Saturday, February 28, 2015

Zendaya Coleman: confronting racism

 by Melissa Scott

Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
Known for its scathing criticism and humorous commentary on celebrity fashion choices, Fashion Police shows no mercy. After the death of original host Joan Rivers in 2014, the program took a three month hiatus, replacing Rivers with Kathy Griffin, and reassuring continuation of the show. Since returning, however, Fashion Police has stirred heated responses and accusations of taking their comments too far—even bordering on racism.

After Monday night’s episode, which reviewed the various celebrity showings at the Oscar’s, co-host Guiliana Rancic remarked contentiously on Disney Channel star Zendaya Coleman’s hairstyle. Rancic noted that Zendaya’s long, thick dreadlocks looked like they would “smell of patchouli oil” or “weed” on the Academy Awards' Fashion Police special.

Quickly responding via social media, Coleman tweeted a lengthy protest. She called Rancic’s ridicule of African American culture racism. “To say that an eighteen-year-old young woman with locs must smell of patchouli oil or ‘weed’ is not only a stereotype, but outrageously offensive,” Coleman deplored. Making a striking point, she listed many prominent African Americans who wear their hair in dreadlocks, refuting the connotation that the locks somehow lowered her status:

Do you want to know what Ava DuVernay (director of the Oscar nominated film Selma), Ledisi (9 time Grammy nominated singer/songwriter and actress), Terry McMillan (author), Vincent Brown (Professor of African and African American studies at Harvard University), Heather Andrea Williams (Historian who also possesses a JD from Harvard University, and an MA and PhD from Yale University) as well as many other men women and children of all races have in common? Locs. None of which smell of marijuana.

“There is already harsh criticism of African American hair in society,” she impressed, “without the help of ignorant people who choose to judge others based on the curl of their hair.” Coleman ended the tweet, stating boldly, “To me, locs are a symbol of strength and beauty, almost like a lion’s mane. I suggest some people….contemplate a little before opening your mouth so quickly to judge.”

Stars like Solange Knowles, Viola Davis, Whoopi Goldberg, and Kerry Washington applauded Coleman’s reply, tweeting her praise and support.  Even Rancic’s fellow E! personality, Khloe Kardashian, joined the mix, tweeting her own encouragement. “You are a gorgeous, intelligent, young lady! …Keep empowering and shine bright!” she cheered Coleman.

Rancic issued an aired public apology Tuesday night, not only to Zendaya, but any others she upset with her statement. “I just want everyone to know I didn't intend to hurt anybody. But I've learned it is not my intent that matters. It’s the result. And the result is that people are offended, including Zendaya,” she began. “This really has been a learning experience for me…this incident has taught me to be a lot more aware of clich├ęs​ and stereotypes, how much damage they can do. And that I am responsible, as we all are, to not perpetuate them further.” Rancic also told Access Hollywood that she did not in fact write the comment, and that it was in her script for the episode.

Coleman graciously accepted Rancic’s apology, but the commotion didn't end there. Co-host Kelly Osbourne officially left Fashion Police in response to the issue. After receiving criticism throughout the week, Osbourne tweeted, “I did not make the weed comment. I do not condone racism so as a result of this I’m seriously questioning staying on the show!” She added, “I’m giving everyone involved 24 hours to make it right or the world will hear how I really feel. Contactually (sic) I’m not allowed to speak!” Sure enough, late Friday evening, Osbourne confirmed her exit from the show. E! released an official statement, attributing her departure to “pursue other opportunities” after five years of contribution.

Osbourne’s leave from the show may have been dramatic, but I think it was dignified. While Rancic’s apology seemed sincere, it was issued only after criticism fired at her from all directions, demanding a response. She also later shifted blame to the studio writers, as if, despite the words coming from her mouth that somehow assuaged the situation. Coleman’s classy and unpretentious response highlighted the issue that racism can emanate unchecked throughout the media and pop culture. Had Coleman not tweeted her dissent, Rancic’s comment may have gone unnoticed, regarded simply as an amusing joke. While much more serious issues are evident, like Ferguson, smaller incidents like this shed light on similarly concerning matters of micro-aggressions that drive the “Fergusons.”


  1. Interesting ideas it the script that's racist then?


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