If you work hard to keep all things Kardashian out of your mind, you may have missed the recent online kerfuffle between Kylie Jenner and “Hunger Games” actress Amandla Stenberg. Last week, Jenner Instagrammed a photo of herself with cornrows and her butt sticking out with the caption “I woke up like disss.” Not only is the pose itself is far too unnatural for said caption to be true, and in case you’ve been living under a rock, Jenner is white. Is that to say she can’t dress and pose like that? Actually, no, that’s not to say that at all. But supposedly, Jenner’s original post included the abominable hashtag “#whitegirlsdoitbetter.*
So that is how a comment from Stenberg came into play.
“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,” the actress replied.
How should one respond to a trenchant comment like that? Keep quiet, remove the post or come back with an even more thought-out reply?
“Mad if I don’t, Mad if I do…. Go hang w Jaden or something,” Jenner wrote.
The answer, for Jenner, was none of the above. In fact, while Amandla Stenberg was having a conversation about cultural appropriation, Jenner appeared to be in another one entirely. The comment especially makes no sense, since the “mad if I don’t, mad if I do” remark would have to do with Jenner actually directing attention toward the injustices happening in black society… which she doesn’t.
But really, that was to be expected, wasn’t it? That’s an unfortunate conclusion to be resigned to, but sadly, in most cases of a person of color calling out something as offensive (and doing so with a solid argument), privileged ignorance and hand-waving wins almost every time. Impassioned speech simply gets dismissed as “anger.”
Excepting the increase of black nerds in pop culture, the stereotypical role of the token black person in TV and movies is still to be cool. However, take one look at the news or Twitter, and it’s clear that being a black person in the real world is not cool at all. It’s trendy to be black, except for when it comes to all of the non-superficial things that means. Stenberg has called out cultural appropriation before in a video titled “Don’t Cash Crop On My Cornrows” and shown an adept understanding of cultural appropriation. “Appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated,” she said, “but is deemed as high-fashion, cool or funny when the privileged take it for themselves.” That’s proof that Stenberg didn’t going in this “feud” blind. She has a history of calling out what needs to be called out, and hopefully, it’s one that will continue.
But at what cost?
Kids have all the capacity in the world to be smart about what’s going on in the world. And sometimes, especially as a person of color, that intelligence is the only thing keeping you alive. For Stenberg, it’s an intelligence that — despite only being 16 years old and co-starring in a major franchise — means she’ll be labeled an “angry black girl” for speaking out instead of staying silent. It’s an intelligence that would be considered wise beyond her years if not for the fact that she’s a minority. (Compare her treatment in the media, which included being called a “jackhole” by Andy Cohen, to that of Emma Watson, who is constantly lauded for her much less minority-centric ideals about feminism). And on that day that Stenberg’s possibly not as intelligent, she’ll be called an ignorant child.
Ignorance may be bliss, but for a person of color — no matter their age — it can also be deadly. At just 16 years old, Stenberg is already well-versed in something that a lot of adults still can’t even comprehend.
An even more recent example of the privileged missing the point comes in the form of two adults: Nicki Minaj and Taylor Swift. After the VMA nominations showed a lack of love for the music videos for Minaj’s “Anaconda” and “Feelin’ Myself,” the rapper took to Twitter to call the decision into question. “If I was a different ‘kind’ of artist, Anaconda would be nominated for best choreo and vid of the year as well,” she tweeted. “If your video celebrates women with very slim bodies, you will be nominated for vid of the year,” she added. Reading between the lines, Minaj wasn’t so much tweeting about a shared feminine experience (an us versus them of “very slim” versus “full-figured”) as she was tweeting about being a black woman and having a body type that goes with that, especially in an industry where perceptions of beauty, and thus worth, are often as rigid as “very slim bodies.”
Unfortunately, Swift took these tweets to be a personal attack on herself, completely missing a much different point and replying with a boilerplate response: “I’ve done nothing but love & support you. It’s unlike you to pit women against each other. Maybe one of the men took your slot..” The combination of overlooking the deeper issue and making it about herself — who just so happens to be a white, “very slim” woman — instead of the matter at hand isn’t exactly the same as the hand-waving that came with Stenberg’s much more direct approach. But it is a way to avoid the bigger picture by changing the conversation into one about pitting women against each other and — when all else fails — men taking women’s spots. This is why these conversations are so difficult to have: Just starting one starts a dozen more conversations that try to shut it down.
No matter how any of that shakes out, both Nicki Minaj and Taylor Swift will be fine. The question is whether or not Stenberg will be, personally and professionally speaking. Again, she’s a 16 years old in the public eye and is villainized for talking about something more than just her hair and newest selfies. Public scrutiny already takes a toll, but with the combination of being considered an outspoken woman (let alone one of color), it’s hard not to see a future struggle for Stenberg in her career, all because she wanted her voice (and the voices of others) to be heard. Luckily, she’s an intelligent kid.
That should — it should — be good enough.