Her gorgeous performance as Rue from The Hunger Games attracted a cascade of racist responses on social media, but now teenager Amandla Sternberg is becoming a public voice on the topics of race and culture, thanks to a Tumblr video that has gone viral. In a few short, well-produced moments, Sternberg answered one question that American media consumers and creators fail to understand, and raised another that we’d all do well to seriously consider. And she did it all as history class project, with the help of a friend.
The first question is about cultural appropriation, and where the boundary lies between genuine artistic appreciation and iffy perpetuation of stereotypes. Frequently, discussions about white pop stars wearing cornrows (which Sternberg addresses directly in the video), using people of color as props, or donning Native American headdresses or bindis lead to fake-naive expressions of confusion about what is and isn’t cultural appropriation.
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.
One can’t help but wonder if Sternberg’s early experience with a particularly vitriolic public response to her Hunger Games character led to her desire to speak up and educate others about the issues. Or perhaps she’s just precocious and well-read — a 2013 interview with Rookie’s Jamia Wilson revealed that she was reading Aldous Huxley and Thomas Pynchon as well as unusually and wisely ignoring her mentions on Twitter.
Regardless of how that Hunger Games experience affected her intellectual development, it certainly gives Sternberg a level of firsthand authority to examine patterns in the cultural sphere. On mainstream websites where her video has been reposted, many of the comments remain as ignorant as imaginable. Yet for the younger, more social justice-focused community on Tumblr and the blogosphere, Sternberg is proving to be important voice.
Fan interaction is a big part of young celebrities’ role. Sternberg is a teenager using a teen-beloved medium. She lists her preferred pronouns on her profile in a nod of respect towards diverse gender identities, reblogs content about transgender rights and rape culture (as well as Broad City GIFs), and engages thoughtfully and playfully with both fans and pop culture. For instance, a recent post quotes Dear White People in an attempt to explain why reverse racism isn’t a structural problem like actual racism:
This kind of “reverse” institutional racism does not exist… I am open to discussion and dialogue, so thank you for sharing. However, even though I do recognize the traditional definition of the word racism [as simple, not structural discrimination], I think language is extremely nuanced, and that exact definition might not be the most relevant in our society. This quote from Dear White People still resonates with me – “Black people can’t be racist. Prejudiced, yes, but not racist. Racism describes a system of disadvantage based on race. Black people can’t be racist since we don’t stand to benefit from such a system.”
The conversation is a great one to watch unfold, as it’s more comprehensible and thoughtful than some of the chest-beating angst that circulates on the popular platform. As a leading voice on Tumblr, Sternberg has the power to help shape the cohort she is a part of. Unapologetic racists may not pay any attention to her, but impressionable, somewhat open-minded fans of her work may at least hear what she’s saying, and consider it when the next white pop star inevitably steals someone else’s cultural signifier.But Sternberg’s video, and her message, go beyond the commonly disputed appropriation and reverse racism questions. The second question she raises underlies all these other disputes.By pointing out that the celebrity-cornrow scandals are occurring at the same time as the Black Lives Matter movement — and the tragic injustices that spurred its formation are burning a hole in America’s wrongheaded complacency about race — she’s asking one of the most important questions that has ever arisen about American culture: “What would America be like if we loved black people as much as we loved black culture?