There is an unattributed quote doing the rounds online that perfectly sums up all conversations about cultural appropriation: ‘everyone wants to be black until it’s time to be black’. It’s with this quote in mind that we should regard the current sharp exchange of words between Amandla Stenberg and Kylie Jenner.
It started with a picture posted on one of the most followed Instagram accounts in the world. Kylie had uploaded a picture of herself in tracksuit bottoms and cornrows. As the likes poured in, one Kylie fan posted a hashtag in the comments- #whitegirlsdoitbetter. The comments caught the attention of Hunger Games star Amandla Stenberg, who replied to the fan in Kylie’s comments: ‘when you appropriate black features and culture but fail to use ur position of power to help black americans by directing attention towards ur wigs instead if police brutality and racism #whitegirlsdoitbetter’.
Once the call out started to trend, opinions became heated. Even Justin Bieber waded in to defend Kylie. ‘…Saying she’s racist because she wants her hair in braids is ridiculous’, he wrote. ‘Let’s focus on the bigger picture.’ But what Justin failed to comprehend was that Amandla was focusing on the bigger picture. Celebrities love to pretend that everything they do takes place in an ahistorical vacuum. In an ideal world we’d cherry pick from other cultures all the time. The big picture is that in this year alone, 500 people have died at the hands of police in the US, and that black people are twice as likely to be shot by the police when they are unarmed than their white counterparts. Many of the people lining in the streets in mourning at the deaths of their loved ones are wearing cornrows, fearing that the fallen were shot because they were black. There is absolutely no way to discuss cultural appropriation without looking at structural power, wealth, poverty and injustice.
Amandla and Kylie’s exchange of words is being positioned as a feud by some, but it’s so much more than that. It’s about a long standing tradition of wealthy stars adorning themselves with elements of blackness, like a fun Halloween costume that can been worn for a night and then discarded, yet staying silent on atrocities happening to the same people they’re aping.
Amandla said it best - ‘what would America be like if we loved black people as much as we loved black culture?’
Reni's book, 'Why I'm No Longer Talking To White People About Race', is set for release in early 2017 via Bloomsbury Publishing