Amandla Stenberg Is Showing a Generation of Black Kids How to Shut Down Racist Trolls
When actress Amandla Stenberg was cast in her breakthrough role as Rue, the young companion of protagonist Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss in the record-breaking film The Hunger Games, she likely didn't expect an onslaught of racism from the public. That is, however, exactly what happened.
Some tweeted they would refuse to watch the film since Rue was being played by a black child.
Stenberg, then 13, made an impressively poised response, saying she was grateful to work on the film and proud of her performance. Little did we know this was the tip of the iceberg.
These days, Stenberg, now 16, is well known for her online presence and her willingness to take on cultural appropriation, and the microaggressions that black youth often face.
"That's the least I can do, is try to start a conversation, try to get people thinking about a certain topic," she told Mic. "And the idea that I can even do that is just so amazing to me. I'm lucky to have the platform that I do."
Stenberg speaks out: While the reaction to her casting in The Hunger Games is perhaps what she is still most publicly associated with, in the mere three years since, a little older and free from the shadow of a major movie franchise, Stenberg has exchanged a carefully crafted, even-keeled public image of a bold, outspoken, feminist role model.
"What would America be like if we loved black people as much as we love black culture?" she asked in a pointed viral video explanation of cultural appropriation in April.
Then in response to the Baltimore uprising at the end of the same month, she asked others to consider why Baltimore residents were reacting to the outrage over the police death of Freddie Gray:
In July, Stenberg commented on a racially insensitive photo Kylie Jenner posted on Instagram: "when u appropriate black features and culture but fail to use ur position of power to help black Americans by directing attention towards ur wigs instead of police brutality or racism #whitegirlsdoitbetter."
The teen feminist awakening: As scene-stealing as her words are, Stenberg's responses are also a product of a much broader, increasingly common experience: They're evidence of the way teenage girls — particularly, teen girls of color — are learning about themselves and embodying their identities in an unprecedented way, largely thanks to social media.
After taking a women's studies class at her predominantly white school, Stenberg realized "feminism is having a really powerful moment," she told Mic. Yet the class discussion of feminist issues found Stenberg constantly representing the perspective of "being a girl of color."
While that perspective is "very essential," Stenberg said, "I think specifically for teen girls of color it can be kind of frustrating because sometimes that feminism that exists, you know, on such a visible level in the media is white feminism."
Mainstream "white feminism" often fails to fully incorporate issues of race or to approach social justice from an intersectional perspective. But, as Stenberg knows, that doesn't means racism is obsolete.
"Racism is still alive and flourishing and even though we don't see it in the same way we used to, it exists," she said. "It's often subconscious: It's the way we treat each other and the assumptions we make without thinking."
#Feminist: The classroom may have introduced her to feminist concepts, but Stenberg found a place she truly belonged: feminist social media. She quickly found communities and socially conscious peers who were already engaged in complex discussions of more inclusive feminist ideas.
While these discussions fueled the actress, she said she was particularly inspired by those pushing back on stereotypes that black kids' creative output was not as vaulable as their white peers.
Tumblr especially became a home base for Stenberg. It was there, she told Mic, she found a larger community of "really creative, awesome, artistic and carefree black kids" and felt it was "really easy to find and identify with other black girls of color who are really powerful and awesome and smart and active and politically aware."
The Instagram account Sensitive Black Person particularly inspired her by using "art as a political tool to express themselves and share messages," Stenberg said. She added the account "showcases black kids in an artistic and sensitive light, because black kids are subliminally told they aren't creative or that they lack talent, that they aren't at the same level as other kids."
Empowered and emboldened by the communities pushing back on these archaic, harmful ideas, Stenberg decided to contribute.
"I realized how my voice is actually really powerful for creating conversations," she said. "It's just empowering to get the ball rolling and it's empowering as a person and activist to talk about it because it becomes essential to your identity. It empowers me as a black girl to really be proud of my identity and fight for it."
Especially in the context of successful, powerful, social-media driven movements like #BlackLivesMatter, Stenberg said the time is now to prove the world — and black kids themselves — that these assumptions about black kids are far from true.
"Black kids are creating so much [and] sharing their voices and art and identities," Stenberg said. "What's so essential and important right now... is to showcase black kids and really, really emphasize how dynamic we are as people and how much we're capable of. That's the power of social media and it's really exciting."
The undeniable power of celebrity: Stenberg is not naïve about her relative celebrity status or her media privilege. But while some may skeptically wonder if her decision to speak out and even question other celebrities is wielded specifically to attract a wider audience, Stenberg argues this is not a motivating goal.
"Because I talk about social justice, because that's important to me, I've kind of created a platform and fans that really connect to what I'm talking about and they really inspire me to continue talking about it," she said. Stenberg could be a typical teen star who just posts selfies of her with her friends, but speaking out about these issues is simply "essential" to who she is, she says.
"Even if there's backlash, it's so important and powerful that we're even having these conversations," Stenberg told Mic.
Stenberg knows activists and even her own friends have been having these conversations before she was involved and continue to do so in their own uniquely important ways. While their Instagram comments won't make national news, Stenberg acknowledged, "I'm able to be inspired by them and share what they have to say. It's a very powerful tool."
And it's a responsibility she plans to continue to incorporate into her career in the spotlight. For instance, she's aware of the potential of Mr. Robinson — the new show helmed by comedian Craig Robinson, in which she has a recurring role.
"Projects that feature black actors and are created by black people are so important because what we see in the media dictates how we think about the world," Stenberg said. "Representation is so important for black kids growing up."
The importance of representation, she added, is one she takes seriously in her own career.
"It's really important to me to choose roles that are empowering, but that being said it's so difficult to find roles for black girls," she says. "They don't really exist — powerful ones don't really exist in the mainstream media in the way I feel like they should and will in the future. That's frustrating, but I strive to find the ones that are powerful and are nuanced and dynamic and empowering."
Until more roles exist, though, Stenberg is prepared to create them herself.
"That's my dream — to direct and write and create projects that feature specifically black girls in a really powerful way," she said. "They can be nuanced, they don't necessarily have to be kick-ass and be awesome. It's just important to see black girls as people and cut through all the stereotypes in movies."
Just like the characters Stenberg hopes to one day portray, the actress — just like countless other teen girls the world over — cannot and will not be easily captured, packaged and consumed. She represents a stark, hopeful disruption in the hazy, directionless landscape of starlets using their vast social media followings to navel-gaze and collect hefty profits for pandering products.
And she is just getting started.