Selling Up vs Selling Out: Narratives of Success in the Black Community

“Punk ass punk!”

“Mark ass busta!”

Wait, wait. Let me rewind. About 6 weeks ago (yes, it’s taken me that long to be calm enough to write about it) me and a friend who was leaving the institution decided to have a farewell night out on the town. We ran into two colleagues at the first place we went and had a great time eating and chatting. Around 8:30pmish we all leave and they go home while my friend and I head to a second location.

She and I had been to this place many times before. In fact, I know the owner and his wife fairly well so we didn’t think twice about going there. We arrive and see it’s crowded but notice that our usual booth is open. We sit. She goes to the bar and orders us drinks. We drink. We talk. We laugh. Great times are being had by all!

…7 minutes later I look up and there are two black guys standing by our table. One is probably 5’8, 170lbs and is clearly drunk. He is accompanied by his ‘cousin’ (they’d just met 3 days ago) who was 6’8 and closer to 300lbs. The shorter one—we shall call him Tom—is drunkenly asking us (read: slurredly shouting) if he should name his first son Armani. We do the typical ‘we don’t want to be bothered with drunk men’ thing and laugh, briefly answer, and stop making eye contact.

To no avail. They sit in our booth uninvited. Tom sits beside my friend and Big Foot sits beside me (I was shocked he could fit in the booth). It’s loud in the bar so I can’t hear what my friend and Tom are talking about, but Tom is the quintessential drunk with his hands waving around, leaning in, shouting, and getting angry for no reason when he misunderstands/mishears things she says. Meanwhile, Big Foot has asked me my name. Thus marks the beginning of the devolution into what I like to call the You’re a Sell-Out discourse.

Big Foot: That’s a Hebrew name? It’s bad ju ju to have a Hebrew name and not be Jewish. You know…they say they suffered. Okay, so like a million Jews got burned up. Who cares? That’s nothing.

Me: O_O wow…you really just said that.

Big Foot: I don’t want to talk about that. So what do you do?

Me: I’m a professor. We both are.

Big Foot: *rolls eyes* Oh..so y’all are those Condoleezza Rice loving b****es. You probably have posters of her all in your house.

Me: (he is talking over me so I went unheard): You don’t even know me. What the hell are you talking about?

Big Foot: I know how black women with PhDs are. Y’all think yall run the world but you don’t. It will ALWAYS be a man’s world.

Big Foot (to Tom): Yo man! Don’t let her (my friend) talk to you crazy. She’s one of those sell-out black women who thinks cause she got an education she’s better than someone. You say what you want! Do whatever you want to do! Forget her!

Now, you can imagine how the rest of that scene played out. My friend manages to not let her rage get the best of her and can speak to them without picking up an empty bottle and breaking it over Big Foot’s head. I commend her because I could not do the same. I asked Big Foot to move so I could get out of the booth and we could leave. He refused. He refused 3 more times. Eventually, they get up and we get our tab to pay. Tom has been apologizing profusely on behalf of his ‘cousin’ but we are so offended and enraged we have no choice but to leave. When I stand up, Big Foot has the nerve to say “oh damn, and you’re tall too. I think tall women are sexy”.

WHAT?!?!?! You just called me a sell-out b****. You accused me of thinking I’m better than people. You told me it would never be my world. Most of all, you tried to align me with Condoleezza Rice.

But despite all of that, you still find me attractive. More importantly, you think your compliment is sufficient to override the disrespect you’ve delivered in the past 15 minutes. Hell, you don’t even know you were being disrespectful because like many in the black community, you’ve bought into the discourse of correlating life success with selling out.

Now, I am a firm believer in ‘lifting as we climb’. I don’t believe that once you are successful you should never look back. I know that my success is because of the contribution and influence of many others in my life.

But does having a PhD make me a sell-out to my community? Or is it because I attended an Ivy League institution? Or that my grad school was the top in its field? Or because I now teach at a predominately white college? Or because I live downtown? These can’t be the reasons because he never asked about any of that.

These things are all facts, yes. But they speak nothing about how I work in low income Hispanic and black schools. How I go to families’ homes to help them figure out how to best meet the educational needs of their children. Or how I coach a step team at a mixed race high school in another school district. Or of the mentorship I give friends, parents, and children in the community.

He knew nothing about me but fecrabsinabarrellt justified in condemning my success based on the color of my skin and the letters behind my name. Are those things an oxymoron? Can one not have brown skin and possess an advanced degree? Or is it that I can’t do those things and still be a ‘legitimate’ member of the black community?

When will we stop internalizing the perspectives of the white narrative and begin to write our own story? When will we recognize the difference between selling up and selling out?

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3 comments on “Selling Up vs Selling Out: Narratives of Success in the Black Community

  1. Madame Merle says:

    Class has always been a complicated issue in black America~ from the fact that for most of our history, our identities as people of African descent limited our access to so many areas of American life even when we possessed keys that would have increased our access to certain arenas if those keys (education, relative class status conferred by discretionary income, etc.) to the fact that historically those with relative privilege did believe in “lifting in we climb” and that we had an obligation to represent or “speak for” those who didn’t have the same access and influence that more educated people had. I still remember meeting my first “Philadelphia Negro” when I was in my teens; the light-skinned, Ivy-League educated young woman shocked me by declaring that she didn’t feel that she had anything in common with or any obligation to black people who lived in “the ghetto.” The daughter of a law professor and an artist, I was brought up believe that any black person who thought that scraps of relative class privilege or the possession or more discretionary income than another black person made you special or protected you from being perceived as black in a racist societywas delusional. However, I have noticed that since the 80s (when people actually listened to Ishmael Reed) there seems to be this myth about “educated black women” leaving “the community” behind. I think that it is a misreading of certain statistics about black women’s college participation, for example, and certain fabrications about statistics such as the proportion of black men behind bars. But it sounds as if those two drunks you encountered were simply obnoxious drunks, and I don’t think that they represented any class but that of unattractive drunk men who aren’t able to pick up anyone on a weekend night.

  2. The picture definitely pieces your story together. It’s really unfortunate but yes, some POC do associate success with selling out. However, I feel that it’s due to an internalized sense of inferiority. Buying into a belief that says POC can’t be more than the socially imposed positions we have been forced into historically.

    I can’t help but point out the patriarchy in this story too.

    It seemed to me as if big foot felt inadequate, powerless even. And as a person who has had experience engaging with men who’ve used power and control tactics to commit domestic violence against their partners, one of the “go-to” things some men can do when they feel this way is to lash out and assert some show of “dominance” in an attempt to make themselves feel power-full.

    I saw this in big foot when you wrote about him insulting you, as well as when he tried to display a show of dominance when he repeatedly refused to move. I believe Big foot’s comment about this “always” being an man’s world was also a way for him to establish some sort of power over you in the face of his feelings of inadequacy.

    I know i don’t have to tell you this, but having a PhD doesn’t make you a sell-out, it makes you an asset.

    Thanks for writing,

  3. […] Manya Whitaker, an education professor, regularly offers personal reflections, advice, and critiques on her blog, the other class.  A few examples (of many great, honest posts) […]

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