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Why Acknowledging Racism Doesn’t Mean You’re Feeding It: Celebrity Edition

by on March 21, 2015

While perusing the internet/avoiding writing, I came across this quote by Common during an interview for Huffington Post:

“Me as a black man, I’m not sitting there like, ‘Hey, white people, y’all did us wrong.’ We know 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. Now I’m saying, ‘Hey, I love you. Let’s move past this. Come on, baby, let’s get past this.’”

The unfortunate side effect of today’s mainstream and social media, is that it sometimes gives us the opportunity to show the paradox that is human nature in uncomplimentary ways. Surface level, there is nothing wrong with this quote. Common doesn’t want to dwell on the wrongs of racism by pointing the finger at white people. Good. Not all white people are a part of the problem, so why would he? Not all people of any ethnicity are all bad or all good.

But unfortunately, Common is a celebrity, one who was very deeply entrenched in the film “Selma” which chronicles the height of the Civil Rights Movement in this country. So his words are being heard on a larger scale than some of his contemporaries. The quote while seemingly harmless, seems to espouse the idea that racism is directly related to holding a grudge against white people and discussing the issue ad nauseam, that it “existed” rather than that it still exists. Racism isn’t about a grudge, though. Racism is much bigger than that and so are it’s long reaching repercussions, not just for black men and women, but for all ethnicities. There are plenty of white men and women who want nothing more than to see a world that doesn’t denigrate their fellow human beings because of melanin. I think it does a disservice to all of the above to compare it to a rough spell in an otherwise loving, committed relationship.

Humanity is a beautiful mess. On the one hand we are inextricably bound to one another, linked and tied and sharing this world. It makes sense to want to love each other and move past the sadness and anger of the past. On the other hand, we’re all separate beings, and our experiences are as varied as our shades. So, too, are the ways in which we approach and are approached by something like racism. How can we love one another and ignore each other at the same time? Racism, like so much of our human existence, is a paradox. It is something we created, but it’s not something we can control so easily. It also has many layers, and that can make it complicated to capture, contain or recognize. It is the oil spill to our vast ocean of consciousness, which I suppose is why no one, not even the celebrities that espouse solutions for racism, can seem to agree on how to clean it up.

Celebrities like Whoopi Goldberg, Pharrell Williams, Morgan Freeman and Keke Palmer, to name just a few, have gone on record to disavow the concept of racism, pointing to their desire to see all human beings as equal, or their own success, as reasons why racism is no longer a mainstream issue. Here are some choice quotes that illustrate their philosophies:

Morgan Freeman, on how we are going to “get rid of racism?”: “Stop talking about it!”

His quote was actually the inspiration for this video I found on Upworthy, which may be better articulated than my thoughts:

Keke Palmer: “I feel bad for those that choose to believe they’re doomed. You’re doomed because you believe so.”

Pharrell Williams: “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.”

Pharrell, despite the hit he’s taken from the “Blurred Lines” lawsuit, has had an enviable, genre-crossing career. From N.E.R.D. to “Happy”, he has managed to succeed, and in doing so has coined a term that is supposed to be emblematic of today’s successful black person: “New Black”. “New Black” is a term that’s catching, and so is his philosophy since doing the Oprah interview that catapulted that term into the public consciousness, at least for black people that frequent Tumblr, lol. In calling himself “new black” and calling racism a mentality, he has forgotten a very important thing. Our singular reality doesn’t apply to everyone, and it cannot erase a pattern of conduct that others experience in groups. The idea behind “new black” seems to be that if you absorb this mentality (mentality here being racism), then you are inviting in elements that are “going to work against you”. Racism is not a choice to wallow in defeat, but the presumption is that all one need to do is choose to “dream” instead.

I don’t believe that any impediment should define us, and so I understand the idea of combating negativity with positivity. I understand that race is a social construct, and racism/race relations is born of that social construct. It’s no more real than the invisible barriers that separate countries…and yet we all still have to obey the laws that govern countries constructed withing our human-made and invisible barriers. We still have to use paper with drawings on it for currency. As unfair as it is, despite the American economic collapse being directly attributed to Wall Street, people still struggle to find employment while the CEOs that caused the collapse received golden parachutes in addition to their regular salaries. Money they can’t spend in a lifetime was used to buoy their fall, money that could have saved so many from hardship. Money is also a human construct, but to the people that are suffering for lack of it, it is very real.

And truthfully applying this ideology to any other systemic problem would show it falls flat. Say a celebrity was asked about sexual assault, and their answer was to say, “I don’t believe in it. I choose not to talk about it or think about it or focus on it because it’s a mentality.” I can’t imagine no one would contest that.

Then take into account how some of our worst systemic issues – racism, sexism, poverty, homophobia, ableism, child abuse – intersect, with victims sometimes belonging to several disenfranchised groups, and you’re essentially telling some individuals that their experiences are their fault because they didn’t believe them to be untrue with enough vigor.

You can want everyone to be treated equally, fairly, strive for that, expect it even, and still understand the reality and implications of racism. After all, these celebrities know full well, with all the traveling and hard work they do, that whatever our beliefs are, we still have to live in this world. They still get paid for what they do and use that paper money to pay their bills. And when they travel first class to whatever destination is next on their schedule, I doubt they leave their passport at home.

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