What does it mean to be a sellout? Most of us grew up on this term, but I would be willing to bet that most of us don’t know what the word actually means. Back in the 1980s, the term “sellout” applied to someone who was all too quick to give up his blackness in exchange for a seat at the white man’s table. It could also relate to someone willing to do nearly anything to earn a buck.
Obviously, being a sellout means that you’ve sold something. But that’s not an entirely accurate definition, since we all sell something at some point. Most of us have been in situations where we wanted to take a stand on an issue, but simply decided to choose our battles in order to protect our opportunities. That doesn’t necessarily make you weak, but there is a thin line between selling something and selling out completely.
So, perhaps the term “sellout” means selling something of tremendous value in exchange for greater opportunity or financial prosperity. Can we agree on this definition? Good, now lets’ get to the nitty-gritty.
There was a time when an athlete, politician or celebrity was ridiculed for selling his/her soul for money. While we’ve always needed money to survive, there was always a set of standards and expectations to ensure that the individual didn’t compromise his integrity during his climb up the ladder of power and success. We expected that a commitment to the community would certainly supersede almost anything else.
The 1980s changed all that. Great individuals like Harry Edwards (who led the Olympic Protest of 1968) toned down his message and began making gobs of cash from corporate America. Rather than having athletes like Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown, who took a stand on important social issues, we got men like Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan, apolitical corporate puppets who take almost no public position on any important cause.
Selling out has become en vogue, and the trend is only going to continue. We’ve decided that Bob Johnson having a billion dollars is more important than the fact that he nearly ruined an entire generation of young people in order to earn it. This is a sad day for our country and an especially sad time for black America. In our quest to obtain what we want, we became all too quick to throw away everything that we need.
But watching others sell themselves doesn’t mean we all have to commit to this trend. I encourage anyone reading to search their own soul and not be afraid to do what’s right. Bob Johnson could have been incredibly wealthy while still keeping his integrity. If Michael Jordan were to take a stand on an issue affecting black men, he’d still have a few hundred million dollars in the bank. The decision does not have to be dichotomous, since selling out is a continuum: a person can become incredibly wealthy and still maintain his principles. It’s time to reconsider our paradigm, since massive wealth means nothing if your impact on the world has been negligible.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition and the initiator of the National Conversation on Race. He is also the author of the book, “Black American Money.” For more information, please visit BoyceWatkins.com.