The Problems and Empty Promises of "Woke" White Celebrities

When Katy Perry dropped the video for “Dark Horse,” she appropriated Egyptian culture on another level. In the video, Black and Brown princes came from far and wide to see if the Queen of the Nile, played by Perry, would grant them a date. The cultural appropriation became worse when an old school Southern California hydraulic lowrider bounced up and down to a rap by Juicy J. Often times, these ridiculous appropriations are seen as harmless. After all, Perry’s faux homage to ancient Egypt or urban lowrider culture was nothing more than a video to prove to her audience that she’s down.

Then in December 2016, Perry decided show that she was down with Black Lives Matter by posting a BLM sweater wrapped in plastic. As awkward as that was, it was a prime example of celebrities claiming to be activists through symbolic support without focusing on action or on the larger context of the issue. Perry’s gaffe was made worse months later when she decided to compare her new hairstyle change with the political change that Obama was no longer in office.

"Someone says, 'I miss your old black hair,'" said Perry, who went from her famous jet-black hair to blond. “OH, really? Do you miss Barack Obama as well? Oh, OK. Times change. Bye! See you guys later." As expected the backlash was fierce. Her words were problematic because Perry, while presenting and performing as a “woke” artist, was in fact anything but.

Katy Perry is not an island in this ongoing saga of white celebrities and entertainers that do little with their privilege to help marginalized communities, and end up doing harm to those communities they allege to be helping. Frankly, they do not understand how to leverage their privilege, and even 2017, too many have not even tried to learn how.

Kendall Jenner, after her PR disaster with Pepsi, did little to draw attention to mainstream issues that affect the Black community. Vogue UK wrote, “Five months later, in the trailer for the new series of Keeping Up With The Kardashians, the reality-star-turned-model, is shown discussing the matter with sister Kim Kardashian West. “It feels like my life is over,” she told her older sibling. "You made a mistake," Kardashian West replied.”

A few months later Kendall Jenner and her sister Kylie put on sale $125 tee shirts with images of 2 Pac and Biggie Smalls. The photographer of the Tupac image and the estate for Biggie threatened to sue to protect the late artists.

These are constant offenses to Black, Indigenous, and People of Color that white celebrities continue to commit even this supposed age of white “wokeness”. And apologies for actions that should never have happened are all these communities get in response.

While Kendall Jenner was made out to be a victim due to her ignorance by her sister Kim Kardashian West, the fact of is her ignorance does not help the issue. Kendall Jenner, who is one of the most celebrated people in fashion, could have used her white privilege to address an issue. Jenner, if truly apologetic, could have hosted a roundtable about police brutality in the Black community. Instead of generating ratings on the new season (which will cover in-depth her feelings about Pepsi-gate, centering her own tears in an issue that offended Black folks), Jenner could have directing her following to learn about and address the issue that is so important to the Black community.

By contrast, America has seen staunch white allies to people of color throughout history. Among them was Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin to discuss the atrocities of slavery. Publishing novels and papers in the 19th century might be considered the equivalent of tweets by today's standard; the book created a public uproar back then just as tweets do now. In writing the book, Stowe used her white privilege to persuade her white counterparts that slavery was wrong. Stowe and her husband also actively housed slaves finding their way to Canada through the Underground Railroad. The social commentary therefore was an extension of someone who understood and actively fought a system of white supremacy. This is an example of how a white person used her privilege to not only comment about the atrocities but to act on behalf of Black people.

Lady Gaga is often considered a liberal advocate given her vocal support for LGBTQ causes. But Gaga showed just how oblivious a white liberal can be when it comes to matters of race and the wellbeing of her LGBTQ fans of color (is she only for white LGBTQ fans?). With a series of tweets after the August 2016 Charlottesville tragedy, Gaga asked her fan base how to fix race relations--with an amateurish, laughably-simplistic online poll. Whereas Stowe saw fault with an issue and acted on her values in the years before the Civil War, Gaga--a 31 year old woman of means, access, and resources--asked the Black community for guidance on what her white counterparts should do, acting with ignorance, helplessness, and an ahistorical “wokeness” that seemed to think white supremacy began the day after Charlottesville.

Amanda Seales, a Black actress, responded via Twitter “Gaga shld hv said: My fellow non-racist white ppl it’s time we further educate ourselves & get 2 work on being the generation to end racism.” In the era of Google and Wikipedia, many of the reactions to Gaga were that the information to learn about these issues are literally at our fingertips.

Either by ignorance or lack of self-awareness, celebrities often do not understand how their comments and actions can be harmful. While they desire to be allies with “good intentions,” white celebrities are attacked because of their tone-deaf comments, and their actions that do little to truly affect the institutional pillars that support white supremacy.

Gaga's approach seemed as if she did not know how to approach the situation. She is a native New Yorker, and has built a following as an ally of the LGBTQ community as an advocate against bullying. She is what many would consider an ally to liberal and progressive causes. This is where the problem lies: the fact of being white in a blue state does not mean one may necessarily understand what it means to be aware and an ally when it comes to combating white supremacy, and leaving race specifically out of your advocacy leaves LGBTQ People of Color who are fans and followers out of your consideration. 

In 2016, Justin Timberlake faced a social media firestorm when he claimed he was #inspired by actor Jesse Williams’ speech about racial inequality at the BET awards. Many felt that Timberlake--who used Black music and dance styles to catapult his career--should have done a lot more for the BLM movement, and that his sudden inspiration was overdue for relying so much on Black culture. It was another white celebrity that missed the mark when it came to being an ally against white supremacy. 

And then there are some white allies who get it right. Ed Skrein, a white actor, was cast in a role for the Hellboy reboot film. For any actor, playing a comic character is the dream of a lifetime. However, Skrein declined the role due to the fact that he felt the original character, portrayed as a multiracial young man with Asian American heritage, should be given to someone who is from the Asian community. He stepped down to give someone that role, all in the name of representation and racial equality. This action is what white allies need. Similar to Stowe, Skrein used his privilege to take a stance, make a statement, and generate awareness, even leaving money on the table by leaving the role.

Actor Michael Rapaport, unlike Gaga, did not ask what white America should do. Instead he gave a strong denouncement of the alt-right white supremacist mob. In an angry video posted on his Instagram account, Rapaport challenged the angry white mob to try to pull a Charlottesville-like stunt in Virginia Beach, which has a large Black population, as opposed to the safe confines of a college campus out of session on a Friday night. 

Singer Ariana Grande often uses her massive social media following to draw attention to police brutality. Grande posted on her Instagram, “Horrified doesn't even begin to cover it. My heart and prayers are with Philando's family. #philandocastile (Second photo should also include #AltonSterling #TerranceCrutcher and more)”

Even after her own ordeal at the Manchester Terror Attack, Grande used her global clout to bring to light police brutality. While Kendall Jenner wallows in her own feelings about her Pepsi / BLM gaffe, Grande put her personal trauma aside to flag attention to the atrocities here in the states.

White celebrity allies can do more than claiming “woke” by taking meaningful action on behalf of communities of color. By staying silent, by pretending that they do not appropriate culture, by continuing to live with willful ignorance despite their means and resources and clout, they only uphold systemic white supremacy and racism. No matter how many times Black royalty such as Beyoncé or Barack Obama grab the megaphone and rally, white allies are needed to ensure true change.

In a system designed to allow white Americans to succeed--even in entertainment--it’s up to the people who this system benefits to take action in the name of equality. It’s action similar to a white actor that decides to refuse a white washed role so that a person of color can fill it. Or it’s a white pop princess who saw brutality and stood up for a people of color that are subjected to that hate. Being woke is more than just “enlightened” virtue signaling with statements and hashtags and sweaters and tweets. It requires action from the privileged.


Send questions and comments on this story to