Mar 23, 2015

E! Host’s Insensitive Oscars Comment Hits Home Near and Far From the Red Carpet

Carlotta Hamilton stands at the corner of the street where she grew up on Sunday, March 22, 2015. As a twelve-year-old on her way home from school, Hamilton was verbally accosted here by two black men due to the length of her hair. Photo by Hilary Pearson/Reporting Texas

Carlotta Hamilton stands at the corner of the Austin street where she grew up. As a 12-year-old on her way home from school, Hamilton was verbally accosted here by two black men due to the length of her hair. Photo by Hilary Pearson/Reporting Texas

By Ryan Fite
For Reporting Texas

Carlotta Hamilton wasn’t watching the E! network’s hit show, “Fashion Police,” when an on-air host made an offensive joke about the dreadlocked hairstyle Disney star Zendaya wore to the Oscars in late February.

But reaction to Guiliana Rancic’s comment during the red carpet coverage – “I feel like she smells like patchouli oil or weed” – lit up Hamilton’s Facebook page, reminding the 28-year-old Austin native of hurtful words people have hurled at her.

“Everybody will say, ‘Oh it was just a joke or I was just saying stuff,’ but some people need to make sure they take time to think about what they’re saying before they actually say it,” said Hamilton, an aspiring actress who has appeared as an extra in the television drama “American Crime” and in the film “Believe Me.”

While she “wasn’t too cool” with what Rancic, a white Italian-American, said on television, Hamilton noted that she has heard people of various race and ethnicities make insensitive remarks about African-Americans’ hairstyles. For her, it started early on, when two black men shouted from a car.

“I probably was in middle school,” she remembered. “My hair was longer than it is now, and I had it in a ponytail and it was hanging down. I remember some guy was in a car with some other guy. They were driving by and were like, ‘Whoo!’… He couldn’t believe a black girl could have that long … hair.”

Hamilton describes her natural hair as coarse and hard to manage. Sometimes, she said, she wears a medium-length bob-style weave because it is easier to maintain as a busy professional.

University of Texas at Austin student Amber Jones, 22, chooses to wear her natural hair in twist locks. This style involves separating her hair into sections with a comb and twisting two strands around each other. Then the twisting process is repeated with two more strands of twisted hair.

Jones said the mainstream media, on balance, have begun to play a positive role in how people perceive the natural hairstyle that she favors. “The problem is within the black community,” she said. “We’ve been so brainwashed … you need to look closer to white and to have more straight hair. It goes on to the good hair debate. That’s why it needs to start with black people.”

Javier Chavez, a professional hair stylist and the owner of JC’s Cuts in East Austin, primarily has a Latino and African-American clientele. He knows how hair can affect a person’s cultural identity and self-esteem. 

“It’s everything. It’s how they express themselves,” Chavez said.

Rancic publicly apologized to Zendaya and continues to work as a prominent E! personality. Co-hosts Kelly Osbourne and Kathy Griffin stepped away from “Fashion Police,” however, and network officials have put the program on hiatus until September. The death of longtime host Joan Rivers last fall had already prompted questions about the show’s future.

Zendaya accepted Rancic’s apology as “a learning experience for you and the network.”

In a statement posted on her Instagram account, the 18-year-old actress and singer added: “Studies have shown that even though we try to act without prejudice, sometimes it’s just hidden inside us due to our past or surroundings. That hidden prejudice is often influential in our actions.”

Hamilton, too, does not believe the joke was made out of maliciousness. “It was just inappropriate, especially for television,” she said.

While the E! network has remained silent about the controversy and the national discussion of stereotypes that ensued, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is trying to get Americans to engage more openly in conversations about race. In a campaign that ended days after it was announced, Schultz encouraged the legion of Starbucks baristas to give customers “Race Together” stickers, or to write the phrase on coffee cups. The idea received mixed reviews, with skeptics making their views known through social media.

Saying he was motivated by the unrest that followed the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Schultz said he also planned to hold forums with Starbucks employees and to go forward with an advertising campaign in USA Today.

Jones said “Race Together” was a good idea in theory, but she doubted whether it would have been effective. “Personally, I don’t think I would want to talk about race with just anyone at Starbucks,” she said. “I would be kind of uncomfortable.”

But the E! network is “missing a great opportunity” to turn the Rancic controversy into something positive, she said. “I feel that E! has this platform where they should talk about race relations,” Jones said.