Zendaya Coleman, the Disney darling turned-almost star of the terrible, no-good, very bad Aaliyah biopic, walked the Oscars red carpet in a stunning Vivienne Westwood dress and a new hairstyle: faux dreadlocks. She looked very beautiful and mighty Black, a style choice not typically favored by those who need to prove to the Hollywood machine that even ‘mainstream’ audiences can view them as attractive—human, even! We could debate whether or not this was a ‘natural hair’ moment, considering that she was wearing weave (but wearing it in what may be described as natural hair-affirming manner,) however we have bigger fish to fry.
On the Oscars edition of Fashion Police, host Giuliana Rancic had a particularly distasteful way of describing the 18-year-old actress’ look: “I feel like she smells like patchouli oil and weed. Twitter dragged the TV personality through the mud and back again, as Rancic’s comments felt like yet another example of the lack of sensitivity that non-Blacks (and even Black men, at times) consistently display when examining Black women and girls. Black hair is political and complicated, do we really we still have to tell people this?
Maybe Rancic was sincere when she says that the look made her think of “Bohemian chic,” as opposed to racist stereotypes, but since those racist stereotypes are common and have damning repercussions for Black women and girls—especially those who are less fortunate than Coleman—the absolute least we should be able to expect is that a veteran TV host who is daring to position herself as an expert on fashion should have a better set of descriptors for a hairstyle than ‘looks like she’s about to face a blunt, tee hee!’
But if we are generous enough to take Rancic’s explanation (and well-worded apology) as the truth, and I am actually inclined to do so here, not only does that fail to protect her from being accountable for her failure to be racially sensitive, it also fails to challenge this bizarre mythology we have accepted around marijuana: that only dangerous thugs and laughable hippies partake.
Both Coleman and Rancic fail to acknowledge this in their comments. I give young Zendaya a pass on this because of her age and the need to defend herself in the face of what was presented as a very insulting and unnecessary comment. Whether it was meant to be a Mean Girl jab or not, we know that Coleman can’t be a loveable stoner and succeed in Hollywood in the way that Brad Pitt and Matthew McConaughey have. But for Rancic, who has been in the industry long enough to know how common marijuana is used—and as a cancer survivor living a state where the drug is readily accessible to anyone with the flimsiest of ‘medical’ reasons—to use that trite stereotyping? Well, it’s not hard to understand why so many people felt this was a racist comment. Surely, if anyone knows how rampant and colorless weed usage is, it’s someone in the entertainment industry.
Now, anyone who knows my byline knows that I am absolutely loathe to take an example of possible racism and use it as an opportunity to point a finger back at Black people who have been victimized by said racism. However, considering that Washington D.C.’s new marijuana rules go into effect this week, it seems mighty timely to ask that we reconsider the way in which some of us view the mighty herb.
Yuppies in newly re-imagined D.C. neighborhoods may be able to blaze to their heart’s content, while the remaining residents of the city’s public housing tenements will not be able to do so in the privacy of their homes, thanks to long-standing Federal laws that prohibit marijuana usage in subsidized housing and do not make exceptions for medical usage. The criminalization of marijuana throughout this country’s history has been nothing but an extension of the criminalization of people of color and the poor. It’s important to be concerned as to how decriminalization/legalization efforts may fail to address this, and how a new breed of (largely White) millionaires will rise from an industry that landed many of our people in jail.
How does this connect to the Fashion Police faux pas? It’s important that we understand that Rancic’s words were offensive because of the ways this stereotype, and the criminalization of weed, have harmed Black people. However, it’s also critical for us to consciously stop supporting the idea that weed smokers are bad, weed is bad, poor people who rely on government subsidies shouldn’t have it because it’s going to keep them from working hard, etc.
I understand why saying that Coleman would defend herself by name checking Ledisi, Ava DuVernay, Terry McMillian and other noteworthy Black folks who wear locs, faux and otherwise, by stating that they don’t “smell like marijuana.” However, I wouldn’t want her or anyone else to be disappointed if that assertion isn’t true.
Some of our greatest achievers use marijuana, while many of the people who could be among their ranks are felled by drug charges that are racist and provide no benefit to society-at-large. This is wrong, period. The battle over marijuana in this country should be of grave concern to Black people, and there is no place for our choking respectability politics here.
I wouldn’t expect for Zendaya Coleman to make a defense of weed smokers when someone used a silly stereotype to dim the light on her big night and I am proud of her for standing up for herself so eloquently. However, it is time for our community to reconcile our relationship with marijuana, a plant that is prescribed by doctors across the world—something certainly healthier than the fried foods and malt liquor with which we are legally allowed to kill ourselves. Marijuana doesn’t hurt our community, marijuana laws do. And if we are to ever speak about Black people and weed, it’s unreasonable to leave that part out.
Jamilah Lemieux is EBONY.com’s Senior Editor. Views expressed here are her own.