Brow Beat

The Frustration of Watching the Kardashians as a Black Woman

A lavish collage of the Kardashian women's faces
E! Entertainment Television

When the Kardashian-Jenners announced that Keeping Up With the Kardashians would end after 14 years and 20 seasons, the news prompted a bunch of meditations about the impact on the show—elegiac reflections on the ways the Kardashians transformed reality TV and the culture more generally. But over the past few weeks, I’ve found myself thinking about why I stopped keeping up with the Kardashians a long time ago.

I tripped into an investment in the Kardashians around 2011, during the sixth season, advertised around Kim’s engagement and eventual short-lived marriage to Kris Humphries. Like everyone else, I mostly knew about Kardashian from her dad’s role in the O.J. Simpson trial and her notorious sex tape. Voyeurism got the best of me and I tuned in to a midnight marathon of back-to-back episodes.

The series’ unabashed focus on the upper-class white experience felt at once foreign from my own life and familiar from the rest of the reality TV landscape at the time. Keeping Up With the Kardashians premiered in 2007; the first Real Housewives season, Orange County, aired in 2006, and the “Black” Housewives of Atlanta debuted in 2008. Keeping Up With the Kardashians, like many other celeb-reality shows at the time, was an amalgamation of the syndicated series Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, which began in 1984, and MTV’s The Real World.

In the past, the reality shows I’d been drawn to always mostly revolved around Black women. But I watched that season of the Kardashians out of morbid curiosity; I think I wanted to observe how not-Black the show was. Part of the appeal was to watch—and yes, judge—the opulence of white wealth. I was curious (read: nosy) about how and why someone would spend $10 million on a wedding for a marriage that would eventually last 72 days, since, by the time I got around to watching the wedding episodes, Kim had already filed for divorce.

At that point, Real Housewives of Atlanta was in its fourth season, and I was fascinated by the ways upper-classness seemingly magnified those women’s performances of Blackness. I remember watching that Kardashian wedding and thinking about how Keeping Up With the Kardashians was on a different level of wealth altogether (which probably helped explain the scarcity of Black people). I think this is one of the reasons their co-optation of Black womanhood was so interesting and frustrating to me—they literally had everything, and still came to take the shine away from Black women.

Though of course the Kardashians never went as far as Rachel Dolezal or Jessica Krug in claiming “transracialism” or Black identification, they still capitalized on the working-class Black aesthetic. Blackfishing is a term coined by cultural critic Wanna Thompson to refer to cultural co-optation, including cosmetic or physical manipulation to a white person’s appearance to imply Blackness, biraciality, or racial ambiguity. On Keeping Up With the Kardashians, I saw Blackfishing everywhere: in their Fulani braids, Bantu knots, and cornrows, in their do-rags and surgically enhanced full lips and big asses. Their Blackfishing raised their profile as influencers, to the detriment of actual Black women. Their adoption of a racial aesthetic, without the inconvenience or penalties of Blackness, has reiterated the ways cultural Blackness is celebrated while embodied Blackness is denigrated.

As a Black woman in her then 30s, now 40s, I am aware I was not the target demographic for Keeping Up With the Kardashians. But the more I watched the rising popularity of the reality stars, the more I saw how the Kardashian-Jenner sisters accumulated fame and wealth by borrowing Blackness and mimicking Black womanhood. While the main characters and protagonists were white women (of Armenian descent), their popularity and cultural relevance often came at the expense of Black women and Black culture.

This was a show where Black women were either strategically placed (as, say, Black best friends) or altogether absent—a show that relied on a Black-woman aesthetic without Black women, and working-class style without working-class realities. If it weren’t for money, fame, and whiteness, the show would have been read as a ghettoized trope. The show always featured an array of Black boyfriends/baby daddies/husbands, but the presence of Black men never compensated for the glaring absence of Black women except as accessories. Even Black women in the Kardashian orbit, like Jordyn Woods and Malika Haqq, were so visibly affluent that it didn’t even seem to me like they represented the kind of Black womanhood that the Kardashian-Jenners were trying to emulate.

I don’t think I realized just how extreme the Kardashian-Jenners’ racialization and commercialization of Black culture was until after I’d stopped watching the show. There was the time in 2014 when Khloe posted a meme on social media: a picture of herself, Kim, and Kourtney that read, “The only KKK to ever let Black men in.” The tone-deafness of the post, which was later deleted, emphasizes what a luxury it is to joke lightly about racial oppression without having ever experienced it. Later that same year, Kylie thanked Kim for teaching her “how to turn from good girl to ghetto.” Ghetto is a term often used as a character description of working-class Black women and girls who are stereotyped as ill-mannered, uncouth, and cool. And here, the notion of Black female identity as a performative opposite to the “good girl” situates the good girl (read: white girl) persona on one end of a racial, social, and economic spectrum with the ghetto girl (read: Black girl) on the other. By occupying the privilege of whiteness while Columbusing Black cultural cool, the Kardashians have attempted to move back and forth on a continuum that doesn’t allow Black women the same mobility.

I stopped keeping up with the Kardashians because of their monetization of Blackness within a cultural context of anti-Blackness. I stopped keeping up with the Kardashians because the exploitation and embodiment of Black women’s features (curvy bodies, full lips, kinky hair, dark skin) were being celebrated on white women after being long used by the culture and media to render Black women undesirable. I stopped keeping up with the Kardashians because I saw the influence of Black women everywhere—but none of that influence was ever attributed to its source.