Shut Up and Dance

On August 26, 2016, a black man who is paid a lot of money to entertain people failed to stand for the National Anthem. In 2016 America, this is apparently news.

This is the key part of the news. In the wake of this scandalous conduct, people have tried to make it about the man’s family background, his wealth, or his waning career. However, all of that is a smokescreen for what’s really going on: A rich black person has failed to agree to the exchange of a huge amount of money for silent acceptance of the status quo.

It’s happened at least twice before this year alone: An “uppity” black person has dared not to behave in a way that White America expects, despite the ludicrous amount of money that White America has given them.

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The first occurrence was when a black woman—previously most-known to white people for singing a pro-woman song whose chorus appears to applaud marriage—released a song that openly celebrated her Southern African-American heritage. To make matters worse, her video was filled with clear support for Black Lives Matter. And to make matters even worse, she sang this song during the most American of all sporting events, the Super Bowl.

I’m referring to Beyoncé’s Formation. Saturday Night Live responded to the backlash to the song with a fake trailer called The Day Beyoncé Turned Black,” which skewered the idea that white people think everything is for them.

Beyoncé’s earlier hit, “Single Ladies,” was so safe it was used in Alvin and the Chipmunks movie, where the Chipettes perform the song for a predominantly white audience. I believe the embrace of the song by White America is in part due to the song’s apparent support for the narrative that the problem with the black community is men who don’t commit and absentee fathers.

When blacks abide white narratives, they’re praised. We don’t generally approve of corporal punishment, but when a black mother smacked her adult son in public during the Baltimore riots, the wave of approval from the mainstream media was deafening. It’s our double standard: Affluent white kids don’t need smacking around to behave, but knucklehead” black kids need near-constant punition.

Likewise, while also being a strong female-oriented anthem, “Single Ladies” reinforces the narrative that the black community is all messed up because of the black community. So it’s safe.

The video for “Formation,” meanwhile, is dangerous to the white dreamers for several reasons. There are blatant references to the Black Lives Matter themes of police brutality as well as to the government inaction following Hurricane Katrina. Beyoncé and her choreographed dancers are blatant in their sexuality, including twerking, a dance style that is tied to race and African heritage. And a core message of the song’s lyrics are that, no matter how famous she becomes, she will always have ties to her heritage of poverty.

The most dangerous of all is the last line: “Best revenge is your paper.” Translation: “Thank you for making me rich. But don’t think it changes anything.”

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Several months after Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance, “Grey’s Anatomy” star Jesse Williams appeared on the BET Awards show to receive a Humanitarian Award. While Williams is most famous as an actor, he has done extensive work for the black community. Prior to being an actor, he taught social studies in low income schools in Philadelphia.

So his acceptance speech rightly focused on his humanitarian efforts, not on his acting. It wasn’t an acting award. Nonetheless, there was outrage, including an effort to get him fired from “Grey’s Anatomy.” Stacey Dash called him “a Hollywood plantation slave” and suggested that, because Jesse Williams is now rich due to white people, he has no place or right to speak out against the hand that feeds.

A black man who was receiving an award for humanitarian efforts for black people was told by a black person to shut up and enjoy the millions given to him by white people.

Williams, for his part, had already addressed that in his BET speech: “all of us in here getting money – that alone isn’t going to stop this… we spent centuries praying with brands on our bodies, and now we pray to get paid for brands on our bodies.”

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For his part, Colin Kaepernick did not make a high-budget video to go with a high-budget song that criticized the status quo and celebrated African and African-American culture. He did not give a prepared, practiced speech on the state of African-Americans to accept an award on consistent, dedicated efforts.

Instead, Colin Kaepernick failed to stand up and, when somebody happened to notice and somebody else happened to ask him about it, he said he did it because he didn’t want to honor a song that represents, to him, the continued oppression of black people in this country. This is part of what Jesse Williams called “floating this country on credit” and what Martin Luther King, Jr. called “a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir”: The system has been promising to correct itself for centuries now, and Kaepernick is tired of standing for a symbolic song while the country continues its racist ways.

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Three different forms of protest, one identical response: Shut up. We paid you a lot of money. You’re not allowed to complain.

The success of these three individuals, the successes of Barack Obama, Condoleezza Rice, Oprah Winfrey, Samuel L. Jackson, Venus and Serena Williams, Simone Biles, Dr. Ben Carson, and on and on… these are great things. They are evidence that we as a nation are becoming less racist, overall.

But that doesn’t mean the problem is over. When white rapists are given a few months in prison but blacks selling cigarettes and bootleg CDs are killed by overzealous police officers, there’s a significant problem.

We also have a significant classism problem. Much of our race struggles are tied up with the disproportionate level of poverty among people of color in general and blacks specifically. People in power have a louder voice than people who lack it, and so one of the consequences of classism is that the rich are far more likely to be heard than the poor.

Jesse Williams, in particular, is communicating this when he calls upon his fellow black celebrities to stand up and be heard. But if rich black celebrities are put in the situation that they’re not allowed to speak out against racism because their wealth is “proof” in itself that racism is dead, that shuts off a major voice for cultural improvement.

This is a major point of the protests of White America for people like Beyoncé, Williams, and Kaepernick to take the cash and shut up. Let us go back to sleep, we were enjoying our delusion.

Originally published on The Good Men Project.

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