Mainstream America takes Black American culture and does what it wants with it. Whether through music or film, the mainstream mimics Black culture. One example includes phrases and speech patterns known as blaccent (a Black accent), “a manner of speaking indicative of the stereotypical African American” according to Urban Dictionary.
Kids in America grow up with “blaccent” as a standard for coolness. This pattern of taking from Black culture is part of American culture. But when it comes to famous individuals like actress Nora Lum, co-star of Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, is the use of blaccent intentional theft or just one of millions of cases where non-Blacks are passively shaped by a culture fueled by Black creatives?
Before Nora Lum was in movies, she was known as the rapper Awkwafina. She created her alter ego while attending LaGuardia High School of Music & Performing Arts. Nora had always loved underground Rap music and always imitated it, rapping into boom boxes as a teenager. In college, she grew her rap career on YouTube, going viral in 2012 for her creative parodies and comedic jabs at Asian stereotypes. She has since risen in fame through Hollywood films in recent years, starting with smaller roles in films like Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians. Later, Awkwafina played the lead as Billi in The Farewell.
Awkwafina has helped Asian representation become part of larger conversations in entertainment. However, after a 2017 Vice article resurfaced, Twitter users are contributing to #awkwafinaisoverparty to boycott her and Shang-Chi due to her use of blaccent in previous films.
In the 2017 Vice article, Awkwafina was asked if there are any roles she would not accept. She mentions, “I’ve walked out of auditions where the casting director all of a sudden changed her mind and asked for accents. I refuse to do accents … I don’t ever go out for auditions where I feel like I’m making a minstrel out of our people.”
In 2018, Awkwafina appears in the movie Ocean’s 8 about an all-female crew that attempts an impossible jewelry heist at New York City’s Met Gala. Awkwafina plays Constance, a local New York city street hustler and pickpocket. She is recruited by Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) for her quick hands after Debbie witnesses Constance scam people in Three-card Monte. Upon searching through the Twitter feeds of folks boycotting Awkwafina, this clip often came up. In the video, she appears to be doing blaccent.
Twitter users saw the Three-card Monte clip, took her Vice quote, and thought they had a strong enough case to boycott her for cultural appropriation. Despite Awkwafina’s background, folks claim she has always used blaccent to profit. But what really is “blaccent” and what is it indicative of in this case? Is Awkwafina trying to sound Black? Or does Awkwafina using Black American speech patterns sound American?
Nora Lum grew up in Queens, New York. In this New York Daily News article, Queens College linguistics professor Michael Newman denotes a Queens accent has “drawn-out vowels and a distinct nasal sound.” He then provides an example in Archie Bunker from the TV show All in The Family.
Listening to Archie Bunker’s higher-pitched “drawn-out vowels and distinct nasal sound” is comparable to Constance’s speech during her Three-card Monte scam. New York accents are aplenty and borough-specific accents can be dissected in many ways. Nora doing a Queens accent reminiscent of Bunker while using Black slang will inevitably be perceived as “blaccent” because American speech patterns contain a mixture of styles Nora understandably grew up with.
In a Vulture article, writer Lauren Michele Jackson states, “Appropriation is a tricky thing in the 21st Century … Awkwafina’s antics don’t, to me, conjure blackness any more than Ed Sheeran’s bars.” Jackson explains Awkwafina’s performance may not imply blackness at all, saying the global phenomenon of blaccent ” … makes it impossible to know whether a nonblack millennial studied black culture like a textbook or grew up with the same media as most of us.” But when one’s idea of blaccent is this perceived “trying” to sound Black, cultural appropriation is the only answer. That’s not fair to Nora, or any creative who may be a product of their environment rather than a calculated hijacker.
In the same article, Jackson uses the example of Nicki Minaj dipping into Orientalist aesthetics. I was reminded of Nicki Minaj’s Your Love music video. Most of the video’s setting and tone was aesthetically Asian with a plot about a martial arts teacher and his female students literally fighting for his love. Nicki has one lyric that says “I think I met him in the sky / when I was a Geisha, he was a Samurai.” This along with her silky kimono getup and long straight black hair pinned up into a bun with two sticks is aesthetically Asian.
In the end, Nicki dies fighting for his love, a typical trope in Asian love-and-war movies. The Japanese references, clothing, and hairstyles are products of a culture that became a global phenomenon everyone uses. If you go out for Panda Express, for example, they’ll provide you chopsticks. Some Asian things have also become American things.
If the roles were reversed, would Nicki be guilty of hijacking a subculture developed by Asian creatives? What’s the difference between Nicki’s use of “Asianness” and Nora’s use of “blaccent”? Examples like these are pieces of culture so far removed from their origins that getting upset at the individual is a waste of time.
Once again, is Nora’s blaccent intentional theft or as passively learned as most of us?
Because of historical exploitation of Black culture long before Awkwafina, it’s silly to blame an individual for something that happens so passively and is so removed from its origins. Most Americans are exposed to it. “Cultured” people talk with certain phrases and express themselves with these speech patterns because of this underlying cross-cultural act. “Blaccent” is an American phenomenon.
Now I’ve actually seen the movie. I don’t think the woke Twitter mob has. In the Three-card Monte scene above she does say, “Where she at? Where dat bitch (Queen card) at?” as she’s pulling her scam, and, “You a real one,” as she comforts the victim before snatching his watch. But besides those few lines, the rest of her lines are without a distinct “blaccent.”
Take a look at the Archie Bunker clip again and you may agree he and Constance are from the same area. Watch the rest of Ocean’s 8 and notice she doesn’t speak that same way in most of the following scenes. In the very next scene after the scam, beginning at 3 minutes 11 seconds, Debbie Ocean takes Constance to a Subway restaurant while explaining the job and Constance orders her sandwich in a neutral tone sans-Queens borough accent and blaccent.
In an exclusive interview with FilmIsNow, Awkwafina mentions Ocean’s 8 writer Olivia Milch was familiar with her as an artist and wrote the role of Constance specifically for her, presented as a low-level street pickpocket with fast hands in New York’s Elmhurst neighborhood. “She’s not an Asian woman. She’s not a gangster. She’s just a street kid. And the way it was written was extremely accurate.”
So people on the internet got a sound bite of what they believe to be blaccent, then paired it with her answer about not doing accents. Is Awkwafina guilty of cherry picking parts of Blackness for profit? Or are people cherry picking her scenes for a reason to boycott?
Awkwafina code-switching in Hollywood does not mean she’s disingenuous. She might be an Asian American woman presenting as Black-adjacent, and a Queens/street style of speech can’t help but seem a bit Black because it is. Again, since it’s so standardized, what’s the real issue here?
At the end of the day, Awkwafina is an Asian American actress from Queens. By representing herself, I don’t believe she is misrepresenting anyone else. She chose to be a hip hop artist because it was an adopted passion from her environment. She played a New York street kid because it was a role written for her and she knew it well. And she didn’t “drop the act” in a more serious film like The Farewell, she played a different character.
It is evident Black people are trendsetters in pop culture. It’s easy to be mad at a non-Black person succeeding while using trends of Black origin because it keeps Black culture popular while Black people remain in the background. But boycotting a non-Black creative of color for blaccent doesn’t do as much for the cause as it would if you boycotted Forever 21 for selling N.W.A. shirts. Instead, it dismisses the individual of their opportunity, bringing both them and the boycotters back to where they started while true theft lies with corporations guilty of exploiting Black culture in far larger and more malicious ways.
Nora Lum may not be from the hood, but she wasn’t dying to make blaccent her own and make a minstrel of Black people. Do you really think boycotting Nora makes sense? When you deny a film like Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings, what are you really upset about? Should you be upset?