Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Allure of Pharrell's "New Black" But Why It's Dangerous

Recently, recording artist Pharrell Williams claimed that he is a "new black." He defines "New Black" as somebody who "doesn't blame other races for our issues. The "new black" dreams and realizes that it's not a pigmentation; it's a mentality. And it's either going to work for you, or it's going to work against you. And you've got to pick the side you're gonna be on."

We've got to pick the side we want to be on! We can either have a victim complex or we can be a "New Black" and usher ourselves into the post-racial world waiting at our fingertips! In either case it's our choice whether or not we're going to be oppressed on account of being Black.

And there is a certain allure to being a "New Black," or at least believing yourself to be one. Of course, being a "New Black" is in actuality not a possibility. Racism will not cease to exist as long as an individual Black person decides to believe that it doesn't exist.

Historically speaking, we see this mentality time and time again within the Black American community. Perhaps it's origin is Booker T. Washington's Bootstrap Theory. But it all comes down to the notion that racism is not institutional or systematic. It is not pervasive. And it is not limiting. Rather, it is a negligible and passive force that is more theoretical than material.

In Pharrell's world racism is a racial slur. A mean look. The store clerk following you around their store. It is clutching one's purse closer when they see you. It's little inconveniences. But it's not life altering... it's not pervasive... and it is certainly not anything that a little ambition and grit can't solve!

And although I would personally argue that even micro-aggressions are psychologically and physically harmful to their victim... racism is MORE than micro-aggressions. It is more than hurt feelings or simply being told to limit yourself. Racism means real material disadvantages.

Many writers have commented on the trend of wealthy Black people denying the importance of racism. And how it makes sense for them in some small and selfish sense because they've "made it." Often due to tokenization and always on the backs of the remainder of their community. But they have made it regardless.

There is more money to be made in pretending that racism is not a thing than there is in being any kind of activist. And the bottom-line is that it's all about the money.

However, wealthy and famous Black folks aren't the only ones who hold bootstrap ideology close to their hearts. These are regularly held conversations by very regular and normal non-rich Black people. And it's easy to say that they're silly and the "New Black" idea and others like it have no use for them since unlike Pharrell they can't buy themselves out of any facet of racism. But there has to be a reason why bootstrap ideology has been a persistent line of thinking for Black people all throughout American history.

We like to believe we have more power than we actually do.

It is dis-empowering to admit that racism impacts us. It is dis-empowering to admit that we are limited by white supremacy. That our life chances are constricted by the pervasiveness of racism. And that we can be the hardest working person who does everything correctly and systematically and still face barriers.

We can have the best resume and still not get the job. We can dress in a suit or dress and still be deemed not professional enough. We can jump through every hoop and still be dehumanized and treated as a second class citizen.

This realization leads to a sort of heart-brokenness that many Black folks are not willing to face. The Pharrell's of the world are certainly not ready. But neither are Black folks in the trenches. Those Black people who are not wealthy or famous. It's not that any of us truly believe in the existence of a meritocracy since our first hand experiences teach us differently from birth. It is the fact that we can hardly afford not to believe.

We are afraid that it will be paralyzing to lose all of our belief in a meritocracy, to fully understand the consequences of white supremacy. This is the fundamental fear that drives "New Black."

It is all well and good for Pharrell Williams and his less wealthy and famous Black counterparts to claim that they're a "New Black" and not limited by the racism which truly exists. But it's not realistic. It's not logical.

A meritocracy, on a broad sense, does not exist. And although this is earth-shattering for those who have never truly considered this, it is necessary in order to learn how to effectively navigate life.

So then besides a willful ignorance, I see a determination to not truly grapple with what might be too saddening to deal with. A sort of denial that functions as self-protection.

And while it may provide a momentary recluse from feelings of hopelessness and despair at the state of white supremacy in this country, it is not sustainable. It does not prepare us to do the difficult work of dismantling oppressive systems. It does not prepare us to make our situation better. It just helps us keep things as is.

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  1. Had to delete the first comment but I was just saying that I was listening to a lecture by Zaza Ali and your name came up. Thought I'd stop by and I like what I hear. As a black man I want to hear the opinions from a black woman who is not trying to slam black men so I will be subscribing to your blog.

    As far as Pharrell is concerned, I love his music but I am not buying into this "new black" rubbish that he is talking about but to be honest I don't think he is either, he is just doing what he is being told by his "masters".

    1. Thanks for the comment! If you don't mind: what lecture were you listening to by Zaza Ali? I haven't heard of them.

  2. Prof Griff and Zaza Ali discuss "THE NEW BLACK" Pharrell Williams & Post-Racial America

  3. I found out about you the same way! Love your comments

  4. I found you from Zaza Ali and Professor Griff as well. They keep thier ear to the ground !