Cultural Appropriation Isn't Okay, Neither is Attacking Kids

Andy Cohen is messy. We know this. Time magazine called "playing with fire every night" the "appeal of Cohen's brand." It's why so many tune into the highly-rated shows he hosts for the Bravo network.

That said, he got too messy labeling 16-year-old Hunger Games star Amandla Stenberg "Jackhole of the Day" on Sunday night's episode of Watch What Happens Live. What's worse, Laverne Cox and Andre Leon Talley, two Black folk, sat there and let that slide.

I wish Cox had been as outspoken and articulate and passionate in the moment about protecting a 16-year-old Black girl as she has been about transgender issues. I wish Talley, who has never been known to parse his words, had let them flourish in defense of Stenberg.

A little backstory of how a teenager wound up being called a "jackhole" on TV: Reality TV star Kylie Jenner posted an Instagram picture with her hair cornrows, a hairstyle that originated with Black people, and directed her nearly 30 million Instagram followers to click on a link to her wig line. Stenberg, who shares mutual friends with Jenner (such as Jaden Smith) slid into Jenner's comments to chastise her. "When [you] appropriate black features and culture but fail to use [your] position of power to help black Americans by directing attention towards [your] wigs instead of police brutality or racism #whitegirlsdoitbetter," Stenberg wrote, sarcastically using a popular hashtag.

Stenberg's thoughts on cultural appropriation reflect the angst of many Black women who feel frustrated and rejected when pop culture criticizes Black women for their style, facial features, body parts, dance moves, etc., but celebrates the same traits when white women adopt them, sometimes even pretending white women created them. For example: see Lucky magazine during 2014 New York Fashion Week celebrating the "instant edge" of a white model's "slicked down tendrils", a style that's been known forever-ever in Black households and salons as "baby hair". Or we can look at the LA Times doing a full trend report on "head turning" cornrows without mentioning any Black people, and crediting actress Bo Derek as popularizing the hairstyle, but not the original creators and most common wearers of cornrows: Black girls and women. And then there was the time Vogue proclaimed in 2014, "We're Officially in the Era of the Big Booty!", crediting non-Black women such as Jennifer Lopez, Kim Kardashian, and Miley Cyrus for ushering in a "trend" that has been celebrated across the African Diaspora since the beginning of time. This is the kind of cultural appropriation Stenberg was referring to when she chastised her fellow teenage frenemy.

Jenner later responded to Stenberg, " Mad if I don't, Mad if I do.... Go hang [with] Jaden or something."

Womp.

Cultural appropriation is a larger discussion that absolutely should be discussed on wide platforms, and I'm very proud of Stenberg for using hers to speak out. But that topic wasn't what Cohen wanted to discuss on Sunday. He preferred to weigh-in on a conflict between two teenage girls, choosing sides against 16 year old Stenberg because, as he later admitted, he didn't grasp what she was talking about, and then didn't do any research before insulting her on television.

Frankly, I'm surprised that comment was even allowed to air. Despite the name, Watch What Happens Live is not always taped live. (I appeared on the show in 2014. My appearance was taped days before the show aired.) Maybe it was live on Sunday? I also wonder if there were any Black folk on production of the show or in the editing room, well, editing it. I'd like to think someone Black (or of another color) would have foreseen the fallout to Cohen's offensive and unnecessary statement, and cut it from the script or broadcast if for no other reason than Stenberg is a kid. An outspoken kid, a very smart kid, but still a kid. She doesn't deserve to be insulted by an adult on national TV. And she does deserve to be defended now that it's happened.

I recently saw Laverne Cox's long essay on her Tumblr page, explaining why she didn't defend Stenberg during the show. "In that moment, I also felt that the topic of cultural appropriation needs way more than the 10 seconds or less I had to respond at the end of the show to fully unpack," she explained. "I said as much to Andre Leon Talley after the cameras stopped rolling."

I hear Cox on it taking more than 10 seconds to properly delve in on a weighty topic, but I also know you don't always need a dissertation to get your point across. It takes a breath or two to say, "whoa, that's a child you're talking about." It's about the same to say, "you know you just [screwed] up, right?" Sometimes the best moment to address an issue is in the actual moment. You don't always have to fully explain it, just make it clear you don't agree with what's being said.

Cox's explanation reminds of a YouTube clip I once saw of when Harry Connick, Jr. was a guest judge on an Australian competition show called, "Hey, Hey It's Saturday!" The host brought out an act called the Jackson Jive, who performed in blackface and Connick rightfully killed the upbeat vibe, rating the act as a zero. He pointed out to the host, "Man, if they turned up looking like that in the United States, it'd be Hey, Hey There's No More Show."

That wasn't even his battle to fight, really. But his point, his coming to the defense of Black people, was done concisely and effectively. After the commercial break, the host apologized. I've been a Connick fan ever since.

I also saw where Cohen apologized on Twitter, where offended viewers were using the hashtag 'boycott Bravo". Cohen tweeted, "I didn't understand the larger context of this cultural discussion." Fair enough. But he probably shouldn't have treated it like a pool full of liquor and dived in it. The apology was the right thing to do though, even if insulting a kid never should have happened in the first place.