Actress and activist Amandla Stenberg took to social media to critique cultural appropriation – particularly Kylie Jenner’s cornrows. Cultural appropriation debated because it’s unclear to some why it can be damaging to take on tropes of an oppressed culture as a fashion statement. With Stenberg the issue lies in the cognitive dissonance that occurs in our culture when white women take on black female cultural tropes and are praised, but black women who do the same are criticized. When a white woman wears a black woman’s hairstyle, she’s often looked at as fashion-forward, subversive, and stylish. This kind of cultural appropriation isn’t new: young white men have taken on tropes of black male culture (at least what is marketed as black male culture) to assert their independence, as well.
Whether we agree with Stenberg or not, her critique has validity. While the Kylie Jenners of the world are praised and receive attention for their hair, black women who have worn their hair for years face discrimination and critique. Either they’re dismissed as “ghetto” or “ratchet,” or they’re forced to change their hairstyles to something more “professional” when they are in the workplace (black men face similar issues). Kylie Jenner isn’t the issue – she’s just a public example of how we fetishize black female style when it appears on famous white women, but criticize it when it appears on black women in our everyday lives. It’s a type of aggression that is indicative of a culture that still sees blackness as exotic, with a need for some kind of context to make it passable.
With this in mind, it’s problematic when a media figure like Andy Cohen takes on the issue. On his Bravo TV talk show Watch What Happens: Live, Cohen devoted his “Jackhole” segment to Stenber, calling her the “Jackhole of the Day.” On the show, Cohen was speaking to former Vogue editor Andre Leon Talley and actress/activist Laverne Cox. When Cohen brings up the subject, Talley reports that he’s fine with it, while Cox implies her approval by bringing up Bo Derek (who famously wore cornrows in Blake Edwards’ film 10).
Setting aside for a moment that Stenberg is 16, the issue I have with Cohen’s take on the subject is that for one thing, he dismisses the issue as an online feud, which is reductive. He even went on Twitter later and clarified his “Jackhole” comment by tweeting, “To clarify, I gave the jackhole to an online feud & certainly not to the topic or to any individual. I ironically hate online feuds.” Interestingly enough – and to Cohen’s credit – the talk show host tweeted an apology, stating, “I want to apologize to Amandla. I didn’t understand the larger context of this cultural discussion and TRULY meant no disrespect to her or anyone else.”
What’s so interesting about Cohen’s apology is that he really summed up perfectly why Stenberg’s comment created so much confusion and controversy. “I didn’t understand the larger context of this culture discussion.” Cohen inadvertently blundered into a debate about cultural appropriation, but for whatever reason, he was clueless as to what Stenberg was getting at with her critique. Cohen took Stenberg’s calling out as merely a cat fight between two young ladies, which is sadly evidence of why people like Stenberg are necessary.
Though she’s only 16, Stenberg has already produced some thought provoking discussions on race and cultural appropriation. As a young woman of color, Stenberg is going to be viewed and listened to through a filter of some kind, whether it’s because of her race, gender, or age. With Cohen’s initial assumption, Stenberg was painted as catty and petty – she wasn’t engaging in thoughtful cultural critique but throwing shade and being in a feud.
All of this has unintended irony because Bravo is home to The Real Housewives of Atlanta, a show that to many is a smorgasbord of black stereotypes – none of which are particularly flattering. Reducing women to archetypes is what reality TV does, and TRHOA caters to an audience that revels in watching these women affirm these damaging stereotypes, and it’s all done for either a laugh or a thrill – again, the black woman is exoticized and otherized, the behavior outlandish and flamboyant.
That Talley and Cox sat through Cohen’s comments without saying anything is disturbing. Because I’m white, I won’t go into Cox’s or Talley’s responsibility as black people to stand up for a young woman of color, or to school Cohen on cultural appropriation. It’s not my place to scold them, nor is it my place to insist that as black individuals, they should “know better.” But as adults, they should’ve stepped in and raised a flag and reminded Cohen that the person he was calling a “Jackhole” was a 16 year-old kid.
I’m glad Cohen apologized. But I wish it wasn’t necessary because I wish everyone – particularly those who have a strong media presence like Cohen – understood the damaging effects of superficial and exploitative cultural appropriation. I also wish that when a young black woman speaks her mind, she isn’t summarily dismissed.
Update: How quick social media works – Laverne Cox wrote a great piece about cultural appropriation.