Teen Vogue recently came out with an article about different traditionally black hairstyles amid Guilianna Rancic’s racially loaded comments about Zendaya Coleman’s dreadlocks on the red carpet. The editor of the article, Elaine Welteroth received backlash for her choice of model. To many, she appeared white and this angered those who are sick of the constant cultural appropriation of black culture. However Elaine, who is Bi-Racial herself, came forward to share that the model depicted may seem white but is actually Bi-Racial as well. Elaine expressed her desire to depict a light skinned model wearing the various hairstyles and said that she felt the girl resembled Zendaya.
The backlash is understandable considering the lack of representation for women of color in the fashion industry. However there are many women and men who are people of color who we may assume are white simply because they don’t have darker complexions or traditional features. This can alienate those who identify with the experiences of people of color but are not sure which space they are allowed to occupy. Elaine Welteroth’s goal was to represent a broadening spectrum of what Black looks like considering Black comes in a myriad of colors and textures – all of them beautiful, all of them deserving of representation.
Many racially mixed people relate to this feeling of ambiguity and confusion in their everyday lives. They would like to be heard, but they also don’t want to offend anyone, so they often just stay silent. This can create feelings of resentment and guilt, where they feel they are forced to choose between the two identities rather than feel fully confident in their own. They may be told by those that perceive them to be white that they are appropriating black culture even though black culture may be something that they appreciate and relate to. It is a battle between recognizing their privilege and feeling the need to constantly prove themselves.
The celebrity feud between Kylie Jenner and Amandla Stenberg has created a conversation about cultural appropriation that is long overdue. Amandla created a video months ago addressing what cultural appropriation is and has made it her goal to call out female celebrities who use black culture as a method to make themselves edgier. Her recent comment on a picture of Kylie Jenner with corn-rows has divided people who argue that she is being too critical versus those who feel she is speaking the truth. Amandla is using her privilege as an actress to speak up for those who naturally have black features or embody black style, but are labeled “ghetto” and she should be commended for that. However our eagerness to end cultural appropriation in all its forms does not mean that we are allowed to turn every photo-spread or red carpet appearance into a battlefield. There is a fine line between cultural appropriation and representation. Elaine Welteroth’s article showed that our quickness to label and judge is problematic. As she said, black comes in a myriad of colors and textures – all of them beautiful, all of them deserving of representation. So before we cry racism we need to be aware that we may be contributing to the struggle of those who already find themselves unable to embrace their full identity. Our need to police identities can make people feel like they are on trial for something they cannot control.