Last week, “Crazy Rich Asians” was released to fervent fanfare. The film follows a Chinese-American woman, portrayed by Constance Wu, who travels to Singapore to meet her wealthy Chinese Singaporean boyfriend’s family. Goh Peik Lin, portrayed by Nora Lum aka Awkwafina, is the Singaporean sidekick of Wu’s character. Awkwafina has been acclaimed by fans and the media, including Rolling Stone, Variety and The Washington Post, as the breakout star of the film.
Although in the book the film is based on, Peik Lin is written as a bubbly, rich Singaporean who went to Stanford, Awkwafina’s Peik Lin is a minstrel-esque performance of the “sassy Black sidekick” caricature, complete with the actress speaking in forced African American Vernacular English (AAVE). White and Asian-American audiences’ overwhelmingly positive reception of Awkwafina’s performance evinces multiple truths.
Rolling Stone’s glowing profile of Awkwafina seems to reveal that director John M. Chu implicitly chose Awkwafina in an attempt to rewrite Peik Lin as a trope. Chu said that he specifically cast her based on her YouTube videos, in which she performs her Asian gangster persona, raps and speaks in AAVE. It’s not suprising; this disturbing slapstick Blackface routine has single-handedly propelled her career. She has appeared in three films—”Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising,” “Oceans 8” and now “Crazy Rich Asians.” In each one she plays—you guessed it—the same exact sassy sidekick.
But the issue is larger than Awkwafina. She is emblematic of an entire generation of Asian-American internet celebrities. Over the past ten years, YouTube has become the epicenter of this culture. Many Asian Americans, myself included, grew up consuming posts from our favorite fashion, comedy, music and vlogger YouTubers.
But the scene is full of Asian Americans building their fame and wealth by exploiting Black American culture, including personalities like Eddie Huang; YouTube stars like Liza Koshy, Lilly Singh (aka “Superwoman”), Bretman Rock, nigahiga, Timothy DeLaGhetto and Weylie Hoang; and “rappers” like Awkwafina and Dumbfoundead.
DeLaGhetto, whose real name is Tim Chantarangsu, is a Thai-American YouTuber with 3.8 million followers who produces comedy out of stereotypes of Black American culture. Similarly, Huang is a Chinese-American chef—and writer of the book that “Fresh Off the Boat” was based on—who has been extensively criticized for speaking in fake AAVE, admitting to performing Black American culture and harassing Black women. Meanwhile, South Asian-American Koshy and South Asian-Canadian Singh also specialize in a brand of slapstick comedy that heavily incorporates Black American aesthetics.
But more interesting than their shtick is why Asian-American audiences enjoy watching Asian Americans performing caricatures of Blackness.
First, these performances demonstrate a cultural deficit that we yearn to fill. Because of the relative newness of “Asian American” as a unifying identity and the heterogeneous nature of Asian America, we—East, Southeast and South Asian Americans—have not built a cohesive and rich culture that is distinct from Blackness, Whiteness and our families’ home countries in Asia.
This cultural emptiness is what makes us look to the cloak of Black American cool, to swaddle ourselves in a rich culture that feels American, but not White. When I tweeted about Asian American’s appropriation of Black American culture, the overwhelming negative responses I received from Asian Americans were evidence of this exact phenomenon.
On Asian Americans who “authentically” exploit Black Am culture—non-black AsAms who truly grew up in Black/Latinx neighborhoods & organically absorbed Black Am aesthetic—still do not get a pass to go on and build their entire life’s work & wealth off of leeching Black culture. pic.twitter.com/1xJrQTqF4j
— Muqing M. Zhang (@muqingmzhang) May 20, 2018
They said that my call to abandon anti-Black appropriation forces them to either 1.) be White or 2.) play into model minority or orientalist “kung fu” stereotypes. It didn’t even occur to them that there is another cultural space to inhabit, that we could form a distinct culture that is not Asian, not White, not Black—but Asian American.
In an interview with NPR, Eddie Huang seemed to articulate this cultural deficit that motived him to take on Blackness. “Growing up in America, so many Chinese people call you American. In my case, they called me Black. And I not only didn’t fit in going back to Taiwan…not only was I not American, I was also not Chinese.”
Another popular response to my tweets is that people like Awkwafina claim to have grown up around Black people and thus are entitled to profit off Blackness. A deeper look reveals the flimsiness of this argument. Awkwafina grew up in the Forest Hills neighborhood of Queens, which is actually 2.5 percent Black, 24 percent Asian and 58 percent White, and her normal speaking voice in every one of her interviews has none of the exaggerated AAVE that she puts on for performances.
For non-Black Asian Americans who actually did grow up in Black neighborhoods, it’s one thing to absorb their culture, it’s another to monetize and exploit Blackness. They are effectively being rewarded for Blackness in a way that Black people are not.
Second, Asian Americans resent the model minority stereotype because we often feel it obscures our suffering and flattens our humanity. Thus, some seek to break out of that mode not by questioning the class and racial hierarchy that we are deeply complicit in, but by extracting Blackness. Awkwafina has even said that she got into hip hop, and her associated persona, because there was something “subversive about hip hop.”
Kenyon Farrow writes in his incredible piece “We Real Cool?: On Hip-Hop, Asian-Americans, Black Folks and Appropriation”: “If first-generation White European immigrants…could use minstrelsy…to not only ensure their status as White people, but also to distance themselves from Black people, can Asian Americans use hip hop (the music, clothing, language and gestures, sans charcoal makeup), and everything it signifies to also assert their dominance over Black bodies, rather than their allegiance to Black liberation?”
Third, despite Black people discussing and writing extensively about the fact that hypervisibility does not equal privilege, the fervor around “Crazy Rich Asians” and the incessant comparisons to “Black Panther” feels like we are resentfully chasing the hypervisibility of Blackness.
The fight for media representation has become one of the most prominent rallying cries among Asian Americans. But applauding performers who trade in caricatures merely asserts our feigned dominance over Blackness and our aspiration to ascend to Whiteness. If we wish to subvert White hegemony, we must step away from this imitation of Whiteness’ exploitation of Blackness.
Muqing M. Zhang is a law student at UCLA School of Law and a writer on race, gender and radical Asian-American politics. She tweets @MuqingMZhang.