It's About More Than Cornrows: Amandla Stenberg’s Statement On Kylie Jenner and Cultural Appropriation, Explained

Black women are punished for the aesthetics that exemplify their blackness, and white women are rewarded for the same aesthetics.
Publish date:
July 16, 2015
race, cultural appropriation, hair politics, kylie jenner

I woke up like disss

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Kylie Jenner, a repeat offender of culturally appropriating black hairstyles, recently posted a selfie on Instagram revealing cornrowed hair. In response, actress Amandla Stenberg, who schooled us all about cultural appropriation in her video Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows, responded with a statement, reminding us that appropriation of black hairstyles echoes disdain for black women in general.

Every word in Stenberg’s statement is absolutely spot on. Though, I suspect some people who are not as familiar with the politics of appropriation and black beauty might need an explainer, which is the purpose of this piece.

Let’s begin with the very first line:

1. Black features are beautiful. Black women are not.

In other words, black features and style are beautiful when they are on black women. There are countless examples of white people appropriating cornrows, locs, bantu knots, and other typical aspects of black female style. When white people appropriate black style, it adds to their beauty.

Black style or features on a black woman is just another aspect of her blackness, so it’s not celebrated in the same way. Black women are punished for the aesthetics that exemplify their blackness, and white women are rewarded for the same aesthetics. They will be described as edgy or chic, while maintaining the integrity of their whiteness.

2. White women are paragons of virtue and desire.

Because eurocentric beauty is the standard, white women are the most desirable. This beauty standard was created not by chance, but as a tool to keep white people at an elevated status at the expense of people of color. White women are stereotyped as being pure and innocent, so much so that a black boy who is accused of flirting with a white woman could be killed, as was Emmett Till in 1955.

Another example of white virtue is the Missing White Girl Syndrome, which describes how white girls are viewed as more precious than black girls, and therefore get more media attention when they go missing.

3. Black women are objects of fetishism and brutality.

Unlike white women, black women aren’t allowed to be virtuous and desired for our whole selves. Instead, we are systematically brutalized and only desired when our parts are fetishized. (See #9 and #11).

4. This, at least, seems to be the mentality surrounding black femininity and beauty in a society built upon eurocentric beauty standards.

Cultural appropriation benefits white people because of eurocentric beauty. This ideology holds black people in a place of inferiority and ugliness and lifts white people to the status of ideal. Thus, although things are slowly changing, we still live in a world where white people are the standard of beauty.

Eurocentric beauty even influences dynamics within communities of color; this is called colorism, and it’s a system where lighter skinned people of color are awarded privileges that darker skinned POC don’t have. POC try to assimilate eurocentric beauty standards in order to gain privileges. For black women, examples include relaxing one’s hair or using skin lightening cosmetics.

It is important to note that 1) POC do not want to be white, they simply want to assimilate enough so they are accepted, i.e., are not ridiculed or fired from their job because their hair is too nappy or “unprofessional.” And 2) this is different from a white person getting a tan or cornrows, because white people aren’t pressured, at least not by racism, to conform to the same standard of beauty.

5. While white women are praised for altering their bodies, plumping their lips, and tanning their skin, black women are shamed although the same features exist on them naturally.

A recent example is Giuliana Rancic’s comments about Zendaya’s locs in February. Until last August, the US military had a ban on some typical black hairstyles, and many black women believe that their hairstyle can determine whether or not they are able to find and keep a job.

Black girls are shamed for their hair as well. A coach at a school in Texas called one student’s hair “nappy and nasty” last year. The previous year, a black girl in Orlando was told by school administration to change her voluminous, curly natural hair style because it was a distraction, or face expulsion.

Meanwhile, white people adopt black hairstyles without serious consequences. Black Twitter recently put Marc Jacobs on blast for using bantu knots on white models. On Monday, Elle UK tweeted a link to an article about how gelled baby hairs are supposedly a new trend.

6. This double standard is one string in the netting that surrounds black female sexuality - a web that entraps black women when they claim sexual agency.

Black women cannot claim sexual agency without being punished or shamed for it. Last year, Nicki Minaj called out critics of the cover art for "Anaconda" by Instagramming “acceptable” booty pictures of white women. Earlier this year, Amber Rose was publicly slut shamed by Kanye West.

7. Deeply ingrained into culture is the notion that black female bodies, at the intersect of oppression, are less than human and therefore unattractive. They are symbols of pain, trauma, and degradation.

For centuries, black bodies have been regarded as subhuman. Throughout history scientists and philosophers have made the case that black people are less human and therefore intellectually inferior and physically ugly. Their work was used to provide an argument for slavery, an institution which dehumanized and traumatized black people, the effects of which are still present today.

Beauty is a representation of power. Those who are considered to have the power or privilege, white people, are generally considered to be the most desirable. In March, I wrote about #BlackOutDay, a selfie event on Twitter, and why it’s important for us to celebrate black beauty in the context of white supremacy.

8. Often when they are sexualized it is from a place of racial fetishism.

Black women are sexualized because of things that make us black, like big lips, big butts, and other “exotic” features. Black women who date know that we are often approached by people who simply want to date us for the experience of dating someone “different.”

An older example of this is Saartjie Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman whose body was exhibited in 19th century Europe, even after her death, as white people came from all over to see her “unusual” features. A more contemporary example is Miley Cyrus’ use of black women as props in her music video and live performances of "We Can’t Stop."

9. Black feminine sexuality is a tender spot - tender with deep-rooted suppression and taboo - the effects of which are pervasive.

Jezebel, thot, ho, welfare queen, baby mama, mammy, Sapphire, video vixen; these are some of stereotypes about black women’s sexuality that have been perpetuated throughout history. The effects include the sexualization of young black girls at a very young age.

Remember that in 2013, the Onion posted a tweet that called Quvenzhané Wallis a cunt, and that in March, a college baseball player called Mo’ne Davis a slut. In 2013, Hood Feminism trended the hashtag #FastTailedGirls, which was a platform for black women to share moments from their childhood when they were sexualized by adults. Between 40 and 60 percent of black girls will have been sexually abused by age 18. As adults, the hypersexualization and vulnerability to physical, verbal, and sexual violence continues.

What does the sexualization of black women and girls have to do with cultural appropriation? When white women adopt black style, their whiteness shields them from ramifications of being black, including the specific type of sexualization that we experience.

10. The stigmas surrounding it are embedded in American infrastructure and psyche as evidenced by the ways black women are sexually assaulted and treated by police - an act that goes frequently unreported by the media.

The conversation around police brutality centers around black men, but black women are also mistreated by police and the criminal justice system. Many black women and girls have been killed by police, and black women are three times more likely than white women to be incarcerated.

Black women are often victims of sexual assault at the hands of police. Daniel Holtzclaw, the Oklahoma police officer who allegedly raped 13 black women, will go to trial in October.

11. When the media is not ignoring black women altogether, they are disparaging them.

One recent example of this is criticism of Serena Williams’ body, despite her impressive accomplishments as an athlete.

12. As culture shifts and racial tensions are tested through the vehicle of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, it is important to question: Do female black lives matter too?

Stenberg asks us to see the connection between Jenner’s cornrows and the degradation of black female bodies. To Kylie Jenner, Justin Bieber, Andy Cohen, and many others, wearing cornrows may not be a big deal. But it is a reflection of how white people devalue black people while stealing black style.

Cornrows, locs, bantu knots, hip hop music, and other parts of black culture were created for by us, and for us. Phenotypical features, like big lips, are things we are born with. Many of these things that are associated with blackness were not valued by greater society until white people became interested, and appropriated them for themselves. Disassembled pieces of black female style that are taken by white people are valued, while whole black female bodies are murdered, raped, and incarcerated.

White people taking what they see as valuable from POC, while simultaneously dehumanizing us, is basically the history of white supremacy.

As Stenberg says, “What would America be like if we loved black people as much as we loved black culture?”