Amandla Stenberg was welcomed to Hollywood with a red carpet of racism.
At 13, when she starred as Rue in “The Hunger Games,” many white viewers thought she was far too black for the role, even though author Suzanne Collins had described the character as having dark brown skin and eyes.
Meanwhile, Kylie Jenner came into fame by association: She is the youngest sister of Kim Kardashian and, like the rest of her family, reality TV royalty.
Over the weekend, the two teens got tangled in a war of words. Kylie posted a picture of herself in cornrows on Instagram. Amandla commented, “When u appropriate black features and culture but fail to use ur position of power to help black Americans by directing attention towards ur wigs instead of police brutality or racism #whitegirlsdoitbetter.”
Her comment echoes a video, “Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows,” she made for her high school history class that went viral earlier this year. A lot of people don’t get the big deal. It’s just hair.
I wish it were that simple.
Where Amandla is ridiculed for her blackness, Kylie has the privilege of trying it on. Kylie can braid her hair, plump up her lips, listen to rap, sell her candy-colored weave and never be called “ghetto.” She can profit off the very racial stereotypes that so often lead to the profiling and brutalization of young black youth.
It might seem easy to dismiss this as a spat between young celebrities. Don’t.
This is a bigger problem in mainstream media and the way we engage one another. When Zendaya wore her hair in long, lovely dreadlocks at this year’s Oscars, Giuliana Rancic said the 18-year-old Disney star looked like she smelled of patchouli and weed. Because a black girl with that hairstyle must smell like marijuana?
Meanwhile, when Kendall Jenner braided her hair, Marie Claire claimed she was taking the style to a bold level. And the Los Angeles Times deemed cornrows as a “new trend” and insinuated that Bo Derek was the last woman to rock the style.
No, honey. Bo didn’t create cornrows. She might be the most famous white woman to have worn them, but braided styles go back hundreds on top of hundreds of years in black communities across the world. These are styles that keep the hair protected, untangled and stylish. They are rich in artistry and culture. The paper could have at least mentioned Alicia Keys or Allen Iverson, but nope.
“Cornrows are moving away from urban, hip-hop to more chic and edgy,” hairstylist Jon Reyman told the paper.
Yes, when black people do it, it’s dismissed as urban. When white people do it, it’s stylish. It’s celebrated. That’s cultural appropriation. It’s deeper than a hairstyle when you rock it for profit or suddenly claim it’s cool because someone white is doing it.
This is the way of Hollywood and the media. Remember on “Sex and the City” when Carrie’s nameplate necklace was the It trend? No one wanted to admit it was a page out of ’80s hip-hop fashion. When it comes to black culture, credit is rarely given. I mean, Elvis Presley (but let’s not even dive into music, because we’d be here forever).
So let’s talk butts. Vogue recently declared that we were in the big booty era, because of Kim Kardashian and Iggy Azalea. Black and Latina women have long been proud of their big butts, but J. Lo and Beyoncé are singled out as rare beauties — tokenism so fashion mags don’t actually have to diversify. Tyra Banks was one of the most prominent curvy girls to grace the runway, but Kate Upton gets the credit for her groundbreaking fashion physique.
While Serena Williams was busy winning Wimbledon over the weekend, The New York Times was talking about her body like it was some kind of alien, with her “large biceps and a mold-breaking muscular frame, which packs the power and athleticism that have dominated women’s tennis for years. Her rivals could try to emulate her physique, but most of them choose not to.”
The story then went on to talk about all the feminine white girls and their body image issues.
“It’s our decision to keep her as the smallest player in the top 10,” coach Tomasz Wiktorowski said of 5-feet-8, 123-pound Agnieszka Radwanska. “Because, first of all she’s a woman, and she wants to be a woman.”
And that’s the sickness of our racial hang-ups. A black woman at the top of her game? Her beautiful black strength somehow makes her less than a woman. But let a white athlete some day step on the court with that same bod and talent. She’ll be considered the ace.