Fountain: People always ask: ‘Who does he think he is?’

SHARE Fountain: People always ask: ‘Who does he think he is?’

Like the character Django (right) in the film of the same name, writes John Fountain, he has often heard the question, “Who does he think he is.” (AP Photo/The Weinstein Company, Andrew Cooper)

“Who does he think he is?”

It is a question I have overheard my entire career. The “Django” phenomenon — a Negro riding on his high horse.

I stand so accused.

It is the retort of white privilege, expressing shock over the audacity of mere black human chattel to dare challenge the status quo and paradigm of white power structure. To not know one’s place. To think for oneself.


I have witnessed this reaction, brimming like froth atop a hot latte, inside corporate America and also academia. I have felt the burn of hostility, rejection and retaliation. Witnessed the circling of wagons when you — the Negro — are deemed to have violated the unwritten rule of “staying in your place.” Of being seen and not heard.

I have felt the oft subtle and silent cold shoulder of consequence that soon follows the infraction of thinking — and speaking — while black. They brush by you, look the other way — administer the silent treatment.

“Who does he think he is?”

I have been labeled the “malcontent.” Sometimes branded rabble-rouser. The Nat Turner. The ABM (Angry Black Man). The one most likely to stir up rebellion and discontent among the voluntarily enslaved on the corporate plantation. The Colin Kaepernick. (“Why won’t he just stand up?” “Who does he think he is?”)

Can’t you see he is “standing” by kneeling? Damn, damn, damn.

A former black colleague being groomed for national correspondence once told me that he inquired of an editor about my future potential for promotion to the national or foreign desk. “What about John Fountain? …He’s earned it.”

“Not going to happen…” the editor said. “John doesn’t play by the rules.”

What freakin’ rules? The rule of not rocking the boat? The rule that as a black man — no matter how qualified, no matter my position or perspective — I better keep my mouth shut or else run the risk of committing corporate suicide?

What if I deem my newspaper’s coverage of the African-American community to be racist or nonexistent? What if the absence of black reporters on the newspaper’s series about black men or murdered black children is as glaring as the sun? Should I be mum?

Or what if I witness discrimination intended or benign, or the absence of ethnic minorities within American newsrooms, on the newspaper’s masthead, on editorial boards or among assignment editors? Should I say nothing?

And what if, within academia, I plainly see a lack of African-American professors? Or what if I should encounter among black students stories of abhorrent things said to them by certain white professors, or hostilities faced inside and outside the classroom that they perceive to be due to racial discrimination? Should I be tightlipped?

I have the right to remain silent. I know. But what is the point of diversity if we all speak, think, feel, act, believe the same?

Freedom, liberty, justice and equality lie at the core of American institutions. But too often these are mere words. Window dressing. Smoke and mirrors. Maintaining the façade requires unquestioning allegiance to the establishment and status quo rather than to the noble principles of the institution itself.

At a newspaper where I once worked, two black colleagues confided: “John, the way you make it here is to make ‘them’ think you’re an Oreo.” Black on the outside, white on the inside.

That would make me schizophrenic. I know who I am.

I don’t buck dance. I won’t kiss a–.

“Who does he think he is?”

Nobody. Just another N-word. Even after all these years. Even as a tenured full professor.

But at least I know I’m free.


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