Nora Lum, aka Awkwafina, for years has been criticised for appropriating AAVE (African American Vernacular English) and using what’s called a blaccent, and specifically speaking with a blaccent as part of her comedic persona and in her comedic roles, only to take it off for her dramatic roles, which is doubling down on the mockery of Black culture, or the performance of what she considers to be Black culture. Awkwafina for years has avoided directly addressing this criticism until this weekend.
What precipitated this response is that she was nominated for an NAACP Image Award a couple of weeks ago for her work in Raya and the Last Dragon. Many in the Black community criticised the nomination calling out the hypocrisy of recognising a person who many believe has benefited “from mocking Black people”.
As activists have pointed out, after remaining silent on the issue for so long, Awkwafina did not take responsibility, and she didn’t even really apologise.
“Putting on any marginalized person’s identity in comedy equates a person’s voice and culture to not being taken seriously,” Cheryl Bedford, the founder of Women of Color Unite — an organization fighting for fair access and treatment for women of color in Hollywood — told BuzzFeed News on Saturday. “It’s making fun of, and it upholds white supremacy by turning the voices of a community into a joke.”
And of course, all this happened during the first weekend of Black History Month when nobody was thinking about Awkwafina at all. There was a conversation about her NAACP nomination a couple of weeks ago, sure, but on Saturday, when Awkwafina and her team decided to trend herself, it’s not like she was making headlines. She only became the headline because of her inadequate statement.
So she ignores the criticism about her forever – and when she finally decides to talk about it, when she’s had years to think about it, the statement falls way short, there doesn’t seem to be any thoughtfulness about the timing, and then her Twitter account starts liking comments only from people who support her, which mostly seem to be non-Black people who have no business accepting her apology and blocking others who are trying to engage her in productive conversation, including this tweet by Jonathan Gibbs, founder of the Black & Asian Alliance Network:
Still processing this. It has been a **long** time coming.— Jonah Sahn (@jonahsahn) February 5, 2022
Sharing with The Black & Asian Alliance Network to gather some talking points, but my initial response is "why did it take so long to say this, especially when you knew the conversation on you existed." You even
“After Gibbs tweeted that he had been blocked by Awkwafina following his response, he said that the actor DM’d him to explain that it was a fumble by her public relations team, who were trying to protect her, Gibbs told BuzzFeed News.
“She apologized if my feelings were hurt and asked me to understand what she goes through,” Gibbs said, referring to his DMs with Awkwafina. “I stated that I get it, and I let her know that there are folks out here still waiting for her to actually address the issue at hand.
“If she's willing to tweet about Black folks, knowing that Black folks have a bone to pick with her, her team shouldn't be shielding her,” Gibbs said. “She should have remained silent until she was ready to actually have the conversations. She has been silent all this time anyway.”
That’s my point about entering the chat this weekend – there was no immediacy for it, especially when she didn’t seem to be prepared. So after stepping into a storm she created, Awkwafina then announced that she was quitting Twitter.
Look, I get that she doesn’t want to spend time on a space where she’s getting vile messages from people who are telling her to kill herself. For any of us who’s ever spent time on Twitter, I think we all get it. That said, it’s possible to understand why she’s removing herself from Twitter and have empathy for her experience and what it’s doing to her mental health but also fairly point out that, well, Twitter probably wasn’t the best place to engage in this discussion in the first place? Especially after all this time, when there were other opportunities to have meaningful and nuanced conversations about this issue?
It's another layer of insult on top of the insult. The way this was handled, there doesn’t seem to have been enough consideration and sensitivity to what she and her team were trying to do. And because of that, it’s giving the impression that this wasn’t a sincere attempt to understand the consequences of her appropriation and the harm it can do and comes off instead as a way to quick fix a problem for PR purposes. Because if she’s DM-ing people and telling them privately that her reps were the ones to blame for blocking people, her reps had to in some way have been involved in the four-slide statement that she posted. And on that level, for all of them, it’s bad work. It doesn’t show that she and they have done the work. A critical part of that work is a simple but clear apology, but there’s no apology in Awkwafina’s statement. There is, instead, a heavy focus on intent. Awkwafina is saying here that she had her intention was not to hurt, that she never consciously intended to be racist. But while her focus here is on intent, she does not address impact – and part of the collective improvement that we’re all hopefully trying to participate in is that intent cannot be considered independent of impact. Because good intent does not protect us from unconscious bias and conditioning.
Awkwafina may have never intentionally set out to be racist, but that doesn’t mean that her actions haven’t contributed to reinforcing harmful stereotypes about Black people and upholding white supremacist standards in how she benefitted from her proximity to whiteness as a member of the model minority. A blaccent on Awkwafina advanced her career; a blaccent on a Black person can hold them back.
There’s no acknowledgement of any of this in Awkwafina’s statement. Rather she focuses toward the end on her Asian American identity and how complicated it is for the Asian American community to “figure out… what is correct and where they don’t belong”. To be honest, because I’m Asian also, I can relate to Awkwafina on this. Is it instinct? Because there’s common ground that we share? Even if it’s instinct, it's still wrong, and it doesn’t mean it can’t be checked. And I do have to check myself, on this and so many other reactions. Appropriating AAVE isn’t necessarily part of my racist past and present but I certainly have a racist past and because our world is shaped by white supremacy, I have a racist present and future of learned behaviours that have to be checked continuously.
Awkwafina has been checked for a long time. She has finally responded to that check but has fallen short. She will keep getting checked by the people who have rightly called her out (without resorting to death threats) for the shortcomings in her statement but sometimes, it’s the self-check that’s the hardest to process.