Awkwafina Isn’t Being Cancelled—She’s Being (Fairly) Criticized

When Awkwafina posted a Notes app statement about her use of a "blaccent," lots of non-Black POC jumped to her defence. That's... not great.

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Stacy Lee Kong

Feb 11 2022

11 mins read

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Image: Shutterstock

‎As far as Notes app apologies go, Awkwafina’s February 5 Twitter post was, well, pretty bad. I’m pretty sure it was meant to be a long-awaited comment on her use of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), and the fact that she posted it during Black History Month definitely indicated it would be apology-adjacent, at the very least. Instead, it was more of an academic-sounding word salad that didn’t say much at all—and definitely didn't include the words “I’m sorry.”  

But you know what was worse than the statement itself? Seeing all the people, many of them non-Black people of colour, who rushed to defend her actions... and dismiss the entirely fair criticism she was receiving.

On Monday, I collaborated with my friend Madelyn Chung of the RepresentASIAN Project on an IG post explaining why Awkwafina’s statement was so disappointing. The overwhelming majority of people who engaged with that post understood the nuanced conversation we were trying to have about liking and wanting to support her while still needing to hold her accountable. Still, some felt upset that we were trying to ‘cancel’ their fave. I've also had this conversation a few times in real life, which made me realize that, for all the commentary on her ‘blaccent,’ there's clearly still a lack of clarity on what exactly is wrong with her actions, not to mention why we as non-Black POC can’t ignore them.

Okay, what did Awkwafina actually say?

Let’s start with the statement itself, because unsurprisingly, it sparked a lot of criticism.

First of all, the timing was not great. I don’t know what exactly would possess someone to open up this can of worms during this month, but I’m guessing she felt she had to say something after facing backlash not just in January over her NAACP Image Awards nomination, but also back in September, when an interview clip from the press tour for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings went viral. Posted by Reuters Showbiz, it shows the actor, real name Nora Lum, stumbling over her words as she tries to address the ongoing controversy over her use of a blaccent, both in the early days of her career, when she developed the ‘ratchet’ character of Awkwafina and performed joke-y rap songs, and more recently in roles like Crazy Rich Asians’ Peik Lin Goh and Ocean’s 8’s Constance.

‎Worse, this interview went down not long after an old Vice interview resurfaced where she talked about the types of roles she wouldn’t accept, and specifically referenced minstrelsy. “I've walked out of auditions where the casting director all of a sudden changed her mind and asked for accents,” she said in 2017. “I refuse to do accents. 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.”

So that’s a) hypocritical, and also b) a lot of times to go viral for the same thing in a six-month period, which is perhaps why she couldn’t wait until, you know, March to say her piece. (Of course, the NAACP Image Awards are scheduled for February 26, so I’m sure that played a role, too.)

But the substance of the statement itself was also less than ideal. What immediately stuck out for me was the fact that, despite choosing to make this statement, Lum refuses to take any responsibility. After noting that Black culture has been “appropriated by the dominant culture for monetary gain without acknowledgment nor respect,” she still goes on to write that, “to mock, belittle, or be unkind in any way possible at the expense of others is: Simply. Not. [Her]. Nature.” The emphasis on the word dominant is an obvious reference to whiteness and implies that she believes her behaviour isn't as destructive as white peoples'. And okay, when two minority groups who are both under the thumb of white supremacy interact, it does become difficult to parse what's cultural appropriation (see: Orientalism in hip hop) and what's cultural sharing. But, you don’t actually get to decide if your actions make other people feel mocked, belittled or hurt, regardless of what you think your nature is.

‎‎Next, she pulls out an academic term—“immigrant acculturation”—to really double down on that message. “In life, linguistic acculturation, immigrant acculturation, and the inevitable passage of globalized internet slang all play a factor in the fine line between offense and pop culture. My immigrant background allowed me to carve an American identity off the movies and tv shows I watched, the children I went to public school with, and my undying love and respect for hip hop," she writes. "I think as a group, Asian Americans are still trying to figure out what that journey means for them—what is correct and where they don't belong.”

‎‎As an immigrant myself, I’m calling bullshit on Awkwafina’s claims

Acculturation is “the process of learning and incorporating the values, beliefs, language, customs and mannerisms of the new country immigrants and their families are living in,” so to parse Lum’s argument, she’s saying that, because Black culture has essentially become popular culture in the Western world, it was natural for her to pick up these speech patterns. There are just a few problems with this claim: first, Lum was born in Long Island to a Korean immigrant mom and a third-gen Chinese-American dad, and was raised in Queens by her dad and second-gen Chinese-American grandparents after her mom’s death when she was four. While I’m the first to acknowledge that coming from an immigrant background complicates identity and is not the same as being culturally American, I’m not sure she can actually claim acculturation if she was born in America and raised by people who were also born in America.

‎Second, it’s not true. Lum grew up in Forest Hills, a neighbourhood in Queens that she describes as “Long Island meets Park Slope meets Archie Bunker.” According to the latest census data, Forest Hills is 50.7% white, 30% Asian, 14.3% Hispanic and 2% Black, so the idea that her acculturation could so prominently feature Black culture doesn’t really hold up, either.

Third, the implication that immigrants are a monolithic group that don’t know better than to mock Black people is not only wrong, it’s offensive.

I actually really like Awkwafina—which is why I think it’s important to call this out

And another thing: what do we do with the fact that, as her career exploded, Lum spoke like Awkwafina less and less? That’s a strong sign that she’s not code-switching, which involves changing your speech, dress and mannerisms to fit the social situation or environment you’re in. If that was the explanation for her accent, we’d likely hear her slip into those speech patterns in interviews or candid videos. (That’s what we’ve seen with Rihanna’s Bajan accent, for example.) In 2020, Bettina Makalintal put it this way for Vice: “[there is] the sense that Awkwafina has given up on this persona in recent months, coinciding with her garnering more serious roles and mainstream acclaim… If we look at her story this way, it's a case study in cultural appropriation: borrowing from a culture that isn't your own, profiting from it, and dropping it when it no longer suits you.”

To be fair, if this was legitimately how she spoke, the conversation would be more complicated. I don't even think anyone would come for her if she just loved hip hop and was funny at the same time. The issue is, she created a parodical character that uses hip hop as the joke. When the facts are laid out like this, it becomes clear that what Lum is doing, both in using a blaccent and in refusing the apologize, is wrong. But that was hard for some people to acknowledge, and honestly, I do get why. As the RepresentASIAN Project's Chung points out, good Asian representation in Western pop culture is a very recent development, and it still feels super fragile, like admitting that something—or someone—is flawed, jeopardizes every piece of Asian art. Plus, there are still so many barriers to mainstream success for Asian creatives that it feels wrong to tear someone down. And it’s also a difficult time for Asian communities; in America, anti-Asian hate crimes surged 73%, according to data from the FBI. And that’s after a 145% rise in 2020.

But, Chung goes on to say, it’s not fair to call out racism against our own communities and ignore it when it’s someone else’s. (Also, for the record, there are members of Asian communities who are also Black. Intersectionality!)

‎And Lum’s blaccent is causing harm. She doesn't sound like a Black person from Queens; she's using stereotypical phrasing and cadences to reference a generic idea of Blackness. As writer and diversity consultant Mikki Kendall told CNN this week, “‘Blaccent' is a term describing the fake accent racists and cultural appropriators use when they mimic Black people. Black people have accents, but we don't all have the same one and yet somehow those two groups always use the same accent when they imitate Black people."

This contributes to a deeply unfair double standard. In that same CNN piece, Emory University’s Nsenga K. Burton explained that when non-Black POC (and white people) use blaccents, it leads to a situation where "non-Black celebrities are celebrated in entertainment for appropriating African American culture, especially our vernacular, while African Americans are either demonized or overlooked when speaking in Black vernacular," she says. Cheryl Bedford, the founder of Women of Color Unite, built on that idea in an interview with Buzzfeed, saying, “the result is always that young Black creatives in Hollywood who actually speak using AAVE are not taken seriously… I mean, when someone uses their voice for comedic effect, what do we think that that does?”

This isn’t a cancellation, it’s calling Awkwafina to account

I think the comments both Chung and I found most frustrating were the ones that claimed by calling attention to Lum’s actions, we proved we were trying to cancel her, and that we didn’t really believe in solidarity.

‎“But this was not at all to cancel her. This was to be like, ‘Listen, this is something that happens in our community, and we need to talk about it,’” Chung says. “It's a tough pill to swallow, because we don't want to acknowledge the harm that we're doing to the Black community. But we have to.”

It’s also worth acknowledging what’s behind the tensions between Black and Asian communities. You will be unsurprised to hear that it’s white supremacy. As a 2021 Vox article pointed out, “white supremacy is what created segregation, policing, and scarcity of resources in low-income neighborhoods, as well as the creation of the ‘model minority’ myth — all of which has driven a wedge between Black and Asian communities. In fact, it is white Christian nationalism, more than any other ideology, that has shaped xenophobic and racist views around Covid-19, according to a recent study. And for Black and Asian American communities to move forward, it is important to remember the root cause and fight together against it.”

I agree—and so does Chung. “The whole point is that we need to support each other, and acknowledge and learn from our wrongdoing so that we can work together to fight white supremacy,” she says.


And Did You Hear About…

TikToker Drew Afualo’s truly brilliant takedowns of misogynistic men.

Katherine Singh’s thoughtful Refinery29 piece on Euphoria, trauma and watching things that make us feel bad.

This deep dive into Reese Witherspoon’s NFT fandom, and who’s *actually* funding her purchases.

Trevor Noah’s excellent take on Joe Rogan’s apology, and particularly Rogan’s claims that it’s not racist to use the n-word or call Black people apes.

This longread about how a rich NYC private school student with a tragic backstory became a scammer—thanks, in part, to the lessons she learned from Anna Delvey at Rikers.

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Awkwafina
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