Yes, wealthy black Americans experience racism and get to protest. Here's why.

We shouldn't even have to talk about this, but here we are.

Colin Kaepernick last played for the San Francisco 49ers. Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images.

Colin Kaepernick, still unemployed and blacklisted by the NFL, has received a range of critiques from sports pundits, Twitter users, and the NFL audience for using his platform as a famous athlete to speak out against police brutality.

There is a problematic line of thought that continues to resurface in these conversations: Black Americans who are wealthy or noted intellects — so-called "privileged" black Americans — have no business talking about the reality of race.

It's a familiar critique. When Beyoncé used her Super Bowl 50 performance to pay homage to the Black Panthers, critics went wild. Not only did they inaccurately equate the Black Panthers to a terrorist group, they couldn’t fathom how a wealthy black woman could feel the need, much less have the desire, to comment on racist practices through art.  


Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images.

Often criticized for not speaking more directly about race, President Barack Obama also faced an insurmountable amount of racist attacks and vitriol in office. Yet, when he did speak on fraught relationship between law enforcement and the communities they serve, pundits lashed out him for "dividing the nation."

Photo by Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images.

The idea that a black person gaining privilege means they then relinquish First Amendment rights is a racist, dangerous fallacy. And it's about as un-American as it gets.  

Acquiring wealth, becoming educated, or reaching a higher societal class should not require black people to abdicate their right to speak about their experiences and to speak for disenfranchised communities.  

Conflating prosperity with freedom is not only false, it indicates that laws that give Americans freedom of speech — and the right to protest — only apply to certain groups. When we do that, we invoke classism, racism, and silence marginalized voices. Black people from all groups — wealthy or poor, famous or unknown, young or senior — have all been criticized at various points in history for speaking on injustice and black experiences. Perhaps it’s not the status that bothers these pundits, but rather the skin tone of those speaking out and their audacity to do so unapologetically.  

The nation’s history with attacking privileged advocates for justice is lengthy.

Booker T. Washington, a black scholar and leader, spent his life fighting racism and injustice and working to change a lynch-hungry South. He died with more than $1.5 million in his estate and used his finances to fight inequality and increase educational opportunities for black America. Madam C.J. Walker became more vocal about race and injustice as her wealth grew and she raised money for organizations like the YMCA and the NAACP’s anti-lynching campaign. Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the most educated, well-known leaders of our time, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, a globally known pastor, and was assassinated at 39. Oprah, one of the wealthiest women in recent history, wasn’t able to buy a handbag in Switzerland because the shop owner thought she couldn’t afford it. Despite this experience and others like it, she has worked tirelessly to amplify the work of black film directors, writers, and artists.  

Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images.

Upper-class black Americans experience racism and inequality regularly.

Their privilege does not eliminate that experience. In using their platforms, well-known voices have the power to do meaningful acts in struggling communities and to be role models for young activists, writers, and thinkers.  

By allowing black leaders to be human and to speak out against injustice, we make space for people who regularly experience racist practices and injustices and may not have the funds to create an organization or the access to education usually required to hold office. We give a voice to the women who were sexually assaulted or raped by a police officer and weren’t believed until years later. We give a voice and value to the professor stopped on the way home for being a black male in the "wrong" neighborhood. We give a voice and value to the countless number of black teens followed around in stores in malls because they’re immediately seen as threats or as humans that need to be disciplined because of their skin.

Black people have a right to practice their American freedoms. It's time America listens to them.

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Disney has come under fire for problematic portrayals of non-white and non-western cultures in many of its older movies. They aren't the only one, of course, but since their movies are an iconic part of most American kids' childhoods, Disney's messaging holds a lot of power.

Fortunately, that power can be used for good, and Disney can serve as an example to other companies if they learn from their mistakes, account for their misdeeds, and do the right thing going forward. Without getting too many hopes up, it appears that the entertainment giant may have actually done just that with the new Frozen II film.

According to NOW Toronto, the producers of Frozen II have entered into a contract with the Sámi people—the Indigenous people of the Scandinavian regions—to ensure that they portray the culture with respect.

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Though there was not a direct portrayal of the Sámi in the first Frozen movie, the choral chant that opens the film was inspired by an ancient Sámi vocal tradition. In addition, the clothing worn by Kristoff closely resembled what a Sámi reindeer herder would wear. The inclusion of these elements of Sámi culture with no context or acknowledgement sparked conversations about cultural appropriation and erasure on social media.

Frozen II features Indigenous culture much more directly, and even addressed the issue of Indigenous erasure. Filmmakers Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, along with producer Peter Del Vecho, consulted with experts on how to do that respectfully—the experts, of course, being the Sámi people themselves.

Sámi leaders met with Disney producer Peter Del Vecho in September 2019.Sámediggi Sametinget/Flickr

The Sámi parliaments of Norway, Sweden and Finland, and the non-governmental Saami Council reached out to the filmmakers when they found out their culture would be highlighted in the film. They formed a Sámi expert advisory group, called Verddet, to assist filmmakers in with how to accurately and respectfully portray Sámi culture, history, and society.

In a contract signed by Walt Disney Animation Studios and Sámi leaders, the Sámi stated their position that "their collective and individual culture, including aesthetic elements, music, language, stories, histories, and other traditional cultural expressions are property that belong to the Sámi," and "that to adequately respect the rights that the Sámi have to and in their culture, it is necessary to ensure sensitivity, allow for free, prior, and informed consent, and ensure that adequate benefit sharing is employed."

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Disney agreed to work with the advisory group, to produce a version of Frozen II in one Sámi language, as well as to "pursue cross-learning opportunities" and "arrange for contributions back to the Sámi society."

Anne Lájla Utsi, managing director at the International Sámi Film Institute, was part of the Verddet advisory group. She told NOW, "This is a good example of how a big, international company like Disney acknowledges the fact that we own our own culture and stories. It hasn't happened before."

"Disney's team really wanted to make it right," said Utsi. "They didn't want to make any mistakes or hurt anybody. We felt that they took it seriously. And the film shows that. We in Verddet are truly proud of this collaboration."

Sounds like you've done well this time, Disney. Let's hope such cultural sensitivity and collaboration continues, and that other filmmakers and production companies will follow suit.

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