You probably know her from the film adaptation of “The Hunger Games,” but actress Amandla Stenberg — now a few years older — is leading a conversation on social media about race and culture in America.
Stenberg knows a thing or two about the world’s complicated relationship with race. She was cast in the prominent role of Rue, a young heroine in the first “Hunger Games” movie. As she was in the books, Rue is the soul of the Panem’s rebellion.
Rue is also black.
Yet, when Stenberg was cast as the dark-skinned, brown-eyed character in the film, the Internet showed its ugly face. It also showed that it has an oft-times racist face — and a reading-comprehension problem: “Hunger Games” author Suzanne Collins has said specifically that Rue and another character in the book and movie, Thresh, “are African American.”
Stenberg, who was 13 at the time, responded with remarkable class (and perhaps the help of a clear-eyed publicist).
Recently, a school video project that Stenberg posted several months ago on her Tumblr page, titled “Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows: A crash discourse on black culture,” started to take off. In the video, made for a history class, Stenberg discusses the meaning of cultural appropriation and race in pop culture, from Katy Perry’s “This Is How We Do” and Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” to the high-fashion runway.
The whole video is worth watching, but Stenberg’s kicker is especially noteworthy:
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. Hip-hop stems from a black struggle. It stems from jazz and blues, styles of music that African-Americans created to retain humanity in the face of adversity, which itself stems from songs used during slavery to communicate and survive. On a smaller scale but in a similar vein, braids and cornrows are not merely stylistic. They are necessary to keep black hair neat.
As provocative as this may seem to some people, Stenberg makes it clear that this is a complicated problem and that it isn’t always easy to identify the difference between appropriation and admiration. That debate has continued on Tumblr, with Stenberg as an active participant.
The ultimate question that this all raises, Stenberg notes, is this: “What would America be like if we loved black people as much as we loved black culture?”
The full video is here: