The Raven Complex: Understanding New Black Mentality

Since the end of last year, the term “New Black” has become used more and more frequently. The term was coined after Pharrell Williams stated “the New Black doesn’t blame other races for our issues. [He/she] dreams and realizes that it’s not a pigmentation; it’s a mentality.” Since then, a number of black celebrities followed suit with similar remarks. Raven Symone most notably stated that she no longer wanted to be identified as African American in an Oprah interview and even Common making questionable statements on how black people loving white people is the cure to racism.

I particularly pick on Raven in this article because although Pharrell coined the term, she has become the New Black poster child by defending racist statement after racist statement, defending Bill Cosby after the rape allegations came out, and even bizarrely declaring that she’s from every continent in Africa except one.

Certainly, there has been a lot of backlash in the form of tweets and thinkpieces written by other black people in response to this mentality. While I myself have been very critical of New Blacks, the truth is that thinking about them also makes me feel slightly embarrassed, because I myself was once one and can therefore understand the mentality

But first, what is the New Black mentality?

The New Black Mentality is essentially what happens when black people buy into colourblindness and believe that institutional racism is a thing of the past. They think that continuing to believe that racism exists is holding the black community back and that upward mobility is a quick fix solution to the residual effects of white supremacist systems such as Apartheid or the Jim Crow Era.

This is a mentality that completely ignores the lived realities of many black people. It ignores the existence of power dynamics, white privilege, and even class privilege to a degree as, in my experiences, those who embody the New Black mentality are often middle class or higher. Most disturbingly, the New Black mentality blames black people for feeling offended by, or for even having experiences of racism. It portrays black people who speak about racism as reactionaries who are blaming personal failures on an outside force. In reality, racism is still prevalent in South African society, and the New Black mentality is one that simply ignores current racial disparities for a kumbaya approach that blames black people for still being economically and socially disadvantaged by claiming that racial disadvantage no longer exists.

The New Black mentality is one that is infuriating to deal with. And while I could never condone it, I cannot pretend that I don’t understand why it is an easy trap to fall into. I grew up in a position of immense class privilege. I attended one of the most expensive private schools in the country and this was the period where my New Black attitude truly set in. I acknowledged the fact that the majority of black people in the country were economically disadvantaged and that the common narrative was that this was due to the inequalities set in place by the Apartheid regime.

However, in my mind, Apartheid was over. To keep blaming black people’s societal disadvantage on a regime that technically ended in 1994 didn’t make sense to me. The fact that my father had achieved phenomenal success despite growing up as a black man under the Apartheid regime himself solidified for the 14 year old me that Apartheid was no longer a valid excuse, and that black people who were holding on to it did so because they needed to blame their own shortcomings on something other than themselves.

In my mind, racism was violent. It was white people shouting racial slurs at me. It was enforced segregation. It was laws preventing me from having the same rights as white people. I never personally experienced any of those things. I had white friends, my white teachers never treated me differently as far as I could tell, and I did not yet understand that the microaggressions I experienced on a daily basis, the forced assimilation into English culture, and the respectability politics pervasive at my school were acts of racism in and of themselves. Whenever I did hear of or see acts of racism I believed that they were isolated incidences and that those who held those beliefs would soon die out. I believed that racism was over, or at least dying with the older generation, and that if you simply worked hard and behaved in a “civilised” manner then you would transcend whatever residual effects of our past remained.

Then, in matric, I began reading up on racial theory, educated myself more on my country’s current social, economic, and political situation, woke the hell up, and began envisioning ways to teleport myself into the past so I could give the 14 year old me a good slap.

When I thought about my past self and the beliefs I held, I began to realise why I thought the way I did. Acknowledging the existence of racism is a painful experience. It is painful to acknowledge that you and others like you will be treated differently because of the colour of your skin. It is painful to acknowledge that once you enter the working world, it is likely you’ll have to work harder than your white peers just to be taken seriously, or that you are more likely to be seen as a criminal by both the police and shop owners, or even to acknowledge that, except in severe cases, racist actions against you are likely to go unpunished. It is far easier to believe that these are battles that were already fought and won by your parents and not battles that you will likely have to face in your own life.

It is far too easy to look at your white friends and your class privilege and think that racism is over, and merely the act of recognizing that there is still more work to be done to eradicate racism is exhausting. But it is necessary. Perhaps that is why we get so frustrated at people like Raven who insist on remaining ignorant. The one thing that I’ve learned when it comes to New Blacks is that you cannot force them to wake up, it’s something they need to do on their own.

So maybe one day, Raven and every other New Black will wake up. Maybe they won’t. But while it is important to continue critiquing the New Black mentality, we cannot allow criticising that to take up too much important space and energy.

Confessions of a “Coconut”

One of the most serious questions I have had to grapple with over the years is the question of who I am. Since I was very young, one of the main labels that I have used to describe myself is: black. Like most, I did not choose to be black. My blackness is something that I realised at a young age when I began to realise that having my colour skin meant that there were certain things that I could not do and certain things that I was expected to do.

In other words, “black” was an identity that was thrust on me at an age where I was too young to know what it meant and I was left to navigate the terms and conditions of that on my own. It is also quite interesting that as a middle class black girl who did not speak an African language, “black” was a label that people were as eager to thrust on me as they were to take away from me.

Coconut is a word I heard often. The fact that I spoke English, only English, with a “white” accent meant that in the eyes of many I was and still am automatically disqualified from the title of being “truly black”. I grew up in white suburbs, attended white schools, and when I entered black spaces there was a distinct, uncomfortable feeling that I did not truly belong there. Yet, I did not truly belong in the very same white spaces I navigated in that rejected blackness and accepted black people who were as close to whiteness as possible but did not truly welcome them. I therefore fit the definition of a coconut. Black on the outside but on the inside something close-ish to whiteness but not quite there either.

At the same time, I was frequently, and sometimes violently reminded that I was black. I was reminded that I was black every time I opened a book or watched television and few to none of the heroes and desirable people ever looked like me. I was reminded I was black when I was followed around in stores. When my school declared that my natural hair was against school rules and that I needed to braid it or relax it. When my white friends would put on a racist “funny” blaccent whenever they were pretending to be poor or stupid as a joke. When a little white boy in my Grade 3 class told me that black people are lazy and stupid. When I saw or heard people saying over and over again that my people were inherently stupid, inferior, and barbaric and would have never amounted to anything had it not been for the White Man.

And most ironically, I was reminded I was black by the very same people who called me coconut, always with a condescending smirk, who  believed that they needed to put me “in my place” by reminding me that I wasn’t what they thought I desperately wished I was: white.

And that’s the thing. I have never for a second forgotten that I’m black. I live in a world that would never allow me to. But at the same time, my blackness is something that I have navigated and reinterpreted throughout my life. It’s an identity that I have come to reclaim as my own. I spent a few embarrassing years trying to act according to black stereotypes in order to be seen as truly black, and I have come to realize that blackness isn’t a set of characteristics and stereotypes. It is rather a mentality that opposes institutional racism and the imposition of whiteness. It is a rejection of the oppressive narratives and the destructive and degrading stereotypes dictating what it means to be black. And it is so much more than that. At least, that’s what it means to me.

As a result, I’ve reached a point where I no longer care if I am called a coconut.