What It Really Means When Black People Who Protest Are Called 'Ungrateful'

To be black and to be conscious and to have a voice flies in the face of white supremacy.

So, over the weekend, this happened:

In a series of tweets posted Sunday, Donald Trump, The President of the United States of America, condemned the protests of black athletes like Colin Kaepernick during the National Anthem. He suggested that NFL players and other professional athletes (American citizens) should be fired or suspended for peacefully protesting racism and police brutality. One might say this is outrageous, but then, given everything that has transpired over the last several months, it is hardly surprising.

In mid August, the President implied that some of the Nazis who marched in the name of white supremacy in Charlottesville were “very fine people.” One month later, he declared that black athletes who protest white supremacy are sons of bitches. There is an obvious disconnect in the way many people in this country who have commended President Trump’s tweets view the freedoms that come with the 1st Amendment: Nazis and white supremacists deserve freedom of speech, but black athletes who peacefully protest deserve derision, ridicule, and the loss of their livelihoods.

At the heart of this absurd double standard lies the real issue here, which has very little to do with patriotism or freedom of speech or propriety and everything to do with white supremacy and the perceived ownership of black culture, black entertainment, black athleticism, and black bodies.

On Sept. 23, radio host Joe Walsh tweeted about Stevie Wonder taking a knee during a performance in protest of police brutality. He described the music icon as “another ungrateful black multi millionaire.”

But here’s a question: If successful black performers and athletes who are protesting are “ungrateful,” what, or who, exactly, are they being ungrateful to? Are the millions of dollars, endorsement deals, and championship rings they receive not earned payment for the hard (sometimes life-threatening) work they put in on the field?

Or is the payment something else? Something more abstract? Something unspoken but profound: their success is not earned, but rather given, benevolently, by white kingmakers with the implicit understanding that in return for their success, they (the athletes, actors, singers, dancers, artists, and so on) must pretend that racism, and indeed race, does not factor into their identities at all.

The idea that black wealth and success should be a salve, a concession prize for the realities of racism is absurd, but all too common. Black performers and athletes, from Eartha Kitt to Muhammad Ali, from Beyoncé to Jemele Hill, from Colin Kaepernick to Lebron James, have been warned to be “grateful” for their success, to stay quiet, to view the money and accomplishments they’ve made not as things they’ve earned but as a form of hush money.

Black people in protest, be they rich or poor, famous or obscure, have always made the powers that be uncomfortable. Because to be black and to be conscious and to have a voice flies in the face of white supremacy. As a result, while Nazis can be afforded the right to march freely and proudly through American cities, it is conceivably never OK for black people to speak out against what they perceive as injustice and oppression.

Some people, like Browns coach Hue Jackson, have argued that on the field or in the locker room is not the proper venue for protest. But what is ever the right venue, when it comes to black people in protest? Black people march in the streets, and they’re branded as a whole as thuggish rioters and looters. Black people quietly take a knee on basketball courts or football fields, and they’re branded as ungrateful and unpatriotic. Black people share their opinions on white supremacy via Twitter, and suddenly they’re loose cannons who should be fired.

This, of course, is white supremacy at work. The criticisms of the NFL athletes who have largely led this new wave of silent protest during the National Anthem isn’t really about respect (those who have died defending this country also died for the right of American citizens to protest). It’s about controlling black people, and, most of all, actively dismissing the very real concerns and issues that these protests are calling out.

Players from the Kansas City Chiefs seen taking a knee before a game on Sept. 24.
Players from the Kansas City Chiefs seen taking a knee before a game on Sept. 24.
Sean M. Haffey via Getty Images

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