The White masses can’t seem to handle when Black celebrities don’t do specifically and exclusively what they get paid to do.
Marshawn Lynch has been called a “thug” and a “jerk” for refusing to speak to the media at pre-Super Bowl press conferences this week. Richard Sherman was called the same things for the opposite reason in advance of the Super Bowl last NFL season: for being overzealous and “arrogant” during interviews. Kanye West hasn’t had much negative press lately, but he’s known for refusing to talk to the media unless it’s on his terms, and he has been lampooned as well for his perceived arrogance and for speaking out on issues of concern to him. And Black NFL and NBA players alike were criticized for saying nothing at all, but for sending a message of support to the Black Lives Matter Movement by donning ‘I Can’t Breathe’ shirts before games.
There’s a pattern here, and it’s not that Black athletes and entertainers just do too much publicly.
White people have particular expectations for Black celebrities. Black celebrities are expected to do what they get paid to do and politely and humbly answer questions about it afterwards. They are expected to stay in their lane, score points and sing songs. What they aren’t supposed to do is voice an opinion on any substantive social or political issue that White people might disagree with, and they aren’t supposed to convey any recognition of their personal capabilities or achievements.
Such expectations hearken back to the plantation. Black slaves weren’t expected to read or write, display any sort of mental capacity, or exercise any kind of agency that wasn’t directly to the benefit of their masters. Now, I’m not calling Black celebrities slaves. But stereotypes about Black people as unintelligent and incapable, and as submissives in White-controlled and dominated spheres continue to inform how White people perceive Black athletes and entertainers, just as they informed how White owners perceived their slaves. When Black celebrities do something that doesn’t serve some benefit to the White forces of control, or if it doesn’t serve to entertain, they are condemned. If they actively recognize their talents, praise themselves, voice an opinion people disagree with, or otherwise challenge the subordinate position which they are expected to assume, they get attacked for it and told to stop. In short, they are expected to “behave” and not ruffle any feathers. So Marshawn Lynch gets criticized for refusing to speak. Richard Sherman got criticized for making White people uncomfortable when he did speak. Kanye West gets dragged for speaking out on racism in the music and fashion industries, rejecting paparazzi who harass him, and claiming his artistic genius. And Black athletes who publicly support the Black Lives Matter Movement are told to apologize. It’s no wonder more Black celebrities don’t speak out on social issues.
I appreciate Marshawn Lynch, Richard Sherman, Kanye and others for breaking the mold set up for Black celebrities. I appreciate them for using their platforms to bring attention to important issues, and for exercising an agency that many don’t have the courage to exercise. It’s not easy, I’m sure. But somebody’s got to do it. They have my support.
Brandon Ellington Patterson is a senior Sociology major at Howard University in Washington, DC. He was formerly Chairman of the Political Action Committee for the NAACP Howard Chapter and is an aspiring journalist.