What it Means to be Called a Sellout

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

What do Barack Obama, Condoleezza Rice, Bill Cosby, Oprah, Michael Jackson, and Michael Jordan have in common? At some point, they've all been labeled a sellout — to their race. Another person who knows what it's like to be called a sellout is Randall Kennedy, and he takes up the topic in his latest book, Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal:

A "sellout" is a person who betrays something to which she is said to owe allegiance. When used in a racial context among African Americans, "sellout" is a disparaging term that refers to blacks who knowingly or with gross negligence act against the interest of blacks as a whole.

Perhaps surprisingly, Kennedy defends the existence of the "sellout" label, though with such a narrow definition that few — if any — people meet the criteria. Have you ever been accused of being a sellout? Is it something you worry about?

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I am a 28 yr old African American engineer and my husband, who is also African American, is an engineer. We have both been called a "sellout. We've been called a "sellout" not because of our accomplishments, but by some family members or people who wanted things from us and we would not obliged. Being called a "sellout" is not something to worry about, especially when it has no merit.

Sent by Jessica Thompson | 2:13 PM | 2-7-2008

Though I am not black, there are certain elements of this conversation that spans social groups. For example, I grew up in a very small SW Missouri town and went away to college. I now have a Ph.D. and am viewed in a far different light in my former community. In this small community there certainly is a distrust of "book learnin'" as opposed to "common sense." In a way, I am now viewed as a dilettante who does no real work.

Sent by Paul Thomas | 3:33 PM | 2-7-2008

If the cap fit let him wear it as they say. Some blacks earn that title by doing like the Jeffersons and moving up or out from the places that they once called home instead of trying to make those places better. White people make their areas better by tearing down the old and building something new but Blacks tend to leave and move to the places that the whites have made for themselves and when they do that look what you have left. Blacks can be smart and speak well and not be a "sellout". I don't think that anyone would call Cornell West one.

Sent by Nick | 3:35 PM | 2-7-2008

Anyone, regardless of ethnicity who promotes an in/out group mentality is a sellout to the human race. We are all Humans! Your skin, religion, or ideology have nothing to do with your Race. There is only one race, human. Those who insist on raising their children with the idea that they are different because of their skin color are the true sellouts to the human race.

Sent by Bill | 3:41 PM | 2-7-2008

I am an engineer who was born and raised in africa. Most if not all my friends are (US)college educated. I have never been called a sell out nor have I met anyone who has been called a sellout. I wonder if I am not fully intergrated with the 'black community' whatever that is, in order to have the opportunity to be called a sellout.
I have not met an individual or a group of individuals with the authority/relevance to label 'sellouts'.
I honestly have a hard time understanding how someone gets labeled a sellout.

Sent by KK | 3:44 PM | 2-7-2008

I've already read the book, which contains an interesting argument about the ethics of "outing" a "passer" (someone who is known to be passing for white). Although Prof. Kennedy generally believes, as I do, in the right of an individual to "enter and exit racial categories at their own choosing," he does describe certain circumstances in which he believes that outing someone would be justifiable.

The most famous outing I know of, albeit posthumously and after notifying the family, would be Henry Louis Gates's "White Like Me: The Passing of Anatole Broyard," which appeared in the New Yorker in 1996, and is described in a recent book, "One Drop: My Father's Hidden Life" by Bliss Broyard.

Unless I'm misreading the book, I don't believe that the Gates outing of Broyard is justified under Prof. Kennedy's exceptions, and I also think there are already enough psychic constraints on writers of color in that using a someone as talented as Broyard, as happened on last night's African American Lives 2, as an object lesson in estrangement from group identity, if not outright racial betrayal, is very destructive.

I also think that racial betrayal is the tacit accusation at the heart of what I consider Arnold Rampersad's extremely trivial biography of American literary giant, Ralph Ellison.

Sent by Mike | 9:38 PM | 2-7-2008

This is to the caller Angela. You do speak properly and it's hot.

Don't let anyone put you down for being educated. If education were pushed, shaped, and emphasized more in this country, a lot of our problems would finally get resolved. Thank you for making the decision to think about our world.

Sent by Joe Szymczak | 11:18 AM | 2-8-2008

I see Obama as the anti-Anatole Broyard. Broyard is condemned for moving from "black" (actually Creole) to white and Obama is praised for moving from white/non-black to "black."

Obama's phenotype is considered reason enough for him to be "black" but Broyard's European phenotype is dismissed with contempt by blacks and liberals who claim he was only "passing for white." Hell, by the same standards, isn't Obama passing for black? Why is Broyard's whiteness questioned and condemned while Obama's claim to blackness is praised to the skies?

Broyard is condemned as immoral for rejecting the "colored" (erroneously described as black racial/ethnic) legal status of his parents and sisters while Obama is praised for considering himself racially and ethnically different from the biological mother and maternal grandparents who raised him.

Does anyone else see a double standard here? A black identity is defined as moral and a white identity immoral.

Sent by lloyd1927 | 3:39 PM | 2-8-2008

The view held by some African Americans that Barrack or others are not black enough or are sellouts is blatant racism and xenophobia by African Americans. The only conclusion that can be drawn from people who hold this view is that Barrack and others are acting too white and apparently they feel there is something wrong with that, hence racism. The viewpoint of your guest is incredibly sugarcoated as is the media on this subject. In the medias' eyes minorities are repeatedly given a free pass at racism.

Sent by Scott | 2:50 PM | 2-11-2008

I'm from india, and it's in my very DNA makeup. My wife, anglo-indian and my kids are no longer recognizable to me. Their language, their total personas are completely American. "Awesome", "Cool" Bummed out" and the list goes on. It's sad for me, being a purist, to have no real connection with them. I am a dinosaur to them.

Sent by Ivan Bawa | 4:58 PM | 2-12-2008