“[Black features are] so stylish and in - just don’t let it be on a black woman’s body.” An essay about the underlying racial issues behind trends like the lip-disfiguring “Kylie Jenner Challenge.” Comments are on for this one.
Earlier this week, I logged onto my Facebook account to use up some quality brain cells, meandering the goings-on of a network of people I pretend to call my friends. Imagine my surprise when I hit an error page explaining to me that my account was flagged due to my inability to adhere to the community standards. Granted, I have a exaggerated sense of importance, peppered by the attention I receive from people I have no real connections with - as do most young people who spend an exorbitant time of their lives existing online with a few thousand friends on Facebook. I think for the most part I’m pretty uncontroversial.
I was blocked from my personal account by the moderators at Facebook because I made references to the current “Kylie Jenner” challenge that recently went viral. If you live under a rock, fans of Kylie Jenner (the youngest member of the Julio-Claudianesque Kardashian-Jenner clan) have somehow started a disturbing online trend involving a sucking on a shot glass so hard that your lips become swollen from the pressure.
Somehow this is supposed to mirror the plumpness of Ms. Jenner own artificially-inflated lips. I wouldn’t have taken it seriously if I didn’t see dozens of shared images of impressionable teenagers destroying their lips and disfiguring their faces trying to replicate the cosmetic injections made by a celebrity. Because I think Facebook is a great avenue to engage with your network in meaningful dialogue about culture, as well as a great platform to mindlessly flood your timeline with selfies, I jokingly making a comment on how a generation ago, the #kyliejennerchallenge would have been called “nigger lips.”
“Too black, too strong”
Being a member of a marginalized community in the United States has taught me, since I was a small boy, the delicate art of code switching - what linguists term the action of frequently switching between two languages or dialects within the same conversation. Or as my Madea from Memphis less politely used to say “knowing how to talk around white folks and knowing how to speak when around niggas.” Not something we would readily chat about, but there is a distinctive difference. When I’m in on the block with my boys, my vernacular tends to slant towards a more comfortable lax accent filled with the slang of my youth. But when in the context of business (read white people), I clean up and distance my tongue from any linguistic derivative that might lead anyone to think less of my capabilities.
“THE WAY THAT I SPEAK IS MORE THAN JUST A METHOD OF COMMUNICATION - IT IS A FORM OF IDENTITY.”
This is something you learn as a child - that the way you use language and the places where you use it can oftentimes conflict. With the advent of the Internet and the transition of communication being from traditionally verbal to overwhelmingly orchestrated nonverbally online, moments arise, like the one that led to this piece, where outsiders are onlooking conversations in spaces that they aren’t familiar to and often threatened by. For me, the way that I speak is more than just a method of communication - it is a form of identity. There is a commonality that I reach and that is understood online when I see another person using AAVE (African American Vernacular English). This is my brother, this is my sister, they’ll understand where I’m coming from.
When I said that the #kyliejennerchallenge had transformed what before would have been called “nigger lips,” I was met with loud affirmations by fellow members of the black community and a positive dialogue was held. I signed off and went on with my day, only to be alerted later that I was banned. I had to then take into account the presence of white viewers of that status (who often message me thanking me for the opportunity to see black people conversing with one another - naturally a rarity for most) and assume that one of them was offended enough to report my usage of words that the culture of political correctness has taught them are offensive when used by all.
If I was just maintaining a level of relevancy within the black online community, I would neither be having this conversation nor to be honest be able to have a platform to talk about this. Ironically, it’s my insistence on having a diverse friend’s list and my need for it to match the multiculturalism of my background and the city I grew up in that led to all this (stay repping Long Beach!). “As long as the black man is among his own, he will have no occasion, except in minor internal conflicts, to experience his being through others,” Frantz Fanon writes in “The Fact of Blackness.”
Millions of people following a 17-year-old famous for being a peripheral member of a reality TV show that I don’t watch is something I have never thought or cared about. The idea however that a young millionaire - who has already professed a fascination with black culture, appropriating it whenever it benefits (financially it has), and on multiple occasions has awkwardly stumbled publicly when dealing with race - has the power to influence popular culture to the point where thousands of kids are disfiguring themselves trying to replicate her cosmetic attempts to acquire the physical likeness of a black woman is bothersome to me. And the fact that I could actually get in trouble for it, nonetheless!
What many of us in the black community (I can’t speak for all of us I’m no Al Sharpton) find appalling about this whole #KylieJennerchallenge is that it’s just another episode of how normal the commodification of the black body is to American culture. We are watching a moment in time where large commercial as well as cultural forces are interested in monetizing the shapes of our bodies for consumption. To concentrate back on the seminal Eating the Other, written by the great bell hooks, “The commodification of Otherness has been so successful because it is offered as a new delight, more intense, more satisfying than normal ways of doing and feeling.” As she further notes, “Cultural appropriation of the Other assuages feelings of deprivation and lack that assault the psyches of radical white youth who choose to be disloyal to western civilization. Concurrently, marginalized groups, deemed Other, who have been ignored, rendered invisible, can be seduced by the emphasis on Otherness, by its commodification, because it offers the promise of recognition and reconciliation. When the dominant culture demands that the Other be offered as sign that progressive political change is taking place, that the American Dream can indeed be inclusive of difference, it invites a resurgence of essentialist cultural nationalism.”
When I see people complain about social justice warriors and the rise of cries of cultural appropriation ignoring the cause of reactionary aspects of these outcries in the beginning, I often wonder if they stop to seriously consider what piqued their interest enough to notice the presence of individuals calling out these injustices in the first place. Do they think it’s all-of-a-sudden? To me, it’s become some sort of sick rite of passage here to snatch up and consume these aspects of the Other (read non-white) in order to foolishly think one is separating from the basic culturally deprived plainness that comes from being the majority in this country. Our consumer culture has gone full cannibal.
“[BLACK FEATURES ARE] SO STYLISH AND IN - JUST DON’T LET IT BE ON A BLACK WOMAN’S BODY.”
We’ve been forced to experience hundreds of years of body shaming and degradation in this country due simply to our genetic makeup inherited from ancestors in Mother Africa. To be told that our naturally wide noses and big lips were ugly, our natural hair was disgusting and unkempt, our big asses being akin to apes and gorillas, it’s very interesting - actually I should say outright bewildering - to see how society over the years has now made these features desirable in the eyes of millions. For once in our lives, our physical features are being recognized begrudgingly by Western standards of beauty as attractive! - just not when affixed on our frames, however. It’s so stylish and in - just don’t let it be on a black woman’s body.
More women than ever last year received ass implants over breast augmentation - a markedly abrupt departure from the blond-hair-stick-thin-Barbie-doll look ever popular for the last 30 years. We’ve witnessed our bodies used as a spark plug for entertainment and derisive jokes for generations - from vaudeville times to television and movies of today, it seems eerily convenient for it to now be transformed into a new cultural trend covered by Vogue and Cosmo other vapid sources of media who, up until recently, lampooned it.
A hundred years ago, these attractive big lips were ubiquitously being represented by such cultural phenomenons like the sambo or the pickaninny, and the hate certainly didn’t die off with racist generations before us. A simple Google search of the term “nigger lip” revealed a popular Internet meme centered around puffing out your lips (presumably like a black person naturally does) and unfortunately getting the blunt too wet while in a public setting. I don’t perceive myself as being overly sensitive or otherwise worried about any of this, but I have to exclude myself from this conversation as I hope all the opinionated adults reading this will, and think about the millions of impressionable teenagers affected by this bullshit.
My melanin makes my skin tone beautiful - and my lips are a reminder of my ancestors’ ability to survive in climates that took down lesser folk - and no pale-faced person can fool me into thinking otherwise. However, there are so many kids told everyday to hate themselves by our society because of what they look like, searching for validation from people who mock them for wearing weaves while they themselves call them “extensions;” Who laugh at them for their dark skin while they spend hours exposing themselves directly to radiation in an attempt to darken their skin; Who call them out for “hypersexualizing” their young bodies because of its curvaceousness, while they siphon fat from odd parts of their own bodies to thicken up their lips and buttocks. And I’m supposed to act like I’m okay with that happening and be silent. Nah, never that b.
What the Internet has always shown me is its somehow seamless ability to acculturate global interaction with progressive social movements rapidly, while at the same time highlighting and magnifying its role with uplifting and propagating structural and institutional racism. It’s great to see Cosmopolitan have black women grace their covers and it’s puzzling to see something next to it like 21 Beauty Trends That Need to Die and it’s all styles represented by the same black women. It’s great on one hand that Facebook provides a way for its users to report problematic and offensive material on the site. On the other hand, it blows my mind that problematic and offensive people can abuse this tool to silence and eradicate the presence of those this feature was meant to protect. And with the outsourcing of most IT work to countries with workers who aren’t English-proficient, much less having a clue to the cultural nuances of American culture, there is no true way to combat this affront.
When Blac Chyna put on Wack-O-Wax lips as her statement on the #KylieJennerchallenge
The ban is off now - I have nothing to cry about for the time being - I’m free to use this website again until my blackness offends another person enough that they decide my presence needs to be muted and erased again. In the meantime, as I turn on the comments to see the hate coming my way, I guess the best way to leave would be to spotlight the words of the great American cultural critic Paul Mooney when he said so eloquently, “Everybody wanna be a nigga, but nobody wanna be a nigga.”