It’s Time for Asians to Drop Their ‘Blaccent’

‘Talking Black’ doesn’t make you cool. It makes you racist.

A photo of Awkwafina.
Awkwafina attends the 35th Annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival — Virtuosos Award held on January 18, 2020 in Santa Barbara, California. Photo: Michael Tran/Getty Images

Cultural appropriation is a racist practice that devalues a culture’s history and language and thus disrespects its origins by claiming something to be your own when it’s not. It’s fairly commonplace, with non-Black people appropriating anything from clothes to hairstyles. But the appropriation and theft of African American Vernacular English, also known as AAVE, particularly by non-Black Asians, is a form of appropriation that isn’t as commonly discussed.

This year, East Asian rapper and actress Nora Lum, known professionally as Awkwafina, gained a lot of criticism for her constant code-switching. When she emerged as a public persona under her stage name, she used a blaccent (a Black accent) and a lot of AAVE. Her clothing and mannerisms also replicated the culture and style of Black women. But when she began her rise to fame in the Hollywood industry, she shed this “Black” persona in favor of her regular American accent and mannerisms. The blaccent that made her character hilarious in Crazy Rich Asians seemingly disappeared in her recent award-winning film, The Farewell.

As a non-Black person, the ability to code-switch grants Lum a unique privilege not offered to Black people in their daily lives. As Harley Wong of Wear Your Voice points out in an article about the “trend” of Asians using Blackness to gain fame, using AAVE can cost Black people jobs and high-status positions because AAVE is often not taken as “serious” speech and is therefore invalidated by mainstream, White society.

Young people in the South Asian diaspora have a collective responsibility to dismantle the systems that oppressed our ancestors and Black folks around the world.

Appropriating AAVE and putting on a blaccent is a form of historical violence that replicates itself through our actions today. Treating Black culture as a caricature or face to put on is reminiscent of minstrel shows, in which White actors painted their faces black, drew on bigger lips, and essentially degraded Black folks for sport. These types of ugly actions persist. Looking Black is seen as marketable for non-Black people while actual Black artists are underappreciated and racially targeted, and Black folks have had to change or adjust their actual names in order to assimilate into society.

As an Indo-Guyanese woman myself, this history is important to me because of the heightened racial tensions between Black and South Asian folks in the Caribbean era of indentured servitude, an era that followed the abolition of slavery. Afro-Caribbean people were historically seen as dangerous, threatening, and selfish, not unlike representations in current media. Anti-Black racism ran rampant, heightened and driven by British colonizers in order to create divides between workers of color who were forced to partake in the labor of imperialism, working in cane fields and sugar plantations.

And though, as diasporans, we can connect through our shared colonial history, that racist legacy still lives on through older generations of family members. It also means that young people in the South Asian diaspora have a collective responsibility to dismantle the systems that oppressed our ancestors and Black folks around the world.

And yet many of us don’t. Many of us claim the right to use AAVE or “Toronto slang” because we are people of color. Much of Black slang is presented as Toronto slang precisely because of the depth of appropriation that has occurred across various Greater Toronto Area communities. I’ve seen Desi boys walking around with gold chains, low-riding pants, and even durags. Brown rappers like Indian Punjabi rapper NAV and Moroccan rapper French Montana have no issue with saying the N-word and co-opting Black expression for the benefit of their careers.

This is why I cannot, in good faith, claim to be a fan of Lilly Singh. While I applaud her position as the first woman of color to host a late-night talk show, she has been appropriative of AAVE and Black hairstyles and clothing, such as the West African dashiki. In a way, she cosplays Black people. Much of her audience are young South Asian women who might think it’s okay to “try on” Blackness as part of their social performance. Other YouTubers like Liza Koshy and Nigahiga have ridden the same train, taking on a Black form of slapstick comedy.

I think that a lot of Asian appropriation is born out of a desire to be cool or to fit in. … You can respect a culture without wearing it, fetishizing it, or profiting off of it.

While I am constantly looking for representation, I know I must be selective in the artists and creatives I choose to engage with. And if I truly want to be an ally, I must check my own self. I often find myself using Toronto slang — my cousin and I used to say “ahlie fam” to each other when we were in high school. “Fam” is early 2000s Black English (and Black British) slang. “Ahlie” is Jamaican patois slang. Other words like “yute” or “wasteyute” also come from Jamaican patois, and these are words I’m also guilty of using in the past; so are a lot of people at my predominantly White school. I’m Guyanese. Indo-Guyanese. When my Black cousins use AAVE, that doesn’t mean I have the right to use it because we’re family. I have to acknowledge my privilege as a South Asian-appearing person in an inequitable and highly stratified world.

In an age where cancel culture has run rampant, I have no intentions of writing off Lilly Singh or Nora Lum as wholly evil or corrupt. But an acknowledgment of past behaviors and their historical contexts would be the next best step. Singh’s platform has taken off; Lum is now a Hollywood star. Now is a great time for her to talk about the damaging effects of cultural appropriation on a global scale.

A lot of the time, I think having an Asian identity can feel confusing in a society where humans seem to be categorized into a colonial system that operates through a binary of Black and White logic. I think that a lot of Asian appropriation is born out of a desire to be cool or to fit in. Some might even think mimicking a culture is the same as respecting it. You can respect a culture without wearing it, fetishizing it, or profiting off of it in a way that Black folks generally do not. I urge you to consider your standpoint.

Let’s find our own identity and embrace it. I encourage us to look toward solidarity and nuanced understanding of our collective histories before getting defensive. This is how we move toward dismantling the systems that continue to oppress people of color.

A version of this was originally published at The Strand on January 28, 2020.

Fiction writer, poet, and freelancer. Indo-Guyanese. Professional yawner. Twitter @hahadiyyah Kofi:

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