The Black Community
In the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, celebrities and social media influencers were forced to confront and participate in the continual discourse surrounding race, police brutality, and white supremacy in the United States. Despite the urging of their supporters to “open their purse and donate”, many celebrities and social media influencers took it upon themselves to go a step further and express their opinions and even offer political and social advice to protestors. The group that stands out the most in this discussion are Black celebrities and social media influencers. It was assumed that because of their Blackness, these celebrities and influencers would have been able to offer something of substance to the Black Lives Matter movement such as donations and solidarity with protesters. However, many of them chose to use their platform to voice their out-of-touch opinions across social media. As a result, many of them were met with resistance and the ever so prevalent “cancel culture”. Yet, there is something quite important I think many individuals have forgotten; Black celebrities and social media influencers are not leaders of the Black community and should not be treated as such.
In a 1963 interview at the University of California, Berkeley, Malcolm X states, “Show me in the white community where a comedian is a white leader. Show me in the white community where a singer is a white leader or a dancer or a trumpet player is a white leader.” In white communities, a white entertainer’s only obligation to their audience is simply to entertain. They do not have to guide their audiences or even speak on their behalf. White leaders in the white community, and society as a whole for that matter, are usually government officials. This is unlike in the Black community where Black entertainers are expected to not only entertain their audiences but also “lead” them. According to Malcolm X, “These aren’t leaders. These are puppets or clowns that have been set out over the Black community by the white community and have been made celebrities and usually say exactly what they know that the white man wants to hear.”
Large social followings and immense amounts of wealth do not make Black celebrities and influencers the mouthpiece of the Black community. Although they may have once experienced the issues working-class Black people are currently fighting against, their success renders them unable to relate to the current struggles of the average working-class Black person. It is imperative to remember that the only commonality continually shared between Black celebrities/influencers and working-class Black folk is their Blackness. Many Black celebrities/influencers have distanced themselves from the memories of their lives before fame and fortune.
Black celebrities and influencers possess two things working-class Black people do not; financial and social capital. Financial capital allows them to buy luxuries not afforded to working-class Black people such as chauffeurs, private jets, bodyguards, and lawyers. Although the possession of these luxuries does not prevent privileged Black people from experiencing racism, it does reduce their chances. Financial capital limits Black celebrities’ and influencers’ proximity to racism. For example, having a chauffeur reduces the possibility that a Black individual may be racially profiled by a police officer while waiting in the train station. The ability to have a lawyer on retainer means that in the event that a Black celebrity/influencer finds himself in legal troubles, he is able to maneuver out of it seamlessly unlike a working-class Black individual who may have to rely on overworked and underpaid public defenders.
The second thing Black celebrities/influencers possess that working-class Black folk do not is social capital. Social capital is the notoriety that comes with being a celebrity or influencer. Being well-known is a privilege in itself as it provides the individual on the receiving end with a plethora of benefits. These benefits are often-materialistic such as the “freebies” influencers receive but can include non-materialistic benefits such as trust. Social capital as it pertains to working-class Black individuals is not given under the same parameters as it is given to Black celebrities/influencers. It is given to Black celebrities/influencers solely as a result of both their financial capital and notoriety. Black working-class individuals must earn their social capital. They must gain social capital by networking and showing their trustworthiness to others. Once earned, their social capital does not go further than their family and workspaces. A Black celebrity may be able to get himself out of a precarious situation because his social capital has allowed him to become well known amongst the general population. This privilege is not afforded to the average Black working-class individual.
I believe that it is crucial that individuals understand and acknowledge the fact that Black entertainers and influencers are not leaders of the Black community. Their financial and social capital does not automatically give them a seat at the leadership table. The term “Black leader” assumes that Black people are not capable of leading themselves and must rely on the guidance of others in order to function. Black people are not a monolith. Although the most common struggle amongst all of us is race, our issues are not all the same. They differ based on factors such as, but not limited to, gender, sexuality, and socioeconomic factors. Therefore, it is extremely tone-deaf and problematic to automatically categorize Black celebrities and influencers as “leaders” of the Black community.