Commentary: Don’t Cash Crop This Actress’s Blackness

Amandla Stenberg

Commentary: Don’t Cash Crop This Actress’s Blackness

Amandla Stenberg makes no apologies about calling out racist tomfoolery.

Published April 16, 2015

Amandla Stenberg is turning the tables in more ways than one.

Back in 2012, when the movie Hunger Games was released, she wound up on the horribly wrong side of a racist viral campaign against her starring in the film as such a beloved character — because she is Black.

Today, the 16-year-old is using the Internet to show her racial pride. And she is doing it by asserting that she is not shy or timid and that she is a beyond savvy and smart teen when it comes to sussing through some very murky waters. As part of a school project, Stenberg made a video about cultural appropriation and race. She then posted it on her Tumblr page, and it has since gone viral. Instead of titling it something like “Why Cultural Appropriation Is Wrong” she went for the way bolder “Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows.”

Well then.

In case there was any confusion who was cash cropping her cornrows, Stenberg named names. "Pop stars and icons adopted Black culture as a way of being edgy and gaining attention," she says in the clip. "Miley Cyrus twerks and uses Black women as props. ... In one of her videos called “This Is How We Do,” Katy Perry uses Ebonics ... and eats watermelons, while wearing cornrows. ... So, as you can see, the cultural appropriation was rampant."

And it’s not just the music industry that feels her wrath. "Cornrows and braids were seen on high-fashion runways for brands like Marchesa and Alexander McQueen and magazines and editorial campaigns featured cornrows as a new 'urban' hairstyle," Stenberg says.

This is all very true — expressions of Black culture, as well as racist iconography like watermelons and blackface, have been being used to seem cool, hip, trendy, edgy and all sorts of things that have nothing to actually do with being Black, but often have a lot to do with selling records or making money. Stenberg wants to make sure there is absolutely no confusion over what she means, so she explains the definition of cultural appropriation. She says, “The line between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange is always going to be blurred. 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.”

While there is nothing at all refreshing about the world’s continued appropriation of Black culture, there is something absolutely refreshing about a teenager standing up to say something about it. For a generation that came of age with a Black president and which gets bombarded with social media messages that we are living in post-racial times — although everything about real life shows that we are not — it would be easy to believe that some of the kids are confused about where things stand in relation to the world and Blackness.

Stenberg is not confused. Or apologetic. And maybe her message will resonate with other people her age, who may not be reading academic jargon or long treatises about race, but who will definitely pay attention to the very wise words of an actress. Once they listen to her, they should then really spend some time pondering a question she asks on the video, a question we could all spend some time wrestling with: “What would America be like if we loved Black people as much as we love Black culture?” 

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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(Photo: Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

Written by Ayana Byrd

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