Flirting with Blackness

Earlier this week, Amandla Stenberg had everyone’s attention when she treated Kylie Jenner about cultural appropriation. And she isn’t the first one to do it. Everything from Kylie’s lips to her entire style aesthetic to her new “alleged” boyfriend has been linked to a fascination with Blackness. Unfortunately, Kylie is just one of many celebrities, including her Kardashian sisters, to be called out for taking up Blackness as a hobby in their media personage. And I do think that it is worth considering how Blackness could work differently for the Jenners than it does Kardashians despite them being siblings.

White supremacy means that whiteness is regarded as objective and standard. This is the reason, for example, that white men who commit the majority of mass murders are not considered representatives of their race in the same way that, say, a lone black person in an office or classroom is responsible for representing all kinds of Blackness. Racial privilege means that whiteness becomes the average; it is the scale upon which to measure excess, abnormality, etc. White neutrality is real, sometimes to the discontent of white people themselves. But that’s where people of color come in.

Nonwhite cultures add vitality to the flatness that is a direct result of white neutrality. In America, Black youth cultures are the most visible and accessible source of this animation. Multi-million dollar industries, that package, market, and sell Black cultures have flourished, meaning that certain images of Blackness are constantly available for consumption by everyone. (I’ve written about how Kim Kardashian engages with these markets here.) In the American imagination notions of Blackness represent modernity, trendiness, coolness, fun, youth, consumption, and alterity, among other things. These industries make cultural appropriation easy, accessible, and profitable for some people.

I don’t think anyone can attest to this recipe for success more than the Kardashians. In the case of folks like Kylie Jenner and Miley Cyrus, cases of cultural appropriation are clearly defined and clean cut – white people using tenets of Black culture, or Black people themselves to create a certain, profitable image for themselves. But although the Kardashians aren’t Black, they also aren’t white. Half Armenian and half white, the Kardashian sisters can be considered biracial and situated in racial ambiguity. They’ve found the perfect middle ground in a culture where media consumers aren’t satisfied with white neutrality but public and private institutions won’t invest in communities of color. This is why one can argue that cultural appropriation is used differently by Jenner and her Kardashian siblings. Given their racial ambiguity, the Kardashians could very well identify as white, and their class position would certainly support such an assertion. The Kardashians could claim whiteness and its privileges with relative ease, but would then be “at risk” for falling into white neutrality.

For Kylie, Blackness is like a graphic t-shirt: she can wear it to make a statement about the kind of person she is. “I’m Kylie Jenner and I’m fun and hip.” For the Kardashians, it’s like a fake ID: they use it as a way to establish a racialized identity without actually having to be a specific race. In doing so, they gain authoritarian access to define beauty and modern femininity. “We’re exotic. So we’re definitely the right women to dictate what is beautiful for all kinds of women.” Blackness is used to legitimate the Kardashian’s cultural relevancy. It disassociates them with whiteness which is boring and stale in its neutrality, in the same way that their physical features and class disassociate them with Blackness. This balancing act is one Kylie Jenner is not able to perform. And for the record, neither position is better than the other. But I find it useful to explore the complexities of racial embodiments and associations.

Cultural appropriation should never be confused with cultural appreciation; appropriation is undergirded by anti-Blackness. While it appears that everyone wants to rub elbows with Blackness, there is no investment in the lived experiences or material conditions of Black people: neither the Jenners nor the Kardashians have to fear anti-Black violence. It’s a sick contradiction when state sanctioned violence against people of color is at an all time high. Despite the heightened visibility of movements calling for the valuation of Black life, we are still only as valuable as what, and who, we can help sell.


Feministing's resident "sexpert", Sesali is a published writer and professional shit talker. She is a queer Black girl, fat girl, and trainer. She was the former Training Director at the United States Student Association and later a member of the Youth Organizing team at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. She received her bachelors in Women's and Gender Studies from Depaul University in 2012 and is currently pursuing a master's in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta. A self identified "trap" feminist, and trained with a reproductive justice background, her interests include the intersections of feminism and: pop culture, youth culture, social media, hip hop, girlhood, sexuality, race, gender, and Beyonce. Sesali joined the team in 2010 as one of the winners of our So You Think You Can Blog contest.

is Feministing's resident sexpert and cynic.

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