When it comes to the topic of cultural appropriation, actress Amandla Stenberg is truly wise beyond her years.
For a class project in April, the 16-year-old Hunger Games actress offered a crash historical lesson on Black cultural origins in a video called “Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows.” In just 4.5 minutes, Stenberg dropped epic knowledge on appropriation in popular culture, further blasting modern artists like Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry for co-opting elements of Black music, fashion and expression, while altogether choosing to ignore pertinent concerns relating to the Black experience in America.
“Appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated but is deemed as high fashion, cool, or funny when the privileged take it for themselves,” she said. “Appropriation occurs when the appropriator is not aware of the deep significance of the culture that they are partaking in.”
Over the weekend, Stenberg’s brilliant dissection of the ongoing topic continued, once again sparking national dialogue after Kylie Jenner–flaunting a bare midriff and a head full of cornrows—posted a new photo to her Instagram account. The 17-year-old Keeping up with the Kardashians star, once praised by Marie Claire for “taking bold braids to a new epic level,” captioned her newest selfie with the expression: “I woke up like disss.”
Naturally unimpressed with Jenner’s naïve disregard for the realities of racial identity and the very politicized meaning behind Black hair, Stenberg went on to offer another classic response, once again educating the masses on never-ending problems created by cultural appropriation.
“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,” she wrote.
Very well said by a 16-year-old teenager, one who understands that a huge problem exists when hairstyles used to historically ostracize, obscure and stereotype Black women are somehow extolled as “fashionable” and “exotic” when imitated by high profile, privileged figures like Kylie Jenner.
With that being said, it’s important to point out that Stenberg’s commentary in no way stands as an effort to wage a war against white women who choose to wear braids, dreads or any other hairstyle, and completely transcends the fact that Jenner decided to one day rock cornrows and post a selfie on social media. Instead, Stenberg’s profound analysis draws attention to an existing double standard where Black traditions and cultural contributions remain virtually invisible within the collective western psyche, yet stand regarded as popular, widely trendy and even revolutionary once embraced, mimicked and adapted by white appropriators—many of whom remain blissfully ignorant to the daily struggles faced by those actually creating the culture from which they’re borrowing from.
In recent months, Stenberg’s arguments on these very issues have been ever validated throughout popular culture. They were verified when Maneaddicts.com attributed the creation of Bantu knots, referred to as “mini buns,” to renowned fashion designer Marc Jacobs. They were authenticated when Teen Vogue hired white models to sport Senegalese Twists for an African braids feature, or when Elle UK credited Katy Perry and FKA Twigs for creating a “new trend” called baby hair.
They stand further substantiated as the Kardashian clan—with their fake lips, tanned skin, enviable curves and hefty behinds—garner constant celebration for their idealized physique, while Black women with these very natural features remain excluded from mainstream beauty standards, or find themselves devalued as animalistic, unfeminine and less than ideal—most recently demonstrated through the body shaming conversation surrounding Serena Williams.
Stenberg further expounds upon this particular aspect even more eloquently in a follow up post on Instagram:
words by me pic.twitter.com/g0HapkvfAt
— Amandla Stenberg (@amandlastenberg) July 13, 2015
Yes, Black female lives certainly do matter. And for many of us, it’s more than refreshing to see a young Stenberg using her voice to create a platform that can bring about substantive change, particularly when it comes to discourse surrounding Black womanhood. Naturally however, not everyone agrees with Stenberg’s wise sentiments on cultural appropriation. In fact, various social media users have accused the actress of making a mountain out of a molehill, arguing that Jenner can in fact wear cornrows without it being made into a racial issue. After all, it’s just hair right? Other observers like Justin Bieber have maintained that Jenner’s age should shield her from such criticism, while Bravo host Andy Cohen carelessly dismissed the issue as a mere spat between teens, even venturing to label Stenberg as the “Jackhole of the Day” on his popular show Watch What Happens Live. And of course in classic fashion, by providing a strong analysis on race, gender and culture, Stenberg has since been stereotyped as angry and combative, though she eventually retorted with an epic comeback:
End the “angry black girl” narrative. It’s just another attempt to undermine certain perspectives. I have strong opinions. I am not angry.
— Amandla Stenberg (@amandlastenberg) July 13, 2015
In the midst of it all, Stenberg has risen as a fearless voice intent on raising cultural awareness—regardless of the potential costs. Her audacity to call out celebrities for their blind appropriation of a significant political and cultural facet within the Black community, all in the name of being “cool” and “fashionable” without having to deal with the burdens of Blackness, is certainly admirable because—as we can all recognize—it’s not just hair. Never has been, never will be. Not when hair represents such an intricate part of a Black woman’s identity, in historical and contemporary contexts.
In the end, as a new generation continues to declare that “Black Lives Matter,” Stenberg’s intellectual eloquence at the tender age of 16 is truly remarkable. As she continues to come of age as a well known name in the entertainment industry, her uncanny ability to create vital national dialogue will ensure that Black women and their cultural contributions remain visible in American culture for years to come. And yes, we absolutely love her for it.
Shelby Jefferson is a blossoming journalist, and currently works as a staff writer for a Michigan-based community newspaper. As a radical intellectual, writer, poet and pop culture junkie, she frequently uses her articles to analyze and present a broad spectrum of themes including race and representation in television/music/film/media, contemporary arts and culture, race and gender identity in sports and social justice issues in the United States. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.