"New Black" Is The New Black

Pharrell Williams and Daft Punk (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Pharrell Williams and Daft Punk (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

This level of awareness isn’t inherently negative. The process of thinking about Blackness doesn't make you love it any less. Sometimes, it makes you love it more. And, as The Blackest Names tournament proves, it can be fun. But, an existence in and navigation of a place where you’re perpetually forced to examine how your racial identity affects you can be exhausting. So exhausting that, for many of us, our personal interests, ambitions, and aspirations are directly tied to being able to escape it. Again, I’m not referring to an escape from being Black, from Black people, and even from Black culture. Rather, an escape from the ever-lasting hyper-consciousness, the feeling that your Blackness will always matter.

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So how do you escape? You accomplish enough that you’re able to control more of your destiny. You achieve enough that you give yourself more choices. More opportunity. More access. You attempt to attend — and enroll your children in — the best schools. You travel as much as you possibly can. You scour the earth for education and enrichment, because continued education and sustained enrichment often leads to increased earning potential, and increased earning potential leads to more choices, and more choices leads to the type of freedom where that hyper-consciousness isn’t as necessary.

Of course this is all a mirage. Even those who've seemed to have accomplished enough that their Blackness doesn’t matter as much anymore get sent back to Earth. Paul Mooney calls this the “nigga wake up call.” Oprah's had one. Dr. Gates too. But it doesn’t stop us from trying.

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No one — well, no celebrity — embodies this effort more than Pharrell Williams. Between the G I R L cover color controversy and his remarks about the "new Black," Williams seems intent on being the executive producer for America's post-racial mixtape. And aaturally, this new Blackness went over about as well as a fart in a shared cubicle.

A common thread of the criticisms Pharrell has received for these acts deal with the concept of privilege. He’s so rich and successful that he’s removed from the types of thoughts and conversations regular Black people have about race. He doesn’t think about it with the same complexity and level of context we do because, well, he doesn't have to. At least, he doesn't think he has to. Similar criticisms have been directed at Kanye West. And Jaden and Willow Smith. And any other prominent Black person who speaks and/or acts in a way that suggests they see race in a post-racial, Benetton mannequin, Star Trek-ish light.

Although mostly valid, these types of criticisms reveal an incongruence with the aspiration to be free from that racial hyper-consciousness. We (and yes, “we” includes “me”) want to exist in a space where race doesn’t matter the same way it currently does. The best way to currently do that is to achieve at a high enough level that you’re able to have more choices, more access, more flexibility, more status, and more freedom. It’s not a foolproof plan. But it’s the best one we have.

But, when someone is fortunate enough to be able to eschew that hyper-consciousness, to get to a place where they’re able to sincerely believe race doesn’t matter as much as we say it does, they’re met with cynicism. It’s us dreaming about unicorns — and doing everything in our power to be approved for a short-term lease agreement for one — but saying “Unicorns don’t fucking exist” when someone finally says “Hey! Come to my house. I have a family of unicorns in my backyard!”

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It’s tempting to attribute this disconnect to our own naivety. And a bit of jealousy. We deny the validity of those “evolved” racial thoughts because the people possessing them are at a place where they’re able to conceive them. While we’re bogged down in day-to-day racial minutiae, Pharrell is on beaches with blue sand eating omelets made from velociraptor eggs. His thoughts are clear. His mind is free.

But, I think its something else. I think it’s a realization of our own futility. We know we’re wanting, wishing, and working for a freedom that doesn’t currently exist. Not for me. Not for Pharrell. Not for President Obama. Not for anybody.

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Which kinda sucks. Because I really do want to ride a unicorn.

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, and the author of What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker (Ecco/HarperCollins)

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DISCUSSION

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NomadaNare

Champ I really appreciate your take on this issue, but I think you missed some of the nuance in criticism of Pharrell. The issue that most critical people have with him is not jealousy of his Unicorn status (to use your metaphor), nor is it realization of futility in gaining said status. We can all get that if we choose and on our own terms. The issue is that by defining "new black" as he does, he implicitly gives whiteness and the kyriarchy a pass for historically and presently being awful to everyone not white, male, christian, and straight while being in complete self denial about it. It wouldn't be a problem if it weren't so self-serving; whiteness needs affluent blacks to give it a pass in order to exist, and Pharrell basically throws his own people under the bus for limited access to whiteness, the kyriarchy, and its trappings. Who knew his humanity was worth so little?