On Feb. 5, rapper-turned-actress Awkwafina, aka Nora Lum, posted a series of screenshots of text written in the Apple Notes app (you may see where this is going).
“There is a sociopolitical context to everything, especially the historical context of the African American community in this country. It is a group that is disproportionately affected by institutionalized policies and law enforcement policies —all the while having historically and routinely seen their culture stolen, exploited and appropriated by the *dominant* culture for monetary gain without acknowledgement nor respect for where those roots come from, the pioneers of its beginnings and the artists that perfected and mastered the craft,” she writes.
This doesn’t really seem controversial (yet), and since it was posted in the month of February which is Black History Month, you could make the assumption that it was a somewhat long-winded way of acknowledging Black History Month and the history of how non-Black Americans appropriate Black culture. If you did not know much about Awkwafina, you would not notice the glaringly obvious lack of acknowledgment of Lum’s part in this pattern of appropriation. Nowhere in this long-winded statement does she apologize for her role in appropriating Black culture.
Lum has also been called out in the past over comments (or lack thereof) regarding her appropriation of Black culture, and using a “blaccent” (most apparent in “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Ocean’s 8”). Her ignorance was particularly glaring when she spoke about the roles she refused that were based on Asian stereotypes in an interview with Vice in 2017.
“I’m not OK with someone writing [about] the Asian experience for an Asian character. Like that’s annoying and I make it very clear, I don’t ever go out for auditions where I feel like I’m making a minstrel out of our people,” she said.
I do not think I need to pontificate further on the crystal-clear hypocrisy in this statement. She has a problem with portraying the Asian experience in a way that feeds into stereotypes, but has no problem doing so with the Black experience.
Lum also pointed out in her statement on Twitter that she grew up watching and consuming media with Black people, and was thus shaped by it, including her love for hip-hop. She had no real Asian role models to look up to, so she looked up to the people whose experience she saw as close to her own. Children of the ’90s and ’00s may certainly only have had Black people as the only non-white representation in media, and I would understand it if it were just in their adolescence where they just weren’t aware of the problematic nature of shaping their identity on Black culture. But Awkwafina is now 33 years old and has not once acknowledged her past mistakes beyond merely saying “it is a conversation that needs to be had.” What seems to escape our understanding, however, is that we can’t just use Black culture to find our own identity just because we think the only two options are Black or white.
I understand the struggle to figure out your identity as a child of immigrants in America who speak another language, and having to be comfortable with not quite fitting the image of the “typical American” (read: white). I get it, I really do. But just because we are struggling with our own identity does not mean we get to appropriate someone else’s.
Awkwafina is not the only Asian American to partake in this pattern. Lilly Singh, NAV, Rich Brian and many others have appropriated AAVE and Black culture for their rap or their comedy. Lilly Singh also posted on Instagram a series of pictures of her with Black celebrities, and a long, winding caption talking about how she grew up on TV shows and movies with Black people, in honor of Black History Month. Rich Brian, an Indonesian rapper, used to go by the name “Rich Chigga.” NAV used the n-word in his songs frequently until at least 2017.
Beyond just celebrities, this is a pattern I have seen within my own community as well. Under the guise of “appreciating hip-hop”, there will be South Asians who try to “act Black” in an attempt to distance themselves from whiteness. This is also common because of how much “Gen-Z slang” is made up of appropriations of AAVE (bestie, girl, sis, finna, the habitual “be”), so it becomes difficult to differentiate between what is just slang and what is an appropriation of AAVE. I am not absolving myself of any mistakes in the past either, since I have also only recently begun paying much more attention to the words I use and where they come from, especially online.
But with many people in my community of South Asian Americans, especially my community in my suburb of Albany, New York (where I know they aren’t regularly hanging out with more than maybe two Black people at a time), their extent of interactions with Black people and Black culture is most often media — whether it be music, TV shows or movies. At school, they’ll talk in a way they think is “cool.” At home, not a chance.
I don’t need to be an expert on the nuances of cultural appropriation to know that South Asians should not be saying the n-word (no, not even in songs). There is certainly some subjectivity (the n-word not included) in the line between appropriation and appreciation, and scholars like Nitasha Sharma (an actual expert) in her book “Hip-Hop Desis” would likely point out that some of these cases of South Asians specifically in hip-hop would qualify as “appropriation as identification” rather than “appropriation as othering”; a tribute rather than a performance of a caricature of Blackness. There is also a long history of cultural exchange between the South Asian and Black communities, as well as Asian Americans in general with Black people.
This shared history and cultural exchange does not erase the part Asian Americans have played in the oppression of Black people and the appropriation of Black culture. It should not be on Black people or communities to have to point out the rather basic conclusion that appropriating a different community’s culture and language is wrong. It is easier for us as children of immigrants to build wealth than it is for Black people who have faced systemic barriers we do not for generations. We don’t get to appropriate a culture they have fought for generations to protect.
We know what it feels like to be used for our culture and our traditions to be taken from us and warped for someone else’s uses and will call it out swiftly, so why do we do it to anyone else?
We also tend to claim solidarity based on our shared struggle against white supremacy and the consequences of colonization and imperialism. We should absolutely acknowledge our shared struggles, and unite to move past them. Most of us children of immigrants would not have been here without the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 that was passed because of the activism in the Civil Rights Movement.
But we also tend to equate our oppression with that of Black people and communities — which is absolutely wrong. Black people in this country are disproportionately impacted by law enforcement policies and systemic racism, far more than we as Asian Americans are. Not only do they face systemic racism, Black people also face the colorism that is rampant in Asian American communities as well. Just because we are fighting a similar fight, does not mean we are fighting the same one.
As Professor of Africana Studies Kellie Carter-Jackson pointed out to me, “There’s only one reason Awkwafina could use AAVE and find it acceptable if not advantageous, and that’s because the culture and Hollywood sanctioned it. In the end, these debates become a distraction. Black people and Asian people are both getting pummeled by white supremacy. Solidarity is how we get free.”
Professor Carter-Jackson is correct in that Hollywood and celebrity culture makes it so that using AAVE is advantageous to non-Black people. But solidarity — true solidarity — will only occur when we South Asian Americans and Asian Americans in general are able to recognize that our struggles against white supremacy are similar to Black people’s, but not the same. People of color face a lot of systemic barriers and prejudice, bigger issues than cultural appropriation, but if we cannot recognize our part in appropriating something as fundamental to us as language itself, how are we going to substantively change anything for any of us? The only way we build solidarity between our communities is when we learn to be much more conscious of our actions and our language. Then our advocacy for equity will be truly inclusive of all of us — Asian Americans and Black people alike.