by Michael Harriot
You can add former chubby-cheeked sweetheart Olivia from “The Cosby Show” to the growing list of celebrities sprinting away from their blackness at breakneck speed. Since Tiger Woods declared his “Caublinasian” roots (a hybrid of Caucasian, Black, Asian and self-hate) on Oprah over a decade ago, African Americans have watched an intermittent spate of celebrities eschew their blackness once they reached a certain level.
– After making millions in hip hop and R&B music consumed by Black audiences, superproducer Pharell confessed to Oprah that he is a “New Black.”
“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.”
While discussing the middle class in an interview on CNN, Morgan Freeman said that he and Don Lemon were proof that race had nothing to do with income inequality.
Even the beautiful Zoe Saldana joined the fray when she garnered outrage for saying: “There is no such thing as people of color.”
One could spend hours dissecting the meaning and intent of each of these celebrity quotes, but during her interview with Raven Symone, the skilled media titan Oprah immediately knew what kind of outrage a statement like this could generate, and prodded Symone to retract or clarify her statement. Symone refused.
Symone: I don’t need language, I don’t need a categorized statement for it. I don’t want to be labeled ‘gay.’ I am a human who is human.
I’m tired of being labelled. I’m an American! I’m not an African-American. I’m an American.
Oprah: Oh Lord, girl! Don’t set this Twitter on fire. What did you just say??? [jokes] Stop the tape right now!
Symone: I will say this: I don’t know where my roots go to. I don’t know how far back they go. I can’t go on…ya know… I don’t know how far back and I don’t know what country in Africa I’m from. But I do know my roots are in Louisiana. I’m an American. And that’s a colorless person because we are all people.
I have lots of things running through my veins. I don’t label myself. What I mean by that is I’m an American. I have darker skin. I have a nice, interesting grade of hair. I connect with Caucasian, I connect with Asian, I connect with Black, I connect with Indian. I connect with each culture. Aren’t we all [a melting pot in one body]? Isn’t that what America is supposed to be? That’s what it’s supposed to be. I personally feel that way.
Immediately “black twitter” (Yes, apparently the fact that negroes have figured out a way to communicate with each other over the internet just like the smart white people is a “thing” now. I guess it’s like seeing a monkey use a calculator…) went nuts, throwing the Disney star under the bus as a turncoat and traitor, while a minority tried to defend her statement as understandable.
Here is the problem: There is a difference in being black, and being gay, bisexual or any other alternative lifestyle. The latter are personal matters one can choose to share with the world or keep private. The unique thing about blackness is that it is forever apparent and always knowable. African Americans don’t have the luxury of living a life, learning to place their race in a sociological context, dealing with it psychologically and THEN when they are comfortable enough with it, coming out of the closet and announcing they are Black. After earning millions of dollars and making it to a class of celebrity and wealth that transcends their cultural identity, it is easy for Symone, Williams, Freeman, et al. to declare themselves “human,” “American” and “unlabeled.” One should never decry their right to do so.
In casting off the labels of society, however, they must also accept one other fact: The people in the groups you nominally remove yourself from, have a right to resent you.
And they should.
When Symone says, “I don’t know how far back and I don’t know what country in Africa I’m from. But I do know my roots are in Louisiana” it is clear that she views her Louisiana history in a more positive light than her African heritage. She willfully embraces the diaspora of slaveowners, segregationists and Jim Crow while stiff-arming an “unknown” past that could be clarified with a 20-minute internet search or $300 from the purse filled with millions of dollars from little girls who idolized her when she was Disney’s multicultural money magnet. It is apparent that she doesn’t care to know.
People don’t have a problem with her embracing her humanity, but no one decries a label they approve of. If she was called “smart,” “talented” or even a “woman” she wouldn’t whimper – but that “B-word” – will elicit a quick interjection from the “New Negro” celebrity. They quickly point out that they are .0000083% Cherokee, or their great, great grandmother was almost Irish. The only logical takeaway is: Black is bad. All that other stuff that dilutes their Africanism – it is good. When one fixes a glass of Jack Daniels, Coca-Cola and ice, and someone asks what you are drinking, the correct answer is “Whiskey.”
No one cares about the recipe.
Unfortunately there is only one way these superstars will realize the reality of their blackness: Falling off their pedestals. When Tiger Woods’ iconic rise to the top of golf history stalled and then plummeted, he quickly learned which box he was in. When Pharell’s run with feel-good, catchy pop tunes ends (as it always invariably does) he will return to his “n-word” spouting roots with the likes of Clipse and T.I. Let Zoe get a few wrinkles or gain a few pounds – she’ll be a woman of color then.
Until then, we’ll just wait for the next African American artist to unshackle themselves from the Blackness as they catapult towards superstardom. We expect it, now. In fact, there’s a new term we use when we see it happen:
“That’s SO Raven.”