Asian Americans and anti-blackness
January 25, 2020 7:35 AM   Subscribe

Thumbnail description: Intersectionality is complicated when non-black non-white women are assessed. Using AAVE is not cool for non-black people. Asian Americans have an awkward status in white culture.
posted by kozad at 8:40 AM on January 25, 2020 [9 favorites]

As a person of Pakistani descent growing up in Toronto in the 80s and 90s there was no culture for kids like me. Local culture was pretty much White which you obviously could never be no matter how much you wanted to fit in. You could adopt Desi/Pakistani culture but it would be Pakistani from Pakistan, not Pakistani-Canadian or American so wouldn't really fit your life. Or you could appropriate Black culture because that was the only non-white culture with any relevance. We would all be unavoidably Desi to varying degrees but would also be a bit White (assimilation) or Black (appropriation) depending on which we identified with more at the time. For famous people like Awkwafina or Lilly Singh I don't doubt that Black culture is part of their identity but they have platforms and should use them to at least acknowledge their appropriations and give their reasons for doing so.

There is still so much casual anti-Black racism in the Desi community. Some of it is for "self-defence": we know we aren't at the top of the racial hierarchy here but at least we can make it clear, to both ourselves and society at large, that we aren't at the bottom either, but I think more is that because we aren't White we think we can't be racist or our racism doesn't matter (for an example see every Russel Peters show ever). We can be and it does.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 8:44 AM on January 25, 2020 [44 favorites]

In that first article, it also mentions Rich Brian (previous stage name a pun on a the n-word) who's actually Indonesian and that brings up another aspect to the anti-blackness. Asians outside of the west in the third world adopt it too, and yeah I do think part of it was unexamined consumption of everything the western pop culture brought to us, which complicates matters.

Because part of it is aspirational, and identification, and in a lot of ways it resulted in an in-built positivity to black culture in Asia that apparently leads to actual black people feeling safe and appreciated (eg this ongoing yt series The Black Experience Japan, but he's been visiting other East and Southeast Asian countries) but... In that it feels more of a piece with when African creatives get to tap that same vein and profit exponentially more than the original cultural producers, while having some real prejudiced opinions about black Americans (part of it is racism, part of it is colourism).

So it does feel appropriative, because these people may be global poc but we're talking about class elites back home. And once that network gets built... Like, Rich Brian gets to appropriate and then gets opportunities in America, and then thru him a previously basic popstar fellow Indonesian like Agnes Monica gets to reinvent herself into Agnez Mo, complete with a blaccent. And because we want to represent so much, just any old scammer can come in and take advantage.
posted by cendawanita at 9:18 AM on January 25, 2020 [5 favorites]

we think we can't be racist or our racism doesn't matter (for an example see every Russel Peters show ever). We can be and it does.

Absolutely. As a person belonging to a minority in Sweden, I feel like I've more directly experienced racism from other minorities than from Swedish people. It's subtle and obviously less systemic but it's there and the more identities you have (me: immigrant, middle-eastern, young, nerdy, introvert), the more difficult it becomes. That's just what cultural proximity does when 90% of the people around you are struggling minorities and come from cultures that really aren't diverse and don't value or teach diversity. This is one of those aspects of racism that we rarely, if ever, speak about because some of the conclusions are REALLY uncomfortable.

For what it's worth, I adore Awkwafina but I can see why this shit stinks to Black people. It doesn't get less wrong and tiresome because Awkwafina is Asian, cool, making it in Hollywood, etc.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 9:26 AM on January 25, 2020 [9 favorites]

I was recently at a lecture given by a woman from Guadeloupe in the French Caribbean, where she brought up her concept of the "blackstream." This referred to a cultural stream, like mainstream, but coming from the black experience. It is in a way, the most globally popular cultural stream right now, yet also an outsider, oppressed culture.

I see how asian people appropriating black culture can be problematic. (I have watched TV in Japan.) I can also dig the idea of a rich "darkstream" culture that is a non-white melting pot. Hip-hop culture has certainly incorporated or appropriated a lot of asian culture.

Outside the US some of this is maybe more complicated. The island where I live is 80% black and has own accent and version of english. Speaking it is not an appropriation for a white or asian person who grew up here. But as a culture that developed in the colonized Caribbean it is certainly part of the blackstream.
posted by snofoam at 10:27 AM on January 25, 2020 [20 favorites]

I am not indigenous but a lot of Canadian indigenous people adopt African American cultural elements. I've always assumed that it's because not only is African American culture exciting and dynamic, but it is in itself a form of resistance, and oppressed people have a natural affinity. It would never occur to me that this was a form of blackface but I guess if you were to visualize oppression as a ladder indigenous people are on the bottom rung.

The thing I can't decide is whether indigenous people get away with it because it's legitimate, or because they're simply invisible to most people.
posted by klanawa at 11:21 AM on January 25, 2020 [26 favorites]

Wow. I've had mixed feelings about Awkwafina and Eddie Huang for a while now.

(This is not a story where I come out looking good.)

White people keep mentioning these two to me as "representing" me. I usually smile and nod and say something noncommittal. But I don't agree, because I don't think they talk, dress, or (publicly, at least) behave like me.

I wanted my representation to be more someone like...I don't know, Ji Xiao Lan. (Summary: wacky misadventures of a court official with a silver tongue and a soft spot for the underdog.)

Instead I got some buffoon longing for a pair of sneakers. I actually stopped watching Fresh Off the Boat after that. I just couldn't deal with that being the first Asian family on American television.

But I didn't have a word for quite how their behavior diverged from mine, so I just thought of them as too Americanized or maybe too low-class.

Now that it's been pointed out to me, yes, it's very obvious that the aspects of their behavior I dislike are the ones they cribbed from black people. Roughly, my complaint, even if I didn't know it at the time, was that they were too black.

So, uh, that's not great, and I'm not sure where to go from here.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 2:05 PM on January 25, 2020 [22 favorites]

The thing I can't decide is whether indigenous people get away with it because it's legitimate, or because they're simply invisible to most people.

It probably isn't the first, because “appropriation” can't take the adjective “legitimate”. If something is appropriative then it can't be the result of an organic, unconscious transfer: the recontextualisation is a deliberate act taken without the consent and support of the original culture. The appropriation might be justifiable under the circumstances, and it can even be locally positive and helpful, but by definition it isn't legitimate.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:19 PM on January 25, 2020

23skidoo: the Serena Williams dig also strikes me as targeting her for her perceived "manliness," the idea being that her vagina must be similarly "unfeminine"

Also, as per the recent post on goop: is Awkwafina talking about her vagina, or her vulva?
posted by Saxon Kane at 4:03 PM on January 25, 2020

My vag beats yo vag by a million
Yo vag is frightening like Serena Williams

And like, there's no way to make the case that "frightening" was meant as a compliment, because the whole point of the song is that her vagina is the best, and your vagina is the worst.

I feel like only a Non Asian American would interpret the "whole point" song as being about superiority. An Asian American would only make a song about superiority in order to deconstruct it. It's an aspect of the lived experience of Asian Americans in dealing with Chinese and White/Western culture, and unless you know these narratives that are particular to AA's, I wouldn't expect outsiders to immediately pick up on in artistic expression or writing.
posted by polymodus at 7:09 PM on January 25, 2020

Snickerdoodle, I'm pretty sure FOB diverges completely from the real Eddie Huang's life after episode 1. They took out all the beatings because it's not a very family-friendly look for an ABC sitcom. Per Eddie Huang himself: "The network’s approach was to tell a universal, ambiguous, cornstarch story about Asian-Americans resembling moo goo gai pan written by a Persian-American who cut her teeth on race relations writing for Seth MacFarlane. … And why isn’t there a Taiwanese or Chinese person who can write this? I’m sure there’s some angry Korean dude in Hollywood who grew up eating Spam, watching his dad punch his mom in the face, who knows how to use Final Draft!”

Counterpoint by Arthur Chu: Just like he defends the authenticity of his memoir by slamming the inauthenticity of anything in the show that deviates from it – not acknowledging that there’s things in the show that may ring more true for some Asian viewers than his memoir does because his experience is not universal, not acknowledging that showrunner Nahnatchka Khan, as a child of immigrants herself, might have as much useful input for a show like this as he does.

Intersectionality and its responsibilities are complicated. I have friends who loved watching the show with their kids but I lost interest myself after a few episodes. I'm also really put off by Eddie Huang's persona (honestly that group of Asian American male chefs with random Vice/Netflix shows is another post unto itself) but didn't really figure out for myself why until I read these articles articulating that discomfort.
posted by toastyk at 9:24 PM on January 25, 2020 [5 favorites]

Thanks for all the links, interesting reading.
posted by ellieBOA at 11:40 PM on January 25, 2020

I am none of the above.

however, I do have an extensive and active community in African twitter. And an Asian passport. I do not even have the language and skills to describe the layers of complexity involved in the relationship between African American culture and African culture, and the way they navigate it. I had a long mentorship with a first generation African who is American between 2012 and 2016, and it was through her eyes that i saw how diaspora youth navigated the 'dominant' cultures, of either colour, in America.

If I find some links on thoughtful writing on this, I'll pass by again and add them to the thread.
posted by Mrs Potato at 9:09 AM on January 26, 2020 [1 favorite]

I always was uncomfortable seeing Awkwafina's early persona. It felt as wince-inducing as any earlier 'blackface' or 'yellowface' routine from Bob Hope, etc. It is interesting to see her being called out.

That said, there are many of us at MeFi who have views on intersectionality and cultural appropriation that differ from some of the views in the thread above (and in other threads) and are not generally welcomed here.

But I genuinely wish there were a venue for discussing these vital, important topics that would allow for respectful, open-minded discussion and forthright disagreement. I suspect the burden on the MeFi moderators would be too high, though.
posted by PhineasGage at 12:42 PM on January 26, 2020 [3 favorites]

I don't think this thread is really about cultural appropriation generally, and it would be inappropriate to turn this into an academic discussion that ignores real lived experiences. This thread, as I understood from the links and title, is more about recognizing that Asian Americans (being Americans, living in a society with pervasive anti-Blackness culture) are just as susceptible to anti-Blackness as other people who are not black. Appropriation of Black culture is just one manifestation of that.

To the extent people are (I am guessing?) trying to turn this into a broader conversation about when it is or isn't okay to appropriate, why is x okay but y isn't okay, etc., that conversation might be better held somewhere else, such as the white allies meta (which, from what I understand, isn't limited to people who identify as white).

Meanwhile, wanted to express appreciation to meaty shoe puppet for owning and sharing the revelation above. As another Asian American, I can think of, unfortunately, more than a few times where I've been confronted with my own unthinking and uninterrogated prejudice and racism (both against, frankly, other people of Asian descent, as well as non-Asians), and I think we just learn, keep going, and work hard to be better, right? White allies aren't the only ones who benefit from anti-racist resources.
posted by cdefgfeadgagfe at 1:42 PM on January 26, 2020 [5 favorites]

Not a huge fan of either Awkwafina and Eddie Huang, have never watched FOB, but I think a Chinese or Taiwanese showrunner would've definitely avoided having Eddie use a PRC flag. Like, as a kid in Canada with zero political knowledge, I remember my (HK) parents making an odd expression when I cheered for PRC athletes at the Olympics on TV. You could do an entire episode about the Huangs' relationship with Taiwaneseness vs Chineseness, but I guess that'd be too complicated for Middle America or something and get the actors banned from the PRC.

(Somewhat related, some Asian commentators have poked fun at Andrew Yang for stating his father grew up in a house with a dirt floor in "Asia". It was Taiwan, specifically. I don't think diaspora are obliged to take on the issues of the sourceland, but I also don't think he'd have been so vague if his father was from the PRC!)
posted by airmail at 5:16 PM on January 26, 2020 [4 favorites]

Meanwhile, wanted to express appreciation to meaty shoe puppet for owning and sharing the revelation above. As another Asian American, I can think of, unfortunately, more than a few times where I've been confronted with my own unthinking and uninterrogated prejudice and racism (both against, frankly, other people of Asian descent, as well as non-Asians), and I think we just learn, keep going, and work hard to be better, right? White allies aren't the only ones who benefit from anti-racist resources.

I'm still mulling through a lot of this incredibly insightful conversation here, and I don't have a lot to add for the moment - but I just wanted to echo this thank you. It really is worth interrogating how a lot of the things I like or dislike about my culture are influenced by my racist biases growing up. I'm also simultaneously thinking about this in the context of how I unconsciously contrast asian people from like, my parents' generation, or who don't have experiences of diaspora like me, as being racist (unlike me), and I'm realizing that a lot of it is just me having the cultural literacy to avoid the overt markers of racism considered socially unacceptable in North America, and gain social capital for distancing myself from that, while still holding onto these beliefs. That's definitely a puzzle piece for me to rotate in my head for a while...
posted by Conspire at 7:39 PM on January 26, 2020 [3 favorites] (in collaboration with Asha Grant of The Free Black Women’s Library - Los Angeles): Our Black History Month Reading List for Asian Americans
posted by cdefgfeadgagfe at 10:07 PM on February 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

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