Andy Cohen steps in it: Amandla Stenberg, Kylie Jenner and the trivialization of an important racial discussion

Stenberg asked legitimate questions about cultural appropriation. Cohen turned it into a silly food fight

Published July 15, 2015 4:14PM (EDT)

Andy Cohen  (Evan Agostini/invision/ap)
Andy Cohen (Evan Agostini/invision/ap)

Bravo’s Andy Cohen should never have picked Amandla Stenberg’s Instagram comments accusing Kylie Jenner of cultural appropriation for wearing cornrows as his “Jackhole of the Week” on "Watch What Happens Live, "which, not surprisingly, led to a #BoycottBravo hashtag on Twitter.

While he he didn’t outright call her a jackhole (or, like Sinead O’Connor, call anyone a “cunt”), by calling it a “feud” rather than an exchange about a topic heavily in the news that Stenberg addressed eloquently and has previously spoken out about, he trivialized Stenberg’s legitimate questions and put them on par with something you might see on one of Bravo’s Real Housewives shows.

While the discussion did originate on Instagram, where Stenberg responded to a photo of Jenner sporting cornrows captioned “I woke up like disss” with, “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,” it isn’t about Stenberg vs. Jenner, but a much broader issue.

Stenberg followed up this comment with a post on her own Instagram account, which doesn’t once mention Jenner, detailing the ways in which our culture upholds unequal beauty standards between black and white women, writing, “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.” (bolding Stenberg’s) Below the image featuring her extended statement, she commented, “bigger than you or me. discussions are healthy. Ignorance is not. words by me”

Yet Cohen boiled down the topic into this question posted to his guests, Orange is the New Black actress Laverne Cox and Vogue contributing editor Andre Leon Talley: “Today’s Jackhole goes to the Instagram feud between Kylie Jenner and Hunger Games star/Jaden Smith’s prom date Amandla Stenberg who criticized Kylie for her cornrows, calling it cultural appropriation. White girls in cornrows…is it ok or nay, Laverne and Andre?”

His wording makes it seem like Stenberg simply jumped at the chance to go after Jenner, rather than discuss something she’s passionate about. As Cox, who many criticized for not speaking out against Cohen’s categorization of Stenberg’s words, wrote on her Tumblr, this is a question that deserves more than several seconds to answer.

The real problem with Cohen’s segment is his framing of it as, essentially, girls arguing over their hair, even though Stenberg posted a YouTube video earlier this year entitled “Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows” in which she details the history of cornrows and elaborates on what cultural appropriation truly means. Yet rather than researching Stenberg’s stance ahead of the show, Cohen plowed ahead and minimized its importance, without giving the charge of cultural appropriation any of the context that Stenberg did. While Cohen isn’t the only one to call this a “feud” or make it personal—Justin Bieber rushed to defend Jenner by commenting “But saying she's being racist because she wants her hair in braids is ridiculous. Let's focus on the bigger picture and instead of fighting over something stupid let's do something about equality, but it doesn't start here blasting a 17 year old kid for wearing braids smh”—he did choose the way he presented the issue.

Even after the show, Cohen furthered the impression that he saw this as little more than a catfight when he tweeted, “To clarify, I gave the jackhole to an online feud & certainly not to the topic or to any individual. I ironically hate online feuds.” Even though he also posted an apology Tuesday on Twitter, writing, “I want to apologize to Amandla. I didn't understand the larger context of this cultural discussion and TRULY meant no disrespect to her or anyone else,” for many viewers, this is simply not good enough—not should it be.

The very nature of the phrase “online feud” seeks to put Stenberg’s very smart, nuanced, elaborate comments into some less important corner, as if what happens online is marginal compared to what happens in the “real world” (and I don’t mean the world of reality TV). That’s simply not the case, especially for the age demographic of Stenberg and Jenner. What happens online is just as, if not more, vital and urgent as what happens offline.

Yet there’s a generation gap when it comes to understanding that. HollywoodLife’s Bonnie Fuller argued that Stenberg should have made her comments to Jenner in private, because “Publicly dissing her and her cornrows on Instagram was just guaranteed to get her back up.” That ignores the fact that a) Jenner posted the photo on Instagram, a public forum and b) Stenberg’s intended audience was clearly not just Jenner herself, but all of her avid followers, who might learn a thing or two as well. Shaming Stenberg for using Instagram utterly misunderstands teen culture and modes of communication; by speaking out on social media, clearly Stenberg did manage to get her message across to a very wide audience, one that has now extended far beyond social media.

As teen writer Camryn Garrett put it at The Huffington Post, “Often times when women have discussions about serious topics, their words are brushed off. They're told that they are just being hormonal or too dramatic. In my experience, the same is even worse for teenage girls. Teens in general are told that they shouldn't participate in conversations about tough topics, even if they affect us, like racism and sexism.” Cohen’s showed his ignorance by making it sound like there was no substance behind Stenberg’s comments.

What struck me most reading Stenberg’s Instagram post was that she did not devolve into a personal attack on Jenner. She was talking about Jenner’s hair and its legacy and implications, and the larger issue of white women appropriating black style, not Jenner as a person. Most important of all, she was trying to educate both Jenner and her followers. It wasn’t about simply saying “I’m right, you’re wrong” but explaining something that Jenner truly may not have known and why it’s so important, not just to Stenberg or the black community, but all of us. Yet Stenberg’s age, race and choice of topic and medium all combined, in the eyes of people like Cohen, as a way to avoid discussing the heart of the issues she raised. As Stenberg Tweeted Monday: End the "angry black girl" narrative. It's just another attempt to undermine certain perspectives. I have strong opinions. I am not angry.

While it’s disappointing that Cohen chose to cast this as a feud and only offer a weak apology rather than, as one Jerome Trammel suggested, inviting Stenberg onto his show, the upside is that this topic of cultural appropriation has now made its way through the gossip-sphere and perhaps gotten some readers to consider it in ways they haven’t before. To be clear, my issue isn’t that Cohen brought up Stenberg’s comments, but the way he did so, leaving little room for thoughtful commentary about any of those involved or the issue at hand. Hopefully, he’ll use this as an opportunity to understand what people are so angry about and not rush into a topic he doesn’t understand.

By Rachel Kramer Bussel

Rachel Kramer Bussel is the author of "Sex & Cupcakes: A Juicy Collection of Essays" and the editor of more than 70 anthologies, including "The Big Book of Orgasms" and the Best Women's Erotica of the Year series. She teaches erotica writing workshops online and in-person, writes widely about books, culture, sex, dating and herself, and Tweets @raquelita.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Amandla Stenberg Andy Cohen Kylie Jenner