In a cosmic turn of events, the Kardashian family is reaching the kind of embarrassment levels usually reserved for public urinators and Donald Trump’s hairstylist. The house that Kris Jenner built is flooding fast—and no, it’s not because the girls ganged up on Rob and started flushing his designer socks down the toilet.
First, we had to endure the breakup of one of reality TV’s most beloved couples, Kourtney Kardashian and Scott Disick AKA the Ross and Rachel of Calabasas (grating, shiny, fertile). While we were all coping with that relationship implosion—while simultaneously self-denying that we care more about the trashy Kourt & Scott than the classy Afflecks—news broke that Kylie beau Tyga might be having an affair. The fact that Tyga’s rumored new boo is a trans actress by the name of Mia Isabella naturally upped the rumor’s circulation. Meanwhile, 17-year-old Kylie Jenner still can’t legally buy a pack of cigarettes and is constantly fighting with Tyga’s baby momma, Blac Chyna. It’s like Sweet Valley High, but terrifying.
Over the weekend, the teen drama took an unexpected turn towards the political.
Kylie, the painfully trendy, boy-crazy prom queen of homeschool, is passionate about her extracurriculars: sharpening her finger-talons and perfecting her social media presence. On Sunday, after a long day of facial contouring and arithmetic homework, Kylie rewarded her followers’ patience with a sexy groutfit Instagram complete with a full head of cornrows. Enter Amandla Stenberg, the 16-year-old social justice nerd of the sub-18 celebrity set. In addition to being a total poindexter who speaks in full sentences and probably reads the newspaper (or at least gets theSkimm), Stenberg is also a Hunger Games actress and rumored Jaden Smith ex. Risking total social suicide, Stenberg called Kylie out on her kontroversial kornrows™, commenting on the pic, “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.”
For those of you who confuse black Twitter with black Friday, the hashtag #whitegirlsdoitbetter, which has its roots in racialized porn scenes, began as a tool for asserting white girl superiority. Naturally, non-racial supremacists immediately proved that they could #doitbetter by ironically flipping the hashtag to highlight women of color and indict racist white women.
Per usual, it appears that a member of the Kardashians has tripped on a particularly pointy Calabasas sidewalk curb and stumbled into a relevant and important sociopolitical moment. When Caitlyn Jenner publicly transitioned, many trans activists and allies complained that a wealthy white woman was being presented as the face of trans women everywhere; while Jenner's visibility is a universal step forward, the implicit erasure of the lives and stories of trans women of color complicated the victory implied by the already iconic Vanity Fair cover. The social media squabble between Kylie and Amandla, which quickly turned personal when Jenner responded, “Mad if I don’t, Mad if I do … Go hang w Jaden or something,” runs the risk of similarly blotting out the political in favor of the gossip-worthy personal. Sure, we all want to know which lucky lady is currently swapping spit (and gender neutral tunics) with Jaden Smith. But the issues that Stenberg is trying to raise are larger than an argument of the exes. In fact, the story is even bigger than Kylie's cornrows—although this isn’t the first time that a Kardashian has come under fire for sartorial cultural appropriation.
A vocal majority of social media pundits (and Justin Bieber) have defended Kylie Jenner’s right to sport any hairstyle she chooses, undoubtedly relieved that she’s stopped trying to sell all her followers ratty blue extensions. Others have criticized Stenberg for making a big deal out of a fashion trend. But Amandla’s target isn’t a Kardashian—it’s a complex standard of beauty that functions through appropriation, negation, and fetishization.
In a longer Instagram post on Monday, Stenberg wrote, “Black features are beautiful, black women are not. White women are paragons of virtue and desire, black women are objects of fetishism and brutality. This, at least, seems to be the mentality surrounding black femininity and beauty in a society built upon Eurocentric beauty standards.” She went on to compare the phenomenon of white women adopting black features like tan skin and plump lips to the relative dismissal of black women, in whom these features are natural occurring. Stenberg argues that black women are ignored by the media—instead of objects of beauty they are fetishized objects, and this low societal worth allows violence against black women to flourish. She ended her note by asking, “Do female black lives matter too?”
Stenberg has previously spoken out on the wide-reaching repercussions of cultural appropriation. Citing likeminded thinkers such as Azealia Banks, she has reproached white artists for mimicking black fashions and forms, without living or addressing the realities of being black. Kylie Jenner is not the problem here, as evidenced by the fact that Stenberg didn’t mention her in her Monday dissertation. But Jenner does happen to be a rather evocative illustration of a negative feedback loop in which racial ignorance perpetuates a sort of stealing or co-option, while failing to address actual racial issues. Jenner’s cornrows aren’t what offends—it’s her gleeful donning of a racial marker that she doesn’t understand, and her ability to boastfully rock a style that a black woman might be penalized, mocked, or stereotyped for.
Loafer-clad parasites like Andy Cohen, who awarded the Instagram feuders with his coveted “Jackhole of the Day” label on Sunday night, are clearly set on reducing this argument to the level of a cafeteria food fight. The Watch What Happens Live host rightfully earned the trending hashtag #boycottbravo when he mocked the squabble, then asked his black guests (Laverne Cox and Andre Leon Talley, no less) to weigh in on white girl cornrows. Clearly, in a world where Serena Williams’ flawless physique faces racist slurs, and “ethnic” features gift white girls with increased sex appeal, the issue of female beauty standards and practices is bigger than braids and beyond Bo Derek. And the Kardashians, with their enlarged lips, famous butts, and racial blind spots, would do themselves a favor by listening to the conversation.