Young people get it.
Young people are such an integral reflection of a culture. They represent burgeoning ideas, the enthusiasm of a society that believes it can change itself. In America, we’ve become comfortable with young people as leaders of Cultural Revolution—a new generation “that won’t have the same hang-ups that we did.” Racism and homophobia are tools of previous generations, sayeth progressive America, these young people aren’t bogged down with that. They are our hope.
These young people get it.
Earlier this week, 16-year old actress Amandla Stenberg, who famously starred as Rue in The Hunger Games, released a video called “Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows,” in which she addresses the popularity of black aesthetics amongst white pop stars—stars who have been noticeably silent about the execution of black people at the hands of police officers, racial profiling and other issues.
“The line between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange is always going to be blurred,” she says in the clip. “But here’s the thing: 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. Appropriation occurs when the appropriator is not aware of the deep significance of the culture that they are partaking in.”
In 2012, Stenberg was hit with a racist backlash after the release of the first Hunger Games. White fans of the book series complained that a black actress was playing the ill-fated character Rue—despite the novel having indicated that Rue is a person of color. “Why does rue have to be black not gonna lie kinda ruined the movie,” tweeted one fan. “Call me racist but when I found out rue was black her death wasn’t as sad,” wrote another. The Hunger Games isn’t exactly a Baby Boomer fixture—these are Millennial fans. That same generation that’s allegedly going to lead is into the postracial future.
These young people get it?
We tell ourselves that white kids buying hip-hop has created meaningful racial change, while ignoring the blatant anti-blackness amongst younger Americans that has been staring our culture in the face. And at the same time, many are chastising black kids and teaching them that their culture is to blame for racial disunity and oppression.
In 2013, CNN’s Don Lemon offered five ways for the black community to improve itself and one of his points was for black youth to pull their pants up. Last year, ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith offered similar advice regarding sagging pants (“That’s just trifling, and it’s counterproductive.”) The fashion fads of young black people are leading to their criminalized cultural image, according to these talking heads. But sagging pants, gold grills and cornrows—things that lead to stigmatization and marginalization when worn on black people—are “edgy” and fashionable when featured on high-profile white folks. But these same “down” white stars aren’t vocal or even acknowledging of the hardships their black fans face; they simply cherry-pick the culture and return to the safe cocoon of white privilege and celebrity.
And many black stars, happy to have white fans and friends, aren’t very demanding of their white peers when it comes to race.
Two years ago, during an appearance on Hot 97′s Cipha Sounds and Rosenberg morning show, Tyler the Creator explained why he doesn’t care if white people use the N-word around him. “We don’t actually give a fuck about that shit,” he said at the time, referring to his generation. “Mothafuckers who care are the reason racism is still alive.”
In the wake of criticism against his protégé Iggy Azalea, rapper T.I. has gone to bat for the Australian numerous times, indicating that he believes black criticism of Azalea is hypocritical and racist. It doesn’t matter to T.I. that, outside of Nicki Minaj, black female rappers have been obscured in the mainstream for years and it doesn’t matter that Iggy basically raps in black-speak in a crass parody of “ghetto” black people; it’s more important to cash checks and pretend that Iggy represents the universality of hip-hop culture—as opposed to her representing the exploitation and pillaging of that culture.
Around the same time that Stenberg’s video became a Web sensation, audio surfaced of two white female high school students from Grapevine High School in Grapevine, Texas rapping about how much they hate blacks, Latinos and Asians. The school addressed the issue via email and the girls both issued apologies, but it’s telling that two white girls expressed their disdain for people of color via an art form that was created by, and associated with, people of color. The anti-blackness in their consciousness didn’t stop them from gravitating towards beats and rhymes; it would be safe to assume that these girls have been exposed to hip-hop their entire lives and it wouldn’t be a stretch to believe they love Drake or Nicki Minaj’s music. John Turturro’s character Pino in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, who loved Eddie Murphy’s movies, Prince’s songs and watching Magic Johnson play basketball—but hated being around “niggers.” Racists can still fawn over black culture and black exceptionalism. Blues devotee Eric Clapton called Muddy Waters his musical “father” but also railed against immigration and Great Britain becoming “a black colony.” “What would America be like if we loved black people as much as black culture?” Ms. Stenberg asks in her vid.
“What if?” indeed.
For decades, white youth embracing black culture has been heralded by some as evidence that racial divides are eroding—it’s another facet of the same cultural denial that says that younger generations are less racist than their forefathers. But with frat boys participating in racist chants and sending hateful emails, soccer stars unleashing the N-word on Vine videos and blackface parties; it’s clear that “these kids” have inherited the entitled white supremacist ideology that has informed so much of our culture for generations. And while so many are so enraptured with the idea of white America co-signing blackness that they will cheer on a cornrowed Katy Perry, it’s laudable that a growing number of young African Americans are casting a more critical eye. Hopefully they can educate some of their elders. Instead of pining for a generation of young people who are “color blind”—oblivious to the idea of privilege and power dynamics, ignorant of how appropriation forges anti-Blackness and erases people of color and exploitative of cultures outside of the “mainstream”—we should root for young people like Amandla Stenberg.
This young lady gets it.