Sesali Bowen is an Entertainment Writer at Refinery29. All opinions are her own.
Six months after what was supposed to be one of her career highlights came crashing down in a heap of controversy, Kendall Jenner has finally broken her silence on that Pepsi commercial. Always saving the good stuff for their mothership entity, Keeping Up With The Kardashians, Jenner was seen crying on the season premiere, visibly upset over the backlash that erupted back in April.
“I felt so fucking stupid,” she said through tears in one confessional. She would never “intentionally hurt someone” — and that's what both Jenner and her sister Kim Kardashian West want us to know about the supermodel in the wake of her first big scandal. But this emphasis on Kendall’s pure intentions and heart of gold actually move us further away from any meaningful conversations about race; and they certainly don’t make me sympathise with Jenner.
For those of you who missed it, Jenner was set to follow in the footsteps of Hollywood icons like Michael Jackson, Beyoncé, and Britney Spears when she snagged a Pepsi endorsement. On 5th April the video advertisement, which showed Jenner leaving a photoshoot to join what looked like a growing protest in the street, hit the internet. In the clip, she takes off her blonde wig and tosses it to a Black woman on her way out. And after making heart eyes at some guys in the crowd, Jenner gives a can of Pepsi to a police officer, prompting a round of cheers. With one cold drink, Jenner made the world a better place. Given that protests have become a huge part of America’s social climate in the wake of violent injustices against people of colour, often at the hands of law enforcement, the ad was tone-deaf, at best. At worst, it was a gross Kidz Bop remake of our collective response to the country’s injustice.
After scrubbing the ad from the internet, Pepsi quickly released an apology for missing the mark and putting Jenner in that "position." CEO Indra Nooyi spoke about the controversy in a recent interview with Fortune. "This has pained me a lot because this company is known for diversity, and the fact that everybody who produced the commercial and approved the commercial did not link it to Black Lives Matter made me scratch my head," she said. "I had not seen that [final] scene. And I take everything personally. The minute I saw people upset, I pulled it."
Jenner, meanwhile, has remained silent, and what we saw last night did not absolve her of any responsibility. Her intentions going into the commercial don’t matter in the face of the serious accusations levied against her. I can imagine that her hands were tied in what she could and could not say publicly, but when you’re at the centre of such a serious matter, you figure out a way to say something. In the words of Desmond Tutu, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
It was painful to watch Jenner and her sisters go on about how much she suffered as a result of the controversy. She just wanted the whole thing to go away and worried that her dad, Caitlyn Jenner, might say the wrong thing in the press about it. Meanwhile, millions of people watched her to pretend to be a vital part of a movement that means life or death to them. Yes, it was evident that Jenner was upset about how the Pepsi campaign went down. But putting all of the emphasis on how sad and disappointed she was by this thwarted opportunity made it about her — not the people who were rightfully offended.
When you’re accused of racism, you have one choice: Do the work of proving where your real allegiances lie. You don’t get to mope about how much it sucks that people think you’re racist. This would have been the time to make a public donation to one of the many organisations supporting the movement for Black lives in this country. This was the time for Jenner to speak up, not play clueless victim of circumstance and obsess about what her dad might say to the contrary. Six months later, it feels like Jenner still doesn't get it.