Zendaya shuts down the racist assumptions about black hair

A lesson for Giuliana Rancic -- and the amateur fashion police

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published February 25, 2015 3:36PM (EST)

Zendaya arrives at the Oscars on Sunday, Feb. 22, 2015.     (AP/Chris Pizzello)
Zendaya arrives at the Oscars on Sunday, Feb. 22, 2015. (AP/Chris Pizzello)

You do not put down with a Disney star. You do not treat a young woman like a punchline. Because she will rightly call you out on it if you try – as Giuliana Rancic learned this week.

On a Monday "Fashion Police" Academy Awards night post mortem, E! co-host Rancic dismissed former "Shake It Up" costar Zendaya's elegantly dreadlocked Oscar look by saying, "I feel like she smells like patchouli oil or weed. Maybe weed." But while plenty of other celebrities would have simply ignored the snark, the young actress and singer instead chose to challenge it. In a statement on Instagram, she said, "There is a fine line between what us funny and disrespectful. Someone said something about my hair at the Oscars that left me in awe. Not because I was relishing in rave outfit reviews, but because I was hit with ignorant slurs and pure disrespect. To say that an 18-year-old young woman with locs must smell of patchouli oil or 'weed" is not only a large stereotype but outrageously offensive." Zendaya went on to cite dreadlocks wearers like "Selma" director Ava DuVarnay, Ledisi, Terry McMillan, Vincent Brown and Heather Andrea, noting, "None of them smell of marijuana." And she added that her red carpet look was her statement "to remind people of color that our hair is good enough. To me locs are symbol of strength and beauty."

Rancic swiftly tweeted in reply that "Dear @Zendaya, I'm sorry I offended you and others. I was referring to a bohemian chic look. Had NOTHING to do with race and NEVER would!!!" But she then apparently thought more of it, and then followed up Tuesday with a more elaborate on-air apology, saying, " Something I said last night did cross the line…. "I just want everyone to know, I didn't intend to hurt anyone," Rancic said, "but I've learned it is not my intent that matters, it's the result. And the result is that people are offended, including Zendaya, and that is not okay…. This really has been a learning experience for me. I've learned a lot today and this incident has taught me to be a lot more aware of clichés and stereotypes, how much damage they can do. And that I am responsible as we all are to not perpetuate them further."

In truth, Rancic's comments were not exponentially meaner or dumber than anything that regularly passes for commentary from the E! peanut squad. This is a show that also, in its Oscar night coverage, cleverly referred to "John Revolta" and spent a long time making "ultimate pearl necklace" jokes about beautiful, classy Oscar winner Lupita Nyong'o and her ensemble. The difference is that Zendaya went ahead and challenged the remarks about her, and in particular the casually snide racial element of them.

I don't know if it's that Disney manages to find particularly strong young women to groom for stardom, or if the experience of working for the mouse brings it out of them, but it's been a pretty powerful thing, the past few years, watching these fresh-faced girls bloom into strong, outspoken women. It's been cool seeing Raven Symone come out, and Demi Lovato share her experiences with bipolar disorder and eating disorders  -- including challenging the Disney network about its jokes on the subject. And polarizing though Miley Cyrus may be, she's been steadfast in her support for marriage equality, she's tried to raise awareness of youth homelessness,  and she won't play along with the media obsession over wardrobe malfunctions and nip slips. These ladies are not placid little puppets. They are women who know their own minds and speak with their own voices.

And now, Zendaya has once again stepped up for women of her generation, by illuminating the perpetually ignorant way our culture too often looks at women of color – in particular their hair. Three years ago, Gabrielle Douglas took home the gold at the summer Olympics – and heat for pulled back hairstyle. Solange Knowles has had to defend her look from critics who called it "unkempt," explaining, "I actually love my natural hair." Actress Thandie Newton has also spoken out about the "stigma" around hair – an issue Chris Rock deftly explored in his documentary "Good Hair." And though Zendaya struck a blow for a broader understanding of "strength and beauty" when she rocked the red carpet with her hairstyle on Sunday night, she did even more later, when she refused to be silent in the face of ignorance.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Demi Lovato Disney E! Giuliana Rancic Good Hair Miley Cyrus Oscars Race Raven-symone Zendaya