Taking part in Bravo's WatchWhat Happens Live, celebrities are bound to be caught off-guard by complex questions -- and that's exactly what Laverne Cox said happened to her Sunday, when host Andy Cohen asked her to weigh in on reality star Kylie Jenner sporting cornrows.
Cox, joined by Vogue editor-in-chief Leon Talley, responded vaguely in the 10-second sound bite, simply saying the name of white actress Bo Derek right before the show ended. Derek was widely celebrated in 1979 for wearing cornrows with beads -- a traditionally African-American hairstyle -- in the romantic comedy 10.
Coxacknowledged in a Tumblr post Tuesday the critics who have since "tak[en her] to task" for not publicly siding with Amandla Stenberg, the 16-year-old black Hunger Games actress who originally called out 17-year-old Jenner for "cultural appropriation" of "black hair." Notably, Cohen was also widely criticized for calling Stenberg a "jackhole," and has since apologized in the face of a trending #BoycottBravo hashtag on social media.
Cox, who says she's now familiarized herself with Stenberg's acting work and "impressive" critique of cultural appropriation, explained in her Tuesday blog post that she avoided calling out Jenner on Watch What Happens Live because she has "never been interested in interpersonal attacks, feuds or 'checking' individuals publicly."
Cox says she was unaware that what she thought was simply an "Instagram feud" between Stenberg and Jenner has ignited a wider cultural conversation about silencing black women's anger, and about white celebrities sporting styles from marginalized racial groups for their own profit. A similar discussion surrounded rapper Iggy Azalea in June, after the white performer cancelled her concert at Pittsburgh Pride following complaints that she exploits black fashion and musical forms.
In the Instagram post in question, Kylie Jenner, the youngest daughter of trans former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner, posted a selfie Sunday of her wearing cornrows, with a caption reading "I woke up like disss." Stenberg challenged the reality star in a comment: "When u appropriate black features and culture but fail to use ur position of power to help black Americans by directing attention to your wigs instead of police brutality or racism #whitegirlsdoitbetter." Stenberg, who plays Rue in the Hunger Games, had also previously addressed the issue in a video for Hype Hair Magazine entitled "Don't Cash Crop on My Cornrows."
Jenner replied to Stenberg's Instagram critique saying, "Mad if I don't, Mad if I do... Go hang w Jaden [Smith] or something." Stenberg then followed up with her own Instagram post explaining that she believes Americans fetishize black culture but do not consider actual black women "beautiful" or worth protecting from violence.
Cox's blog post echoed Stenberg's argument. The trans Orange Is the New Black actress also went on to explain how she sees cultural appropriation adversely affecting non-white people. She wrote:
Far too often culture is appropriated without an understanding of the history and hardships from which that culture emerges. How do we lovingly make people aware of that history and the potential affects of cultural appropriation that further marginalize and stigmatize those already the most adversely affected by systems that disadvantage certain experiences, bodies and identities over others? ...
We live in a multi-cultural society where being influenced by cultures different from ours is inevitable. But when the traditions and practices of marginalized communities are used by those in power and the material conditions of those who are marginalized are not changed individually and systemically this is when cultural appropriation is deeply problematic and even potentially exploitative.
The post has now been shared more than 7,500 times.
Cox, it turns out, was not the only celebrity to weigh in on Stenberg and Jenner's original dispute. Though the issue has seemingly transcended "feud" status, continuing to spur conversations on racial relations in America, pop singer Justin Bieber brought it back to "kid" territory Tuesday, reports the U.K.'s Independent. He commented below Jenner's post:
"Guys leave [Jenner] alone, were [sic] all trying to figure it out and she happens to be under a microscope! I'm the first to know this. But saying she's being racist because she wants her hair in braids is ridiculous. Let's focus on the bigger picture and instead of fighting over something stupid lets [sic] do something about equality, but it doesn't start here blasting a 17 year old kid for wearing braids [shaking my head]."
Bieber, a white musician who has also been accused of appropriating black culture to further his own career, does not appear to want to continue "a dialogue about this issue in a loving, empathetic way that is not about individual attacks but about individual accountability" as Cox suggests should be done in her blog post.
Read all of Cox's thoughts below.