I usually don’t share my opinions on serious issues, especially ones that I am certainly no expert in. Instead, I prefer to just sit back and observe the world wearing my #restingbitchface, silently judging everyone for being so #basic. But for whatever reason, I became interested in the recent Amandla Stenberg, Kylie Jenner, et al. controversy around the topic of cultural appropriation, despite initially ignoring the story altogether and merely scanning the plethora of headlines that mostly read (paraphrasing) “Amandla Stenberg Calls Out Kylie Jenner on Cultural Appropriation for Wearing Conrows in Instagram Photo.”
My initial indifference to the story was based on two assumptions. The first assumption being that I simply did not know anything at all about Kylie Jenner’s critic in this particular drama. Or so I thought. Because after gleaning that said critic was a 16-year-old African-American actress who had played a supporting role in the movie The Hunger Games, the name Amandla Stenberg still didn’t ring any bells and I had no frame of reference for who exactly this girl was and where she was coming from.
The second assumption was that I already knew everything there was to know about cultural appropriation and why people are so offended by it. Again, or so I thought. And this particular drama just seemed to be another run-of-the-mill example of a recurrent storyline that I was seemingly very familiar with.
As it turns out, both of these assumptions were false.
Contrary to what I initially thought, I actually had heard about Amandla Stenberg before. As the blurbs about her comments on Jenner’s Instagram photo continued to proliferate, I noticed mention of a previous controversy that Stenberg had been ensnared in, also involving racial issues. And that’s when it hit me: Stenberg was the same young actress I had read about three years prior after she became the target of a barrage of cruel and deplorably racist comments on social media.
Back then, apparently many readers of the book The Hunger Games had imagined Stenberg’s character, Rue, as being white, despite the fact that the novel actually describes her as having “dark brown skin and eyes.” Upon learning that the young black actress had been cast as Rue, some of these readers vented their reactions on social media, expressing sentiments that ranged from disappointment to heated outrage.
I Googled the earlier incident to refresh my memory and found an article that included one comment in particular that I immediately recognized, as it had been seared onto my subconscious: “When I found out Rue was black her death wasn’t as sad,” someone actually posted on Twitter. I remembered back to when I first read those words and trying to imagine how awful it must have been for a young girl (who was just 13 years old at the time) to be the target of such inhumane attitudes and remarks. As the more recent controversy and her poignant comments imply, apparently such an experience causes a young her to grow up quickly.
My second assumption was overturned once I finally took the time to read Stenberg’s exact comments on Jenner’s Instagram photo:
“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 key component to Stenberg’s quote that I want to emphasize is “by directing attention towards ur wigs.” I believe this angle has been overlooked in a lot of the coverage of the controversy. Stenberg isn’t merely pouting immaturely, “Ugh! You’re such a copycat!” Nor is she simply pointing out the fact that black styles, such as cornrows, are at best ignored and at worst denigrated when seen on black women yet viewed as fashionable and creative when seen on white women. Rather, Stenberg is criticizing Jenner for the hair products that she has a vested interest in by licensing her image and persona.
BELLAMI Hair sells Kylie Hair Kouture products and Jenner can be seen modeling these products in promotional materials on their website. For about $250, you can buy 180 grams of 20-inch long Kylie Hair Kouture clip-in extensions that “lay flat against your scalp.” The extensions use “100% Remy Human Hair,” which means the cuticles of the hairs are preserved when taken from the “donor” to ensure that the hair aligns in a unidirectional fashion. Ads insist these type of untangled and straight premium hair extensions look more “natural”—which of course begs the question, “more natural for whom?” The hair “donors” for these types of extensions can come from countries such as China, Cambodia, Malaysia, India, Brazil, or Russia.
Whether she intended to or not, Stenberg touched on an issue deeper than the common social commentaries that ensued in the coverage of the Instagram controversy. This isn’t just a matter of a white girl experimenting with black hairstyles.
In fact, I personally think it’s great when a white girl, or any girl, is inspired by something she sees from another culture and decides to explore it in her personal life. As someone of mixed racial and cultural heritage, I would never have been born if racial and cultural boundaries were policed so strictly as to prevent interracial and intercultural mixing. I would even deem some of the superficial critiques and accusations of cultural appropriation as bordering on anti-miscegenation.
But as a reality star, Jenner’s personal life is nearly synonymous with her professional life. And the “wigs” (or hair extensions) she endorses for the hair industry transforms the conversation about cultural appropriation into one about black exploitation. You see, it’s not just a problem if the image of Kylie Jenner in conrnrows is considered “Bo-Derek-chic” while the image of a black girl in cornrows is considered “ghetto-trap-queen ratchet.” It’s a problem that Jenner’s brand profits from the insecurities of black women around their natural hair by selling them hair extensions that are implicitly marketed as a way to “fix the problem,” a “problem” that was socially constructed through years of culturally degrading black women’s natural hair (e.g. employers deeming it unprofessional for a workplace environment).
So in reading Stenberg’s comments, we must not see a problem that rests simply in an innocent image posted on Instagram by a young white girl experimenting with cornrows one morning. Rather, Stenberg’s comments allude to the fact that Jenner’s Instagram photo (which by now is essentially a commercialized platform) associates Jenner’s commercial brand with black womanhood, which by extension (no pun intended) markets her hair extensions (intentionally or not) to black women–products that exploit the insecurities society has conditioned them to feel about their natural hair.
The problem transcends Stenberg and Jenner and rests in the fact that self-esteem and pride in one’s natural hair has been essentially, historically, and systematically stolen from black women, and then sold back to them by the hair industry (in this case, through straight, flat Kylie Hair Kouture Remy Human Hair extensions).