Common, Pharrell, and ‘The New Black’: An Ignorant Mentality That Undermines the Black Experience
The rapper Common made waves during a recent appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart when he offered his take on race in America. It isn’t nearly so simple.
“The New Black doesn’t blame other races for our issues.”
So decreed Pharrell Williams when the hit-making superstar spoke to Oprah last summer about the current racial climate in America. In the months following the release of Pharrell’s sugary soul-pop hit “Happy,” the country struggled through a summer that saw a string of high-profile cases involving police killing innocent black citizens. But while speaking to Oprah, and having watched clips of fans paying tribute to his uber-cheerful single, Pharrell decided to advertise a “new” mindset for black people to adopt—one of good ol’ positive thinking.
“The New Black dreams and realizes that it’s not 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 going to be on,” Pharrell said.
His words were laughably empty and insulting to the current climate, the history of black ambition in the face of tremendous cultural oppression, and the reality of institutional racism; but they also represented a vocal cadre of black celebritydom that is calling for the black community to basically “get over it.” With the racial conversation in the national spotlight, stars like Williams, Kanye West, and others aren’t addressing racism in as much as they are deflecting the conversation.
Rapper/actor Common appeared on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart last week to promote his new film Run All Night. Alongside singer-songwriter John Legend, the Chicago rhymer won an Oscar in February for “Glory,” the theme song from the Martin Luther King biopic Selma. While discussing the legacy of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement and the current tensions, Stewart expressed what he’s seen from white people who are resistant to discussing structural racism.
“There’s a real vein of anger, like ‘Hey, man—I didn’t have slaves!’” Stewart stated. “But they’re not talking about that, they’re talking about a power structure.”
Common, while not countering Stewart’s statement, offered his perspective on the way to heal wounds that have existed on American soil for centuries.
“We all know there’s been some bad history in our country. We know that racism exists,” the star conceded, before adding, “I’m…extending a hand. And I think a lot of generations and different cultures are saying ‘Hey, we want to get past this. We’ve been bullied and we’ve been beat down, but we don’t want it anymore. We’re not extending a fist and saying, ‘Hey, you did us wrong.’ It’s more like ‘Hey, I’m extending my hand in love. Let’s forget about the past as much as we can, and let’s move from where we are now. How can we help each other? Can you try to help us because we’re going to help ourselves, too.’ That’s really where we are right now.”
“Me as a black man, I’m not sitting there like, ‘White people—y’all did us wrong,’” Common continued. “I mean we know that that existed. I don’t even have to keep bringing that up. It’s like being in a relationship and continuing to bring up the person’s issues.”
Throughout the interview, Common continued to liken American race relations to a difficult romantic relationship (“Let’s get past this”) while echoing comments he’s made both during his Oscar speech in February and in recent interviews. Common wants us all to love each other. His Oscar speech was a sentimental bear hug, the kind of expression of superficial “unity” that tugs at the heartstrings without forcing anyone to think deeper about the specifics of conflict. While turning the Edmond Pettis Bridge—where people marching for the right to vote were beaten by officers of the state—into a symbol for this “unity,” his sentimentality is an easy pill for the Oscar crowd to swallow. “The spirit of this bridge transcends race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and social status. The spirit of this bridge connects the kid from the South Side of Chicago dreaming of a better life to those in France standing up for their freedom of expression, to the people in Hong Kong protesting for democracy,” Common said at the Oscars.
Also this week, actress Raven-Symone found herself in the midst of another controversy after she defended the racist remarks Univision host Rodner Figueroa made about Michelle Obama. Figueroa was dismissed from his position on El Gordo y la Flaca following the comment and the ensuing fallout, but when the subject came up on The View, Symone was dismissive of the racial implications.
Co-host Rosie Perez blasted Figueroa for his comments, and went on to address racism in the Latino community.
“There is a secret in the Latin community—specifically the Caribbean, Central American Latin community—they are very racist,” said the Puerto Rican actress. “They never want to be in the same group as black people. And it’s sad. It’s very, very sad. And he did say that Michelle Obama looked like a cast member of Planet of the Apes.”
Symone objected, however.
“Was he saying it racist-like?” she asked. “He said he voted for her later, and I don’t think he was saying it racist.”
“This is a problem in the Latin community. We do not talk about that,” Perez stated, emphasizing her disgust that a racist joke would be made about the First Lady of the United States.
But Symone defended her position.
“Not Michelle Obama—Michelle, don’t fire me for this, but—some people look like animals. Is that rude?” she cracked. “I look like a bird… so can I be mad at somebody that calls me ‘Toucan Sam’?”
The former Disney starlet is guest-starring on hit shows like Empire and black-ish, and she came under fire in 2014 after she announced that she prefers not to think of herself as an African American, but as simply an American.
“I don't want to be labeled gay, I want to be labeled a human who loves humans,” Symone told Oprah last fall. “I’m tired of being labeled. I’m an American. I'm not an African American. I’m an American.
“I don’t know where my roots go to. I don’t know how far back they go... I don’t know what country in Africa I’m from,” she continued. “But I do know that my roots are in Louisiana. I’m an American. That’s a colorless person. We’re all people. I have lots of things running through my veins. I have darker skin. I have a nice, interesting grade of hair. I can connect with Caucasian, I connect with Asian, I connect with black, I connect with Indian. I connect with each culture.”
The idea that black people’s reaction to racism—and not the racism itself—is what must be addressed is an effective distraction that decenters the struggle of black people. It centers the comfort of white people, absolving white supremacy and indicting black rage as “the problem.”
Celebrities like Common and Raven-Symone are but ambassadors of the growing New Black culture that Pharrell became the unwitting poster child for in his now-infamous Oprah interview. “Upward mobility,” sayeth the New Black, “that is the promise of America and because I have achieved—you can, too.” They conveniently romanticize their climb to wherever they are in their lives and careers, telling themselves that they got there via personal drive and ambition that is unique to them. But structural obstacles kept most of their peers stagnant in socio-economic standing; these stars achieved in spite of racism—not because it doesn’t exist. So it is dangerous to put the onus on the oppressed people, as if you believe no one cared to climb the ladder until you came along. Poor public schools and overpriced housing mean that things aren’t really designed for you and your peers to “make it out.” You can’t be “exceptional” without being an exception.
The New Black perspective sounds like an old black pathology. Exceptionalism and respectability have never saved us from the oppressive weight of racism. We’ve always achieved greatness in a country that doesn’t see value in blackness beyond a commodity; maintained dignity in a land that has consistently dehumanized and stigmatized who we are. White supremacy often insists that black people prove themselves exceptional just to share a table with white mediocrity. It is not for black people to extend a hand; it is for the privileged and the powerful to remove their boot from the community’s collective neck. These celebrities seem to be disconnected from the pulse and spirit of many of their peers, but their voices resonate far and wide in pop culture. And more black celebrities should take the struggles of the community at least seriously enough to not offer condescension, rhetoric, and smug dismissals when confronted with the realities of race and racism. Those with the biggest pulpits can’t continue to preach the gospel of positivity, condescension, and denial. It was deflecting when Bill Cosby gave his infamous “Pound Cake speech” in 2004 and it’s deflecting now. It’s an old routine.
When you think about it, there isn’t much “new” about New Blacks at all.