Pharrell Williams’ comments in a recent interview with Oprah Winfrey, in which he seemed to embrace the familiar suggestion that racism can be overcome by a change in attitude, didn’t go over well with many folks.
Here’s what the artist and producer had to say:
The “new black” 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.
It’s not clear what “it” is or who exactly gets to be “the new black,” but the vague nature of the declaration wasn’t all that bothered many of those who heard it.
As Ebony’s Michael Arceneaux put it in a status posted to his personal Facebook page:
Y’know, I’m tired of these rich, disconnected Black men (this means you, Kanye West) denying the lingering prevalence of racism to the amusement of whites whose attention they so desperately covet. I wish celebrities’ opinions didn’t matter so much, but they do frame the culture & Pharrell’s bulls—t is poison. Structural racism is real, struggle vocals and the mix and matching of refrigerator wisdom over an uplifting beat be damned. In sum, Pharrell, grow up, or at the very least, shut up and “sing.”
When it comes to what black people do or should do, Pharrell has a right, every right, to voice his opinion—just like you, me, the cabdriver who lectures until you arrive at your destination, Don Lemon, and every Twitter troll on Earth. And no one’s sincerely arguing that he shouldn’t speak unless it’s backed up by music.
It’s just frustrating that when a celebrity speaks, his or her views can have disproportionate volume.
That’s why Bill Cosby’s “get off my lawn” rants are treated with more gravity than the ramblings of your out-of-touch uncle at the Thanksgiving table. It’s why Stacey Dash’s views on politics and Kobe Bryant’s analysis of what drives African-American activism are amplified more than those of people who are invested full time in contemplating issues of race and politics.
The silver lining is that random celebrity riffs on topics people care about inspire conversation, even if it’s through mockery. (Right now, Twitter users are having a blast making fun of Pharrell’s “the new black” with the #whatkindofblackareyou hashtag.)
But unfortunately, off-the-cuff remarks on race, when tossed cavalierly into the public sphere, often do more to aggravate than to inform, and raise more questions than they answer: What’s this based on? According to whom? What are the numbers? Where’s the evidence? How about some examples? What’s the historical, social, psychological and legal context?
We don’t often get answers.
Wouldn’t it be great if the theories of people like Pharrell, who have an average (give or take) amount of insight into the forces at play in the African-American experience, were kept in their proper perspective? If they got less airtime than those of people and entities that have dedicated themselves to taking this topic seriously?
Bad news: That’s unlikely to happen. Good news: Today, and the next time a celebrity uses his or her platform to weigh in on black people’s lives, there are plenty of individuals and organizations who have demonstrated investment in, as Pharrell might call them, “our issues.” People who care about these things, study these things, talk and report and write and educate on these things all the time—not just when Oprah asks.
Twenty-five of them—just a tiny sample, presented in alphabetical order—are here. The list is a reminder that, just as celebs are free to speak out, “the new black” is free to choose who to take seriously and who to ignore (except, of course, when they’re singing):
Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root’s senior staff writer. Follow her on Twitter.