Let’s just get this out of the way: pop culture, or at least American pop culture, is black culture. Our dance moves, our slang and vernacular, our fashion, our music, and our hair has shaped decades of American pop culture and to a greater extent, society as a whole. The media loves black people to endorse its products and strengthen their sports teams, but the media will also ostracize black people when they start to advocate for their people.
Colin Kaepernick. Beyoncé. Munroe Bergdorf.
Once Colin Kaepernick took a knee to protest police brutality and America, he faced some of the strongest backlash that we have seen in recent years. Fast forward about a year from that initial kneel, Colin is now unemployed; he was dropped from the San Francisco 49ers. Colin has had his jersey and other merchandise burned throughout the country. Colin Kaepernick never broke a law, he exercised his agency and his first amendment right to make a statement and it cost him his career.
The National Football League, in addition to its numerous faults, makes obscene amounts of money and creates mass entertainment off of black bodies. Some will say that Kaepernick was never a great player, that didn’t matter to the League when they had him as part of a team; clearly, they did not care about his “bad playing” until he started protesting the national anthem.
Colin Kaepernick had every right to protest the national anthem. It has nothing to do with disrespecting the flag or the military; if the flag and the anthem are truly symbols of liberty and justice then how can America explain the prison industrial complex, police brutality, Charlottesville, and gerrymandering? How can America explain electing Donald Trump as president?
On September 23, 2017, Donald Trump called NFL players who protest the anthem “sons of bitches.” The minute Colin Kaepernick, a mixed man, proclaimed his blackness and fought for it, he became the number one public enemy for the media and the White House.
During Super Bowl 50, pop behemoth, Beyoncé, strutted onto to the field in Black Panthers-inspired costume for the live debut of “Formation,” the first song off her sixth studio album, Lemonade. The song and video were released the previous day with lyrics focusing on black female empowerment, while the video featured shots of graffiti that said “stop shooting us” and the drowning of a New Orleans police car.
The retaliation was astounding. After the performance, politician Rudy Giuliani called it “a bunch of noise” and “anti-police.” Fox News pundit, Tomi Lahren, was able to launch her mainstream career off of her attacks on Beyoncé following the performance. The single most beloved pop star of the past two decades, the woman who has reached and maintained her place at the zenith of pop culture was suddenly one of the most hated people on the planet because she unapologetically and boldly embraced her blackness and black womanhood. The police even threatened to boycott her shows on her upcoming world tour.
Obviously, Beyoncé overcame all of this with one of the most impactful albums in music history later that year. The mere fact that so much of this hate towards her still exists in white America is a testament to the power, for better or worse, that blackness has in our society.
Munroe Bergdorf was the first transgender model for L’Oréal, she was later fired for proclaiming that “all white people are racist.” Bergdorf wasn’t wrong. She was explaining that if white people are not actively fighting against the system of white supremacy, they are being complicit in its continued existence and benefitting from the racism the system thrives on.
Makeup companies have struggled for decades with showcasing proper representation in their advertisements, so their decision to use Bergdorf was calculated. She is a person of color and she is transgender; in their minds, they killed two birds with one stone. Bergdorf expertly and proudly articulated her thoughts on white supremacy and instead of being praised for her honesty she had her contract canceled.
L’Oréal was not banking on Bergdorf being that black. She was black enough to sell products and reach their diversity quota, but she became too black when she debated Piers Morgan on white supremacy.
Kaepernick, Beyoncé, and Bergdorf are resilient and inspiring. They didn’t backtrack when the retaliation hit, they doubled down on their messages and fought even harder. Kaepernick inspired thousands of silent protests in the NFL by players and fans; Beyoncé created a scholarship program to send black women to HBCUs; Bergdorf has spoken out even more and got a new contract with a company that truly values her opinion and voice.
Let this be a lesson, if you are proud and loud about your blackness, you will be blacklisted, you will lose opportunities, you will face fate, but keep fighting and pushing because there is always something greater at the end.