A Pattern of Appropriation
Hunger Games actress Amandla Stenberg (Rue) made waves this week after confronting Kardashian Klan member Kylie Jenner for her cultural appropriating ways. While Jenner has a history of cultural appropriation, her latest act- donning cornrows in an Instagram picture prompted yet another discussion of cultural appropriation.
Cultural appropriation is of course no stranger to Miss Jenner. In fact, cultural appropriation is no problem for her, as it is the foundation for both her livelihood and relevancy. Jenner’s elder sister Kim Kardashian spiraled into superstardom following a highly publicized sex tape. In said sex tape, Kardashian starred alongside singer Brandy’s younger brother Ray J. A budding singer and actor at the time, Ray J was not afforded the career advancement Kardashian experienced following the release of the tape. Ray J, as a black male, actions attributed to the unwavering stereotype of black men as hyper sexual and enamored with the creamy flesh of white women. Kardashian on the other hand, would experience the height of fame following the release of this tape. Her shapely derriere, an attribute possessed yet ridiculed on black women for centuries, was deemed attractive once detached from the black female body.
So, while I do not anticipate Jenner’s interest is engaging with the morality behind her millions, her initiation to appropriation by sis Kim Kardashian bears an unsettling pattern rightfully confronted by Stenberg.
Confronting the Cash Cropped Cornrows
Prior to confronting Jenner on Instagram, Stenberg uploaded an insightful Youtube video that sought to enlighten viewers on black culture. Entitled “ Don’t Cash Crop on My Corn-rows,” Stenberg, a beautiful and courageous youth of just sixteen, uses her celebrity to foster cultural awareness. Rather than feature a superficial fascination (like clothes, hair or suggestive poses) common in today’ society, Stenberg takes a stand for her culture.
Despite the depth of analysis and explanation offered in the brief yet poignant video, Stenberg received a number of disturbing responses. Perhaps the most disturbing of the comments were accusations that Stenberg herself appropriates white culture with her straightened hair.
Admittedly, I have never seen Stenberg with straightened hair before this video. Her roles in The Hunger Games and as a young Cateleya in Columbiana featured the beauty donning her natural curls. Even in a recent picture alongside actor/musician Jaden Smith, Stenberg wears braids. I bring this up to say, Stenberg dons a series of hairstyles. The ever changing looks of Amanda Stenberg are most likely a reflection of her youthful experimentation- a common practice of teenagers and young adults. Nevertheless, whether Stenberg dons straightened locks sometimes or all the time does not negate the reality that blacks do not appropriate white culture, simply because to do so is impossible.
Appropiation v. Assimilation
To appropriate is to benefit from white privilege. Thus in order to appropriate one must benefit from systematic racism. Jenner, a white girl, benefits from the disenfranchisement of all those darker than her. Her acquired millions and popularity is gathered at the expense of millions of faceless blacks who can barely eat, yet alone maintain shelter. Thus, her taking from the disenfranchised to obtain likes, attention or money is in itself an act of racism and furthermore appropriation.
Blacks, on the other hand, do not systematically benefit from whites. However, blacks in America are largely consumed by white culture. Thus, from speaking english, wearing mainstream clothing and styles, to the practice of Christianity, blacks are immersed in Western customs and behavior. Straight hair is another aspect of Western culture imposed onto blacks, specifically black women. Collectively, these practices embody the assimilation, not appropriation of blacks.
Assimilation is the overt and covert behavior of an oppressed group performed with the common goal of melding into the dominant culture. Conversely, appropriation is almost always intentional, selfishly implemented to scratch the itch of envy without offering a tinge of appreciation or acknowledgement to the source of which they steal.
Stenberg resoundingly ends her video with the query:
This query, as intended I’m sure, prompts limitless responses. My response is that America does love black culture. It is the awe of black culture that inspires the endless imitation of it. Whites created the construct of blackness to deflect their own feelings of inferiority. For in this myth of white superiority whites made it so that blacks would look at them in a way that they truly saw themselves. From our culture, to our strength to our insurmountable beauty, blacks are everything whites can never be- which inspires their jilted affection. But in their battle against their own inaquedacy, whites complicate the ability of blacks to love themselves.
A contemporary example of this lack of love is Andy Cohen’s Bravo. This week, the show fostered a response to Stenberg’s accusations of culture appropriation. Seeking token blacks to validate Cohen’s discussion of race, he invites Orange is the New Black actress, and transgender activist Laverne Cox and former Vogue editor-at-large Andre Leon Talley. Their inability to love themselves in an environment that trades culture for coins, causes both Talley and Cox to distance themselves from Amandla’s perspectives. While they may have intended to remain neutral, their passivity and indifference to an attack on black culture epitomizes the danger in blacks not willing to take a stand against injustice.
An Attack on Black Culture
The consequences of systematic racism vary in form and execution, and cultural appropriation is yet another a non-violent means to attack black culture. As yet another means to devalue blacks, cultural appropriation (not so) subtly states that everything is better when removed from our grasp.
So I commend Stenberg for her courage and willingness to combat the attack on black culture. Despite being sixteen, her knowledge and bravery counters the cowardice of Talley and Cox that sadly reflect a large portion of our diaspora.
However, Sternberg too is symbolic. She embodies the small but impactful minority that despite its limit in numbers will make the greater impact. We’ve never had 100% compliance, but we never needed it either.
From Instagram to the Supreme Court- no battle is too big or small.Victory also exists beyond quantitive measurement. Thus, no victory is too big or too small as victory isn’t measured in medal but in impact.
Amandla wins this battle simply because she chose to love herself, and inspires others to do the same. To unconditionally love blackness in a society that seduces us into hating ourselves, is a victory of no comparison.
Cheers to Amandla for embodying not only black beauty but our bravery…