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Kim Kardashian West and her family are sometimes criticized for their use of Black cultural forms for mass consumption. (Photo by Ashley Graham | CC BY 3.0)

The Annenberg School for Communication hosted a panel of professors to discuss how the Kardashian family appropriated and repackaged Black culture for a white audience to build their media empire.

The panel was a part of the Annenberg Conversations on Race, a series of discussions between experts outside Annenberg who examine anti-Black racism in American society. Friday’s roundtable discussion, titled “Situating the Kardashians: Skin, Theft, Ops,” criticized the Kardashian family's use of Black cultural forms for mass consumption.

Dixa Ramírez D’Oleo, an assistant professor of American studies and English at Brown University, said Kim Kardashian West and her family follow a long tradition of white women exploiting the hypersexualized trope of “mulata,” or a person of mixed racial ancestry.

“The term ‘mulata’ was a shorthand for a slaveholding society’s view of Black women, whether seen as racially mixed or not, as wanted, hypersexual, and available,” Ramírez D’Oleo said.

In her book, "Colonial Phantoms: Belonging and Refusal in the Dominican Americas, from the Nineteenth Century to the Present," Ramírez D’Oleo discusses how “mulata,” “mulâtresse,” or mulatto women became associated with sexual decadence during the time of the Atlantic slaveholding world.

Ren Ellis Neyra, an associate professor of English at Wesleyan University and a poetic theorist focusing on Caribbean and African diaspora and Latinx studies, drew on their recently published essay, "The Kardashians’ Multiracial White Supremacy," to characterize the Kardashians as “a commercial enterprise posing as a family.” 

They said the Kardashians have gained fame and money by stigmatizing Black women and Black culture through projecting a multiracial image, despite being white women.

They added that the Kardashians have propagated the commodification of Black culture by partnering with famous Black men and having multiracial children. Ellis Neyra wrote in their essay that this "commercial-enterprise-posing-as-a-family retraces the historical dispossession of Black motherhood."

They added that the Kardashians are far from the first white women to appropriate Black culture.

“Viewers of the Houghtons, Kardashians, Jenners, are bound to the empire of white domesticity and its love of the idea [the historian Saidiya] Hartman calls the afterlife of slavery,” Ellis Neyra said.

They added that 19th-century middle-class womanhood, which involved exploiting Black people and their culture for entertainment, laid the groundwork for the Kardashian family to appropriate Black culture.

The panelists also discussed Kardashian West's mass incarceration activism, including her documentary, "Kim Kardashian West: The Justice Project," and her efforts to lobby President Donald Trump to grant clemency to 63-year-old Alice Marie Johnson, who was sentenced to life imprisonment for a first-time nonviolent drug offense.

Elizabeth Hinton, a professor of history, African American studies, and law at Yale University and a leading mass incarceration scholar, said that although Kardashian West's mass incarceration activism efforts are impactful and critical for raising awareness, it is still a business move that steps over the work that lifelong community activists and lawyers are doing.

Hinton said Kardashian West’s social justice commitment has been critical to building her public persona and her family’s commercial brand.

“Alice Marie Johnson’s release became a plot twist and an advertising gimmick,” Hinton said. “So this was not the center of Kim’s day — this was like a side note thing when Kim was taking a break from her makeup or whatever, with an exaggerated expression of sympathy and concern.”

Hinton said Kardashian West’s work as a “champion” and “savior” of incarcerated people can be viewed as an act of appropriation as the lawyers, community organizers, and activists of color who have worked for criminal justice reform for decades have been erased from popular view. 

Kardashian West is currently studying to become a lawyer. Her late father, lawyer Robert Kardashian, famously represented O.J. Simpson in his 1995 murder trial.

Johnson’s “I Am Free” speech in August thanking Trump for commuting her sentence was used as leverage for his campaign, which made Kardashian West and Kanye West “handmaidens of white supremacy and the Trump administration,” Hinton said. 

Despite the West family's effort to bolster social justice issues in America, Hinton said the commercialization of their advocacy through reality TV shows and Instagram posts undermines these struggles for freedom.

Vanessa Díaz, an assistant professor of Chicana/o and Latina/o Studies at Loyola Marymount University, drew on her experience as a reporter for People Magazine and the research done for her book, "Manufacturing Celebrity," to discuss the Kardashian family's strategic crafting of fame.

Díaz said the starting point for how the Kardashians and Jenners exploited Black culture to manufacture their celebrity status was Kim Kardashian West's sex tape which leaked in 2007, which reflected the deeply ingrained racial tropes of hypersexualized Black male desire for docile white women.

Kardashian West’s use of the white woman victim trope can also be seen in her careful crafting of the media story around the sex tape, which she, according to her claims, did not want released but ultimately made a multimillion dollar deal to release, Díaz said. 

Díaz said Kardashian West’s interactions with paparazzi, including hiring her own personal photographer, is a strategy to boost her celebrity status and create the illusion that those who are famous do not want to be followed by paparazzi. 

The fact that the majority of paparazzi in Los Angeles are Latino men stereotyped as “aggressive macho violent sexual predators” makes it convenient for Kardashian West and other white women celebrities to demonize them, Díaz added.

Simultaneously demonizing paparazzi while actively using them for media exposure is also a strategy that Díaz believes that Trump used to become famous. She added that, like the Kardashians, he was previously just “famous for being famous."

The next Annenberg Conversation, "Technology and the Reproduction of Racial Inequity" featuring New York University professor Kadija Ferryman and Annenberg professor Julia Ticona, will be held on Jan. 15.

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