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Burnett's Urban Etiquette

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Sold out!

OK, I know I was supposed to post next about religion. But I need to carefully frame what I say in that post - more carefully than normal - so I'm putting that one on hold for another day or so.

Anywho, I walked into a drug store earlier today at the precise moment that an employee yelled to a customer about 30 feet away that the store was out of an item. "It's a sell-out," the employee hollered with a sympathetic smile.

I cringed. Seriously. For a black man, hearing those words is like hearing that you've been walking around with your fly open, or with a length of TP stuck to the bottom of your shoe, only not funny like those things.

"Sell out" is the label that for years has been slapped by pundits, community leaders, some of the cool kids, and underachievers on black men who allegedly have turned their backs on other black folks in the name of currying favor with the rich and powerful.

Lately, one of my favorite writers, Jason Whitlock, a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, has come under fire from pundits, community leaders, and cool kids. Some have called him sell out. And all have been very, very wrong.

Now, Whitlock needs me to defend him the way Jet Li needs Kung Fu lessons. Not.

But he's getting jabbed by people who are angry with him for telling rappers to clean up their acts and for telling some folks to quit taking their cues for behavior from the entertainment industry.

Whitlock is being accused of being too much like Bill Cosby, as if that's a bad thing, for saying he wants to see black children take pride in their school work and black parents telling their kids that "Stop Snitching" is a T-shirt catch phrase being marketed by a group of punks and shouldn't be taken literally by anyone with good sense.

The anger is misplaced. Whitlock isn't the problem. He's smart enough to know that rowdy hip-hoppers (not all hip-hoppers) and their fans have fallen for the okey-doke. They have bought into the hype that says saggy trousers, shiny teeth, and a practiced snarl make you a man, a tough man to be feared. Whitlock knows that when these kids reach a certain age they won't be "cute" anymore. They'll get tsk-tsked by everyone - black, white, Asian, and Latino - around them. He knows that there isn't a fine line, there is a huuuuuuuuge gap between coming off as cool and coming off as shiftless. And he knows that American society, as a whole, while perfectly content with being entertained by pretend thugs is not yet ready to embrace pretend thugs as everyday people. Whitlock knows that carrying oneself with a little pride and dignity and straight-backed carriage is not a bad thing and has nothing to do with fakin' the funk or losing sight of "who we are."

The real sell outs here are the people - black, white, Asian, and Latino - who are giving mush-headed kids the impression that acting like a knucklehead is synonymous with keepin' it "real." The sell outs are the people who have accepted thug rappers (not all rappers) as icons and elevated them to hero status, while ignoring or scoffing at the young black man who starts a business, or earns a Ph.D, or becomes a teacher, or maybe he does rap or play pro sports, but does so without drama.

You know that line, "I am Spartacus?" Well, this ain't that dramatic. I won't pretend it is. But next time someone wants to call out the Jason Whitlocks of the world for simply saying act right and prioritize, then add me to the list of Whitlocks. It's called buying in, investing in future, not selling out.

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  • Now that, is keepin it real.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:25 PM  

  • I've seen it in other cultures. Jealousy of those that won't or can't perform incites them to ridicule those who can and do.

    Peer pressure is still as powerful as it always was, and it seems that some young men and women are forced to pick between their cultural identity and a productive sucessful life.

    It's really hard to do without some kind of moral support. It's just not there.

    By Blogger Hammer, at 4:58 PM  

  • JB,

    You never got to the part about why Whitlock isn't a sell-out. Sell-outs turn their backs on their home community in exchange for greater acceptance by mainstream society (which chiefly consists of whites, especially in KC and its greater metro area). Black sellouts are oreos, Latin sellouts are custard and Asian sellouts are bananas.

    So what does Whitlock do for the community in Kansas City (other than write about sports in the local paper) that makes him someone who has not turned his back on the Black community? I mean, just not being a convict or just being employed is not enough to say you are doing something for poor people who are disproportionately Black, especially when you have somewhat of a public forum from which to air otherwise silent views. Criticism of misdeeds and wrongs in the Black community can only be accepted from someone who is also constructive in that community. Outside of his community role as a sports writer (which ranks right down there with used car salesman and Al Bundy's on the professional totem pole, no matter how many books he ghost writes), what does he do for the unfortunate in KC? I imagine in his role as sportswriter, he has plenty of opportunity to highlight the needs of people who are being neglected, especially in the area of sports facilities and job training for inner city kids. Does he do anything to advocate for that? Does he do anything for these kids but berate them for their appearance, speech and manner? I'm sure he does, right?

    For instance, although some Blacks disliked what Bill Cosby said, we knew he was right. But he was only right because we know the man has dedicated his life to education and advancement for Black people. If he didn't have that E.D from Fat Albert, hadn't given Spike Lee $1m to finish Malcolm X or hadn't given so generously to his alma mater, it might be difficult to accept his criticism. Bryant Gumbel could be in that same misunderstood category--seems like sell-out, but all he does is use his very public forum to explore issues that negatively affect poor people who are disproportionately made up of Blacks.

    Does Whitlock have a history like that with Blacks in KC? Or has he bought into the preposterous notion that all people who wear baggy jeans and have dreadlocks and gold teeth are failures because they look so unkempt? He and you, (judging by some of your posts) forget that many of those "thugs" have built multimillion dollar businesses on selling entertainment. They are entreprenuers, even if they make a product that you don't like. If they were dressed like goofy German guys, with leiderhosen and selling a beer you hated would you or he have as much contempt for them? Those guys put people who are largely unemployable to work. They may blow all their money like Hammer, but it ain't for lack of making it. When Darren Daulton admitted he blew all his money or when Rick Reardon robbed the jewelry store in his robe in palm beach Gardens, were either of you as contemptuous of wasted talent and life as you are with a loud garish Black guy who has a Bentley?

    You're right--not all hip-hop fans fall for the okey-doke. They know that you can make a living for yourself with baggy pants and dreadlocks--you just won't do it working in anyone's office. Which is just fine if you ask the staff over at Black Enterprise. Puff Daddy killed nine kids in his first big charity event. If it were up to you, a Black guy like that would never have a chance to fail and bounce back--which is the only true measure of equality in America.

    By Anonymous Big Daddy, at 5:08 PM  

  • All too often, kids - white, black, pretty much any and all ethnic groups/races - tend to make heros of the ones who get the big-time media attention, the big money, etc. What they think is often that it looks like the key to easy street - to be a star but what they don't know is how much work all of it is too.

    Rap may be the "reporting" in a sense, of life in the mean street, the projects, etc., which is extremely different from the way other segments of society may live and while it's fine to report that way of life honestly, up front, out there, it really should be done with the backdrop of there are other ways to exist too. And learning, studying, being able to read correctly, to speak in a fashion that can be understood by All, is not a bad way of life either.

    Frankly, I felt your post today was quite nicely expressed and one that all cultures should read, understand and try taking it to heart too.

    By Blogger Jeni, at 7:43 PM  

  • "American society, as a whole, while perfectly content with being entertained by pretend thugs is not yet ready to embrace pretend thugs as everyday people."

    I don't think Big Daddy appreciates what you said in that sentence.

    By Blogger Dave, at 9:09 PM  

  • MRP, that's always the goal.

    Hammer, I just turned into an extreme cynic very young. That's what got me through.

    BD, as usual you're looking for text to read between the lines where there is none. What do you know about how I feel about redemption? Comment on what I wrote, not on what you think I feel about other things.

    Dave, BD never appreciates me. That's OK. Can't win 'em all.

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 10:13 PM  

  • Well said James.

    I do admit that I'm looking forward to reading your post about religion.

    By Blogger captain corky, at 6:34 AM  

  • James, I like the post. And I don't believe you have to 'be somebody' in any culture to have a positive, yet critical opinion of the youth of today. Anyone can look around and see they are headed down the wrong path. Not all, but way too many. Someone has to step up and call it out.

    The thought that today's youth will be taking care of us when we get older scares the hell out of me.

    By Blogger Christina_the_wench, at 8:04 AM  

  • During an interview some years ago (I believe it may have been with Oprah), Will Smith mentioned that — while growing up — many of the black kids in his neighborhood were generally mean to him and made fun of him.

    The reason?

    He spoke proper English.

    [I believe he adjusted his manner-of-speaking accordingly, varying it whether he was on the streets, or at home with his family]

    I've never really known what to make of that, but this post certainly brought it to mind.

    By Blogger thirdworstpoetinthegalaxy, at 9:57 AM  

  • Excellent post James. I've been readin Jason Witlock for a long time. ESPN Page 2 isn't the same without him.

    Sometimes he may go a bit too far (like calling Sharpton and Jesse Jackson "terrorists") but he's an interesting and entertaining writer.

    I can't wait for your post of religion either.

    By Blogger Jay, at 10:52 AM  

  • You always give me something to thank about, James. I'm looking forward to what you have to say on the subject of religion too.

    And I'll have you know, I have been having nightmares about huge, 6-toed cats! ;)

    By Blogger fiwa, at 1:07 PM  

  • Damn, but that was a good post! And the message transcends race and ethnic background.

    By Blogger BobG, at 2:42 PM  

  • I so enjoy reading your posts. They are intelligent and insightful without being obnoxious - the perfect combination.

    It's kind of the same mentality on the other side of the fence. I literally lived in a campground for 3 years - we weren't good enough for a trailer park - and I learned a great life lesson that transcends race lines:

    Some people are no better than they have to be.

    If we didn't have people calling others out for their poor behavior and pushing them to change the way they live their lives, then those people will never strive for anything better.

    Maybe it doesn't make sense to anyone else, but I have always believed that if you try to be better than you are, you will one day succeed. Props to those people, regardless of the color of their skin, who call others out on their bad behavior.

    By Blogger ADW, at 3:08 PM  

  • Captain, as always, thank you.

    Christina, I hope that by the time I'm old and decrepit there are robots who are intelligent enough to care for us, just in case my kids (assuming I have any) try to kill me or aren't capable of caring for me.

    ThirdWorst, I posted on that different speech for different audiences phenom. I'll have to find the link to it. But I think subconsciously we all do that. What prompted my post was politicians doing it when they visited southern churches.

    Jay, I agree the "terrorist" thing was harsh. Otherwise, I think Whitlock makes a lot of good sense.

    Fiwa, sorry about the nightmares. I suppose those cats could be spooky in the right setting.

    Bob G., you are too kind.

    ADW, thank you very much, especially for that first paragraph.

    And Big Daddy, since you're my designated foil, I have to end on this note: I'm aware of what those other guys, like Daulton and Reardon, have done and how maybe they weren't called out for it as harshly as some others. But if you got the point of my post, I'm saying not everyone can count on getting a pass for bad behavior. So the smart thing to do is always be on top of your game. Be you, but never provide ammo to anyone who might be looking to call you out. And you're wrong about that second chance thing w/Diddy. He didn't murder anyone. He had a poorly organized event that led to kids getting killed (trampled, right?). I wouldn't dare say an honest business effort gone awry should prevent a man from having a second chance to make it. And you've read me long enough to know I'd never say something like that.

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 5:44 PM  

  • many of those "thugs" have built multimillion dollar businesses on selling entertainment.

    ... I disagree with Big Daddy. They are making money off of thuggery, off of the naive children that believe the hype. They make it look glamorous. Young people are drawn into a world where they get shot, arrested, addicted... etc.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:10 AM  

  • You're preaching good stuff, Burnett!!

    By Blogger Pamela, at 3:12 AM  

  • Instead of spreading housie-propoganda why don't you define what it is to be a real Afrikan male in America today? You're saying don't act "gangsta", "hood" or "ghetto" without providing a blueprint for the young Afrikan male reading you post.

    By Anonymous isme, at 12:21 PM  

  • when did it become unpopular to speak common sense...tough world we live in. It's sort of backwards

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:30 AM  

  • My husband and I have been debating Jason Whitlock and his "motives" for some time now. We really can't decide if he's doing it for publicity or if he's really about change and ready to make a difference through more than just writing about it (like big daddy said).

    Here's an interesting article though:

    The "Wojciechowski: Spike's latest show was something to see" story is located at

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:32 AM  

  • Anonymous, I think we're on the same page. There is an element of hip-hop that is benefiting financially, a lot, from an enticing message about criminal behavior.

    Pamela, as always, thank you.

    isme, "housie propoganda?" That's good. Read my post again. I did provide a blueprint. Grow up, be responsible and don't do stupid, criminal stuff, as promoted by a specific element of the hip-hop community. That's my blueprint. It always cracks me up when someone who disagrees with a stance breaks it down to allegations of being a "house" vs. "field" person. That's the best you can bring? To call names like that and not-so-subtly question my black credentials? Getouttahere with that nonsense.

    QZ, that's my question. Why can't I ask what's up with these cats who are making big money off of behaving badly? I don't care if Paris Hilton behaves badly. She'll keep getting away with it. But the young kids who look like me need to get their heads right, 'cause they may not get a Paris pass - in spite of her jail sentence.

    Anonymous2, Whitlock doesn't have all the answers, but I give him credit for being the village crier. Somebody has to deliver the unpopular message sometimes. And thanks for the link. I read that column. It was interesting. I agree with the author. It raised fair questions on all sides about motives and what not.

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 5:27 PM  

  • This stuff gives me headaches. I'm sick of seeing entertainment icons whose images are based in criminal behavior planting the "keepin' it real" flags in the center of maladaptive and chaotic communities that are, supposedly, where "real" black folks come from.

    Is it me, or do these members of the black community receiving a disproportionate amount of coverage? Because in my neighborhood we have a lot of different folks, not the least of which are black folks who, like the rest of us are college-educated, white-collar, home-owning, Target-shopping, their-kids-baseball-team-coaching, mow-the-lawn-on-Saturday-morning, middle class normal people.

    It just makes me wonder who decided where the heart of certain communities lies.

    By Blogger Queen of Dysfunction, at 1:37 PM  

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