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.