Not my representation
Denouncing the Non-Black Asian Appropriation of AAVE
Performative allyship often goes deeper than the surface. So-called allies often label themselves as such but engage in behaviour that supports white supremacy and benefits their own status in the social/racial hierarchy. But cultural appropriation is a surface level kind of racism that can contribute and align itself with the same kind of performative allyship we (activists, specifically Asian activists) criticize. It devalues a culture’s history and language, and thus, disrespects its origins by claiming something to be your own, when it’s not. The appropriation and theft of African American Vernacular English, also known as AAVE, is one such issue.
This year, East Asian rapper Awkwafina (Nora Lum) gained a lot of criticism for her constant code-switching. When she presented as her stage name, Awkwafina, 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 favour of her regular American accent and mannerisms. 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.
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. That said, we cannot be ahistorical about the way we treat Black folks in the media and in real life today because these types of ugly actions persist. White artists like Ariana Grande have engaged in minstrelsy in order to appear or appeal more to a Black audience. Notice that the darkening of her skin came just before Sweetener and thank u, next were released, her most hip hop-type albums to date. Notice that looking Black is seen as marketable or convenient 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, this history is important to me because of the heightened racial tensions between Black and South Asian folks in the Caribbean era of indenture, an era that followed the supposed abolition of slavery. Afro-Caribbean people were sometimes 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 colour who were forced to partake in the labour 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. But 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 colour. Much of Black slang is presented as “Toronto slang” precisely because of the depth of appropriation that has occurred across various GTA 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 (just because French is from Morocco does not mean he’s Black, hello) 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 Lily Singh. While I applaud her position as the first woman of colour to host a late-night talk show, I know that she has built her career and brand around the appropriation of AAVE and Black hairstyles and clothing, such as the West African dashiki. In a way, she cosplays Black people. Take her braids, for example, the ones that start at the back of her head and make their way into the front — they’re called cornrows, though Kim Kardashian’s weird “boxer braid” campaign might tell you otherwise. Cornrows are an African hairstyle and there’s a reason non-Black people should never wear them. Princess Gabbara of Ebony Mag writes that cornrows were used in ancient African societies to signify the status of Kings, warriors and other royalty. In the 60s and 70s they were popularized during the Black Power Movement and resurged in the 90s through celebrities like NBA star Allen Iverson and actor Jada Pinkett-Smith.
In her seminal work on the hip-hop world, Black Noise, scholar Tricia Rose writes about the voyeurism of Black ghetto life that followed the popularization of hip hop through MTV in the 1980s. Black style simply became “Streetstyle”. Non-Black people began consuming and reproducing Black cultural aesthetics and fetishizing a struggle that was not theirs. Rappers like Vanilla Ice faked their ghetto origins to be relatable and align with the aesthetics of 80s hip hop. In this case, white rappers can benefit from their white privilege in terms of climbing the industry ladder and gaining fans, as well as fit into the hip-hop fandom created for and by Black people.
If you think being from the ghetto is “cool,” would you actually want to grow up in a so-called ghetto? Would you actually want to face the struggles of being Black in a racist, classist, and sexist North America? I don’t see a huge difference between Vanilla Ice’s questionable behaviour and performances that artists like Singh and Lum put on for their fans.
While I am constantly looking for representation, I know I must be selective in the artists and creatives that 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. The problem with this is that being Caribbean is no excuse for certain words specific only to the Black community. “Fam” is early 2000s Black English (and Black British) slang according to a few sources. “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. But I’m Guyanese. Indo-Guyanese. When, for instance, 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. The US graduation rate for white and Asian students is still around 20 percentage points higher than for Black and Hispanic students (I’d like to note, however, that there are issues with the category “Asian” as it implies mutually exclusive categories that don’t overlap with Black or Hispanic identities, as well as encompassing a large variety of countries and identities). In a correspondence for Al-Jazeera, Nigerian student Ibrahim Djiji Adam notes that in India, Black college students are routinely harassed and demonized as “drug dealers” and “prostitutes.” Asian students do not routinely face these kinds of sanctions for simply existing. This harmful dynamic makes Lilly Singh’s appropriation even more problematic, as 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.
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 acknowledgement of past behaviours and their historical contexts would be the next best step. Singh’s platform has taken off, and with a new show in full swing, it would be a great time for her to talk about the damaging effects of cultural appropriation on a global scale. Lum is now a Hollywood star. A lot of the time, I think having an Asian identity can feel confusing in 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 towards solidarity and nuanced understanding of our collective histories before getting defensive. This is how we move towards dismantling the systems that continue to oppress people of colour.
Originally published at https://thestrand.ca on January 28, 2020.