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What is the 'new black'?

OPINION

(Jay L. Clendenin / McClatchy-Tribune )
May 15, 2014|By Lenox Magee

Recently, rapper/singer/songwriter/multimillionaire superstar Pharrell Williams told Oprah Winfrey that being successful is not about skin color, but a state of mind. Enter the "new black."

"The `new black' doesn't blame other races for our issues," he said on "Oprah's Next Chapter." "The `new black' dreams and realizes that it's not 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 going to be on."

I admire Pharrell's optimism about where black culture is headed, and agree that a "new black" culture is indeed emerging. I acknowledge that racism still exists, but I don't seek it out or look for examples of it in my daily life. My generation seems to understand the cultural dynamics; we have a better sense of moving forward. We find new ways to protest, like getting educated, blogging about injustices we experience or rallying support via social media. I should say that the "new black" culture has nothing to do with how much money you have in your bank account. The "new black" culture is more comfortable in our skin. We skateboard, we listen to alternative music and country (not just R&B and rap), we surround ourselves with positive energy, we further our careers and family life at whatever cost, we eat sushi, we despise violence and we listen to NPR.

In some regard, Pharrell's unlimited resources may make it a little easier to live the "new black" lifestyle, but his vast wealth and fame don't shield him from the same prejudices many other black people face.

Among black celebrities, a trend seems to have emerged: Once they achieve financial success, they become delusional about race -- they feel invincible, even. From his days with NWA to a possible $3.2 billion headphones deal, Dr. Dre is a platinum example of the shift from "old black" to the "new black." We've seen this transition with P. Diddy, Kanye West, Lil Wayne and myriad other rappers, who quickly are reminded of their African-American skin tone when faced with jail time.

Twitter users are having a blast making fun of Pharrell's "new black" with the #whatkindofblackareyou hashtag. At best, I think the black community should back off. Pharrell isn't denying racism through the demarcation of old and new. He's just depicting, in my opinion, a life post-oppression.

The "new black" culture doesn't encounter a lesser degree of racism than "old blacks." We just process it differently. When a white lady clutches her purse while alone with me on an elevator or an empty cab passes me by, racism is not the first thing that comes to mind. Call it naive, call it progress -- or maybe I'm just not that sensitive.

While it's admirable to believe that black people can transcend race, it's just not realistic. We're not there yet, Pharrell.

Lenox Magee is a RedEye special contributor

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