Eddie Huang and Nora Lum, two Asian Americans who came under fire for appropriation of Black culture

Chasing Black Cool

Stitch weighs in on what we lose when we don't embrace ourselves

Eddie Huang and Nora Lum, two Asian Americans who came under fire for appropriation of Black culture

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Words by Stitch

“Name an Asian dude you want to fuck in mainstream TV right now"

“Name an Asian dude you want to fuck in mainstream TV right now,” Korean American rapper Dumbfoundead tells Bad Rap director Salima Koroma 10 minutes into the 2016 documentary. He’s making a point about how Asian celebrities aren’t seen as thirst objects on their own in popular United States media/cultures. What stands out about this moment is that Dumbfoundead is using this conversation about the perceived devaluing of Asian (American) masculinity to explain some of his interest in hip hop. Implied, of course, throughout this entire segment and much of the documentary is that the kind of masculinity necessary for these Asian men to be taken seriously and be seen as (sexually/romantically) valuable is… Black masculinity.

So, what does that have to do with cultural appropriation in day-to-day life? Blackness has come to be treated as a commodity around the world. A currency. Something that provides lubrication for people to slide between different classes and communities in order to make connections, power collaborations, and speak tough truths. It’s viewed as simultaneously threatening and cool. That concept, of “Black Cool” and of Black people as tastemakers or markers of elite cultural tastes, dates back centuries, as writer and Princeton English professor Simon Gikandi notes across Slavery and the Culture of Taste. Black cool has been around. It’s a vibe, but it’s also a perception of Black people having access to the latest trends as they’re created in a way that then allows people to pick up that “cool” by performing Blackness themselves.

In an interview with the Huffington Post from 2012, author and activist Rebecca Walker defines Black Cool and speaks on the evolution of people’s understanding of it, writing that:

“From Air Jordans to gold teeth and huge diamonds, this generation thinks that Black Cool is something to buy, put on, acquire. They don't understand that it's something they possess internally. Black Cool is a way of being, a human modality that doesn't need money to manifest. You can use objects to express it, but if you don't have it on the inside, if you don't get that Cool is about dignity and grace and restraint and style and personal authenticity, you are as far from real Black Cool as you can be.”

The thing is that Black Cool, as a concept, is hard to define, but its appropriation is easy to see in action, as seen in “blaccent” TikTok skits about "being ghetto", and the way African American Vernacular English (AAVE) gets redefined as “stan Twitter language” and “gay slang” because they’ve been fully divorced from their roots in queer Black communities.

Jay Park in "DNA Remix" music video

H1GHR MUSIC

The thing is that Black Cool, as a concept, is hard to define, but its appropriation is easy to see in action.

Most of our conversations around cultural appropriation and the relationships Asian Americans have with Blackness, tend to link back to popular culture. We talk about K-pop idols with faux locs and rappers like Korean American Jay Park’s crew in the first version of the DNA Remix video. Nora Lum’s use of blaccent in her early work and referencing it in her stage name as Awkwafina has been a bone of contention across many years. When Nora finally released a statement on Twitter, she drew more criticism still for the way she doesn’t engage with the criticism… or show contrition for her actions. Many of these conversations center celebrities because they are more visible than the average person on the street who’s made “Performing Blackness” their personality. It’s important to realize from the start that the issue is a systemic one, however, and it lasts longer than your average TikTok trend or viral YouTube video.

In “Yellow Lines: Asian Americans and Hip Hop”, first published in 2008, author and poet Thien-Bao Thuc Phi notes that, “In a black and white country, one must choose being either black or white or risk being invisible.” This sentence speaks to what many people see as the driving forces behind cultural appropriation as it exists in Asian American communities: a white supremacy-driven notion that prevents Asians in their different diasporic communities from being seen as unique in their communities. Much of the blame is because the United States was built along a black-and-white binary so firm that it’s managed to erase all nuance in day-to-day life and history.

So if your only options are to either be Black or to be white, and being “yourself” is a losing bid, what you choose depends on how you want to be perceived in the world. For many Asian Americans their focus turns to neutralizing negative stereotypes of being meek, docile, and desexualized. In Angela Reyes’ 2005 article “Appropriation of African American slang by Asian American youth”, she noted that one girl in the study says she only speaks slang when she’s mad, and upon probing added that it made her “feel ‘black.’” Reyes observes, “while the linguistic appropriation allowed her to construct a tough identity for herself, it did not require [the subject] to experience any other aspects of being African American that are lived every day.” Similarly, in Bad Rap, for the male rappers that don the costume of Black masculinity, Blackness is a vehicle towards fulfilling their desires and being fulfilled by other people’s desire for them.

“In a black and white country, one must choose being either black or white or risk being invisible.”

Desirability features heavily in many of the performances of Blackness that we see both from Asian American celebrities and regular people. One of the viral videos from the “ghetto trend” has the caption of “the ghetto asian boy meets the new ghetto asian girl in the hallway” and both TikTok users are performing what they think is Black-adjacent sexuality and flirting the way they think Black people their age do. In response to the white supremacy-driven desexualization of Asian men and how Asian women are torn between dueling sexual stereotypes, there’s a choice to embrace Blackness-oriented hypersexualization instead. Back in January, TikToker Kimberly did a video where she used a video by author and entrepreneur Nadya Okamoto as an example of how non-Black people engage with Megan Thee Stallion:

“Non Black women, I want you to do something for me: I want you to go into a room by yourself, and I want you to describe Megan Thee Stallion. Now, if the words you use to describe her are "confident," "sexy," "badass," I, along with a lot of Black women, probably wouldn't disagree with you,” Kimberly says in her video. “The problem is how non-Black women portray those things while listening to her music and a lot of other Black rappers and pop stars. Because what makes Meghan Thee Stallion confident, sexy, and a badass is not that she dresses in a certain way or she uses profanity in her art. It's that she's embracing herself and her talents and creating art at the same time. The problem with this trend is that a lot of non-Black women are embracing the sexy, confident, badassery of Megan Thee Stallion by adopting a caricature of a Black woman in ways without understanding the meanings behind the imageryand totally saying that it's not appropriate in your work life.”

"The problem with this trend is that a lot of non-Black women are embracing the sexy, confident, badassery of Megan Thee Stallion by adopting a caricature of a Black woman in ways without understanding the meanings behind the imageryand totally saying that it's not appropriate in your work life.”

While Okamoto left an explanation in the comments of her video along with a promise to reflect on the implications of future trends, she doesn’t actually engage with what those trends or her participation in them are saying. Okamoto, like the two teenagers in the earlier TikTok, aren’t thinking about what it means that Blackness, to them, is edgy, aggressive, and often sexual in a way that “clearly” doesn’t fit in the workplace.

So how do we solve a problem like Asian Americans across different communities using cultural appropriation of Blackness—a blaccent, clothing, even tanning darker than usual—as a way to distance themselves from stereotypes about what it means to be Asian American? First of all, people need to be more cognizant and more honest about what they’re doing. If someone wasn’t raised around Black Americans and only has a handful of them in their current friend group, their cosplay isn’t authentic to themselves or to their actual friend group. Anti-Blackness manifests in small and large forms of racist beliefs and actions, and cosplaying Blackness is antiblack. Pull back and reassess because this literally isn’t who you are as a person.

But the biggest solution? Be honest about the roots of the problem and the role white supremacy plays in your identity formation as an Asian American. Look at who you are, what you’re performing, and why you don’t feel comfortable bringing your honest self to the table. You owe it to yourself to figure out who you are when you’re not wearing Blackness as a costume.

Published on February 23, 2022

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Words by Stitch

Stitch is a freelance journalist and rogue fandom/media studies scholar in Florida. Since 2015, she’s run Stitch’s Media Mix, a digital culture and arts publication focusing on real, down to earth critical analysis of international pop culture and the Western arm of the fandoms they spawn. They have publication credits in Fireside Fiction, The Mary Sue, Strange Horizons, ComicsAlliance, Teen Vogue, and Women Write About Comics.  You can find her at Stitch's Media Mix and on twitter as @stitchmediamix

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Art by Frankie Huang

Frankie Huang is a culture writer, editor and illustrator. She proudly descends from a long line of stubborn, bossy women. Follow her on Twitter @ourobororoboruo