Kylie Jenner has earned a reputation as the queen social media, sleek looks and highly visible cultural appropriation. As if the use of henna, dreadlocks, lip-lining and blackface had not been insulting enough to the black community, Jenner posted a picture of herself in cornrows on Instagram this past Saturday.
The twist: Jenner’s young Hollywood contemporary Amandla Stenberg spoke up about it. Whilst also subverting the racist hashtag #WhiteGirlsDoItBetter — a bitter response to Serena Williams’ Wimbledon victory – Stenberg commented on Jenner’s post: “@novemberskyys 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.”
In a sense, it’s easy to understand why previous criticism of Jenner’s serial appropriation has not made an impact on her. Even before her offensive fashion history, Jenner was subject to scrutiny due to her celebrity offspring status. Paying attention to sensationalist Hollywood rags and hateful blogs can certainly be emotionally draining and damaging to one’s mental health. Perhaps Jenner perceives the social critique of her fashion choices as mere fuel for the tabloid machine.
Nevertheless, a public condemnation from a celebrity in one’s own social set can hit close to home. Certainly, Jenner’s retort of “Mad if I don’t. Mad if I do…Go hang w Jaden or something” smacks of lashing out in rage as opposed to the usual cool, timeless defense of her cultural appropriation as art.
Singer Justin Bieber felt compelled to step in.
“Guys leave her alone, were all trying to figure it out and she happens to be under a microscope! I’m the first to know this,” wrote Bieber. “But saying she’s being racist because she wants her hair in braids is ridiculous. lets focus on the bigger picture and instead of fighting over something stupid lets do something about equality, but it doesn’t start here blasting a 17 year old kid for wearing braids smh.”
There is merit to what Bieber said. It’s a lot harder to get away with using a minority culture as an aesthetic when you have 29 million followers on Instagram. The kids at school and your local outdoor music festival attendees can fly below the radar with their dreads and henna and Native American headdresses. Additionally, while discussion of Jenner wearing cultures like costumes illustrates the oppressive nature of white privilege and double beauty standards, it does not solve anything.
However, therein lies Stenberg’s original point. Actor Jesse Williams often articulates the ideology that no celebrity is obligated to be an activist if they are not famous for their activism. Still, having attracted such a large, adoring fanbase, the words of a celebrity such as Kylie Jenner are heard, the movements are observed, and the moral compass is weighed and internalized. Veritable change is bound to happen in the reblogs and retweets of the watchers and the listeners as well as in their attitude and behavior.
In her comment, Stenberg observes that despite the fact Jenner’s appeal is rooted in her adoption of black hairstyles and features as a white girl, Jenner remains silent on black issues. This is a tell-tale sign of cultural appropriation as opposed to cultural appreciation — think of Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus, who will jump at the chance to champion any cause but a black cause while capitalizing off of black culture as white women. Jenner breaks bread with black celebrities such as Kanye West, Jaden Smith, Shamari Maurice, Trey Songz and Tyga, but still has not presented herself as a valid ally of the black community.
In short, Jenner’s comeback is childish, seeing as Smith and Stenberg’s friendship was born at the death of Smith and Jenner’s friendship. Bieber’s presence in the dispute is chivalric at best, clearly motivated by good intentions. Stenberg perhaps asks too much of a peer who has minimal to no interest in social justice activism, but her critique is based in truth and is worth taking into consideration.
Prior to Saturday, Stenberg voiced her disapproval of cultural appropriation in a school project whose title almost predicts the back-and-forth of the past few days. In “Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows,” Stenberg expounds on cultural appropriation and the injustice surrounding it, particularly in regard to traditionally black hairstyles and their currentcultural significance.
“On a smaller scale, but in a similar vein, braids and cornrows are not merely stylistic. They are necessary in order to keep black hair neat,” says Stenberg in the video. “I’ve been seeing this question a lot on social media, and I think it’s really relevant: ‘What would America be like if we loved black people as much as we love black culture?'”
On Sunday, Stenberg closed the dispute with a short essay that further explained her passionate objection to cultural appropriation. Stenberg wrote largely about pervasive thought patterns in Western culture left over from colonization.