Television

How Mothering Black Children Changed the Kardashians

As the show comes to an end, two critics consider where the sisters failed, and where they grew.

Kim Kardashian West speaks onstage during an event.
Kim Kardashian West speaks during an event for The Justice Project. David Livingston/Getty Images

On this week’s episode of the Waves, Robin Boylorn and Allegra Frank talk about the end of an era, the series finale of Keeping Up With the Kardashians. The reality show airs its final episode on Thursday night, so the two discussed the women’s effect on celebrity culture, how they outgrew the need for TV, and how they catapulted to fame in part by appropriating Blackness. Boylorn and Frank also discussed whether the women have grown as we’ve seen them become mothers of Black children. A lightly edited transcript of one part of that conversation follows. Listen to the whole episode here:

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Allegra Frank: So, Robin, you wrote a really great piece for Slate about watching the Kardashians as a Black woman and sort of reckoning with how they use blackness to their advantage. Could you say more on how the Kardashians have sort of developed a taste for cultural appropriation?

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Robin Boylorn: Yes. So I think it’s important to note that the target demographic for the Kardashian brand has always been white women, right? So they often benefit on the backs of Black people without ever really having to engage with or be held accountable to the Black community. And that’s very interesting to me as a Black woman because Black women are so often ostracized and maligned for the surgically enhanced and borrowed Blackness the Kardashians have been made famous for. When Kim Kardashian has a Black ass, it is amazing. And everybody now wants one. Black women have had Black asses and they’ve been told they need to go on a diet or change to look more like standard whiteness. And so they kind of shifted the racial and racialized aesthetic of attraction and desirability. A lot of that has to do with the fact that they are traditionally beautiful. But a lot of that also has to do with the fact that Black women are not considered standard traditional white-based beauties.

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It’s a really interesting and problematic conundrum. And I think that justifiable critiques suggest that the popularity of the Kardashians style is simply a Columbus-ing and rebranding of Blackness that’s always existed. And while they’re not the first or last celebrities to be accused of cultural theft, the blatant erasure of Black women and the failure to affirm them is troubling. And I think it’s also especially troubling because these are women who are in interracial relationships with Black men. These are women who are now parenting biracial children. And so I think that they have to have a little bit more sensitivity and awareness as it relates to race than they’ve shown in the past.

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Frank: That was actually something I wanted to ask you about because we have Kim, Khloe, and Kylie all now are the mothers of biracial children, and their children are all half Black. And so I wondered if you think that their relationship to race has at all materially or meaningfully changed since giving birth to those children. Do you feel like they’ve done any work since having these children to atone even for their lapses in racial sensitivity?

Boylorn: I think that there have been efforts from them as mothers that demonstrate a racial reckoning that was not present in their earlier years, because it was one thing to date Black men, but it’s another thing to raise a Black child. But even as we think about the racialized aesthetic and perception, I think it’s also important to bring in the idea of colorism into the conversation. Because you have the ways in which the skin complexion of these children will either make them more or less susceptible to discrimination. And so we’ve seen this most especially with Khloe’s daughter, True, who is the darkest skinned of the Kardashian children. Because of colorism, light-skinned and racially ambiguous Black people have more access to beauty than darker skinned. And so I think that there are really interesting ways that we’ve seen people characterize these children and characterize True in particular because she was darker skinned, as if she was not as beautiful.

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And I think that if they don’t nip that in the bud, that kind of requires them to kind of lean into these complexities of race, because if they don’t, even if they’re not treating these children differently, they have the eye of the world treating them differently, seeing them differently and treating them differently in the same way that it would any other child of color. But I definitely have seen… we see Kim Kardashian being more involved in the criminal justice system and seeking justice for people. And I think that’s important. And I think that is informed by her now being a mother to Black children. We’ve seen Kylie’s attempts at figuring out how to do her daughter’s hair. And so I think that those are really good examples of a positive way that they’re able to now use the platform to create some type of consciousness that they now have as parents.

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Frank: I agree. I think the hair example is just really salient and speaks to me. That’s something that’s really, personally, a resonance. And I mean, I’m glad that you sort of dovetailed into the idea that it’s not all negative. Obviously, the cultural appropriation… much of this is negative, as is much of the way that they have co-opted Blackness for their own gain and not shown much consciousness in doing so in the past. We’ve been with them for so long now.

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Boylorn: And they’ve grown up. We have to give people grace to mature.

Frank: Absolutely.

Boylorn: And to know better and do better. Right? So I definitely think some of my animus to them is located in specific incidences that may have been a long time ago, but they just feel so present because of social media, because you can still click on it and it brings it right back. Like some of the more egregious things, they’re just a click away. And so even though that might’ve been three years ago, it’s still assessable because they’re still so popular. And because there are people who will still lean on that thing that they said, and not the new thing that they’re saying, it’s sometimes hard to unravel.

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Frank: And of course they are still making mistakes. I think about the Skimms incident a lot, Kim’s shape wear line. And originally she called it Kimono, as in the Japanese robe. There was a huge backlash that Kim reckoned with by changing the name, but… her apology didn’t seem to truly acknowledge understanding why kimono was such a bad fit.

But I do think it’s important that now that we do have these very prominent white women taking care of Black girls and boys, it is really powerful to see things like Kylie doing Stormi’s hair and Khloe having this beautiful, darker skin daughter, True, and really supporting her and advocating for her, especially as a single mother too. There are some other good, not necessarily uncomplicatedly good, but good impacts. You mentioned Kim getting more involved with criminal justice. She is taking the LSAT. She specifically is interested in helping out people who are incarcerated. What’s your take on that, the whole Kim’s-becoming-a-lawyer thing?

Boylorn: There’s part of me that’s like, “What now? What are you doing? And how are you doing that?” But then there’s another part of me that’s like, if you can leverage your celebrity and your influence in a way that will create opportunities of justice, how can we not be for that?

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