It goes without saying that Cosmopolitan magazine is geared towards the young, white, female demographic. Despite being the antithesis of the intended audience, this fact has never stopped me from enjoying the magazine. From extensive articles on tanning, to hair products and styles for fine hair, it was obvious that my hue and all its complexities were far from the editorial conception of Cosmo.
Yet, it was not until reading Issa Rae’s article that it become crystal clear that despite efforts to appear diverse and enlightened, Cosmo was culturally clueless.
The “new” black
Prior to the Cosmo article, Issa Rae was the face of Youtube series Awkward Black Girl. This series follows J as she navigates through work, love, and friendship as a self proclaimed awkward black girl. The first season made such an impression, that its second season was funded by singer songwriter and producer Pharrell Williams.
While William’s involvement may signal the success of Awkward Black Girl, it moreso depicts a melding of ideology. Both Williams and Rae (in her portrayal of J), embody what Williams has labeled the “new black.”
Inadvertently referring to Locke’s The New Negro, which served as a platform for the reinvention of blackness by black people, Pharrell too sought to reconfigure blackness.
In a conversation with Oprah Winfrey, Pharrell described the new black as the following:
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.
While this statement sounds progressive, it suggests a form of cultural amnesia. The statement implies an element of forgetfulness, where both the root and shade of racism are irrelevant. The “new” black strives moves past color, but in doing so erases a key element of themselves. Thus, through pretending struggle and prejudice are a thing of the past, the “new” blacks are pawns in the post racial fallacy, acting as key orchestrators in their own erasure.
The new black strives to ease whites as the bearers of racism, making white privilege as unwavering as social inequality. See what Williams, and those who align their beliefs in this “new blackness” fail to see is that the idea of catching cultural amnesia or pledging a post racial society does not work in the best interest of blacks. Cultural amnesia and the post racial fallacy are both forms of racism veiled in the facade of change.
While Williams may have been among the first to articulate this new stance, this “new” blackness has become an encouraged means to navigate through society as a black person. Issa Rae’s article is a performance in this “new blackness” serving as a means to rub the backs of racists and assert blackness as a sort of disease that the “new” blacks are trying to recover from.
Thus this article reveals that the only thing “awkward” about this black girl is her dissonant conceptualizing of race.
The Faux Black Advocate
With a short, coarse fro and a beautiful, brown complexion, Rae provides the authentic black appearance that fills Cosmo’s quota. In a society that has revisited a seemingly eternal conversation about race, Cosmo assumes the trend by selecting what they perceive to be an appropriate black advocate.
The featured pictures of Miss Rae establishes a familiarity between black readers and a curiosity from the non-black readers. To the curious, Rae’s article presents a look into the “new black,” or those who look black but support an estranged relationship to the revolutionary acts seen in the 50’s and 60’s.
While Rae’s pictures substantiate her cultural affiliation, her prose is filled with countless statements that seemingly remind her audience of her blackness. Consider the following:
I knew I was black. I knew that there was a history that accompanied my skin color and my parents taught me to be proud of it. End of story.
Here, the simplicity of Rae’s sentence attempts to mirror the simplicity of instilling racial pride in a young black woman. This simplicity is perhaps the understatement of the entire piece. Knowing your black and learning to be proud of who you are despite immense adversity, is the beginning of self discovery, not the end.
The very fact that Raw was considered to author an article is because she is black. The fact that she was selected is because she was not deemed a threat. It is without a doubt that had Rae threatened the oblivion of white female readership, or merely suggested their privilege tuck, her article would never had been published.
Rae is deemed a treasure to the publication as her ideology mirrors her oppressors. Let us consider the following quote as evidence:
Am I supposed to feel oppressed? Because I don’t. Should I feel marginalized? I prefer to think of myself as belonging to an exclusive club.
The oblivion of this statement encourages racism to remain ignored by those who benefit most from such disenfranchisement. Since Rae’s admittance of not feeling oppressed is seen as insight into how a vast majority of black women feel, oppressors are alleviated from the detriment of their deeds. Thus, the untreated wound of racism continues to fester in the infection of oblivion.
This kind of social amnesia permits for racism to continue, as both the oppressors and the marginalized pretend to live beyond its influence.
Are you blacker than a black person?
The article features a rant-like response to the “black enough” challenge. The “black enough” challenge speaks to those outside the black disapora who attribute their actions to be more in line with blackness than actual black people. Rae recalls being ridiculed for her lack of blackness, as her attributes failed to measure up to the stereotypes of black people. I found this portion of the article to be particularly resonating, as many blacks can relate to Rae’s struggle.
Instead of acknowledging racism as the cause of her troubles, Rae credits pop culture as shaping blackness. While pop culture certainly perpetuates stereotypes, it merely reflects the assumed reality of a racist country.
The color of our skin as black people, has reduced the autonomy of our individualism. Thus, Issa Rae’s silent assertion of accepting the “diversity” of her blackness, seemingly implies that these deeds are in fact black attributes, where they are fallacious components of a constructed identity.
Thus, Rae’s points fail to acknowledge the root of the problem. Rae’s adversity doesn’t reflect her placement outside of blackness. Rather, Rae’s experiences reveal the confines of a western conceptualizing of blackness.
Aren’t You Exhausted?
Rae’s article also features a confession of just how tiring discussions of race can be. In following statement, Rae is quick to differentiate herself from those who exhaust themselves in such conversations:
I don’t know how Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson do it. People who talk, think, and breathe race every single day-how? Aren’t they exhausted?
First let me say that it is interesting to hear this from the woman who made a name for herself depicting racial and social awkwardness on a Youtube series. Also, it just seems that a more appropriate question would be, aren’t people tiered of defending racially motivated crimes? Aren’t various racist and prejudice institutions tired of benefitting from the continued disenfranchisement of blacks? Thus, instead of inquiring how anyone could always talk about race, why not ask how tiring it must be to constantly evade race?
While Rae’s query implies scrutiny, perhaps more significantly, it aligns her with the “new black” mentality. The “new black” mentality not only requires that blacks distance themselves from conflict, but distance themselves from those who fail to be silent in racial oblivion.
Rae’s detachment from vocal civil rights leaders such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton depict her as a non-threatening source to Cosmo’s white female readership. Her self-proclaimed bewilderment to the actions of civil rights leaders, mirrors that of the readership, making the courage of Sharpton, and Jackson seem unwarranted to black and white audiences alike.
Rae’s queries seem a token of ungratefulness, as it were those similar to Jackson and Sharpton that made her Stanford education, and this very magazine feature possible. Thus, the new black’s redefinition of blackness is a step in the dark, as you must know where you’ve been to know where you’re going.
Nuanced “n” word?
Particularly troubling was Miss Rae’s concluding discussion on race. Specifically unsettling were Rae’s thoughts on the n word as a cultural signifier of the changing times:
As CNN produces specials about us and white and Latino rappers feel culturally dignified in using the n-word, our collective grasp on blackness is becoming more and more elusive. And that may not be a bad thing.
Perhaps I am missing something, but how is the use of the n word by those not culturally connected to the negative connotation and denotation of the word instrumental in the elusiveness of blackness?
What I found disturbing was that Rae used this arguments to support an ideology that race perception has changed in America. This is as poorly supported by her article, as it is by the society that we live in.
Schools do not even incorporate the slavery into history class. So if blacks and non black students are not made to learn about the historical use of the word and the people who it pertained to, how is blackness being given the necessary integrity? How can others be cultural dignified in the using a word, when blissfully unaware of its historical context?
I cannot understand how any black person rationalizes use of the n word personally or by those outside of the black community. This ideology suggests an inappropriate detachment to a turbulent history that has created contemporary opportunity.
Paying it forward
As women of the new millennium, both Rae and myself are products of the struggles that have come before us. While I personally feel that little has changed, both our ancestors and cultural giants have been the shoulders of which we see and seize potential. From Rae’s feature in a magazine geared towards young white women, to my ability to stand in front of a college classroom, we can dream because of all who have come before us.
Consequently, it is our duty to pave the way for the next generation. Thus, how we do or don’t define blackness will shape how others come into their own cultural identity.
With that said, I pose no contest to redefining blackness as black people. However, reconfiguration that silences discussions of the true cause of racial conflict, only creates the illusion of change. In reality, this new blackness establishes non black comfort with blackness, making a circular pattern of subjugation appear linear in the pursuit of progress.
We will never move forward if we keep rounding the same corner, just as the dust at the bottom of the water won’t rise to the top unless the glass is shaken. So I’d like to hold hands with Miss Rae, and the black women of the world, in coloring outside the lines of “new” blackness. Together let us shake up a world that would love to see us settle at the bottom.