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Awkwafina and The Trend of Asian American Creatives Using Anti-Blackness To Enter Hollywood

Awkwafina and The Trend of Asian American Creatives Using Anti-Blackness To Enter Hollywood

Awkwafina’s Golden Globe is framed as a triumph for Asian Americans, but she exploited Black culture to reach this milestone.

By Harley Wong

On the night of January 5, 2020, Awkwafina, born Nora Lum, became the first actress of Asian descent to win a Golden Globe in the category of Best Actress in a Motion Picture — Musical or Comedy, igniting widespread undiscerning applause that does a disservice in complicating and expanding conversations about racial representation in mainstream media. One week later, The Oscars announced their list of nominations with Lum nowhere in sight, other than in multiple lists of Oscar snubs. In The Farewell, written and directed by Lulu Wang, Lum plays a young Chinese American woman visiting China to see her grandmother who has been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. Despite the heavy themes of death and cultural differences that the film grapples with, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association categorized it as a comedy, rationalized as a move to maximize the film’s chances of garnering awards. 

This decision assumes that Asian American creatives need white approval, to be commended by the same institutions that barred Asian Americans from the industry but made room for yellowface. Placing Lum in a less competitive category assumes her inability to win Best Actress in a Motion Picture—Drama on her own merits. Offering Lum a trophy in comedy from, as film critic Tim Robey describes, “the trashy relative to the Oscars,” is a calculated publicity stunt to gesture to the film industry becoming racially liberal in a self-congratulatory flourish, while actually safeguarding the institution as a white space. For example, Joker, a film celebrating “the specific brand of violence that is white male terrorism,” received the most nominations from the Academy this year. Bombshell and Little Women also received Oscar nods despite criticism for ignoring white women’s complicity in white supremacy, and inability to render themes of womanhood as universal, respectively. While The Farewell received zero Oscar nominations, Marriage Story was included in multiple categories even though the film and its acting were widely mocked on social media.

By mis-categorizing The Farewell, the Golden Globes deems the topic of grief and loss within a specifically Chinese and Chinese American context as laughable. Wang tells NPR, “I had all of these producers telling me they wanted it to be a broader comedy. And I knew that I wanted it to be humorous, but I didn’t want it to be a joke. I didn’t want the family to be a joke.” The designation of a film centering racialized pain to the realm of comedy may speak to a larger issue about the way white institutions and white people in positions of power (fail to) relate and empathize with the experiences of people of color.

Although Lum’s award is framed as a triumph for the Asian American community, she exploited Black culture to reach this milestone, indicating that her career is also in service to white hegemony. Born to a Chinese American father and Korean mother, Lum adopted Aquafina as her rap name at age sixteen. It’s worth noting that the name Awkwafina has been interpreted as mocking Black women’s names under the stereotype that their names are “nonsensical” or “ghetto.” Starting as Lum’s alias when she released her first rap video in 2012, Awkwafina was introduced to a wider audience in Crazy Rich Asians with Lum’s character Goh Peik Lin, which has been criticized as performing Blackness, cultural appropriation, and minstrelsy. Some have come to Lum’s defense, citing her upbringing in Queens even though her neighborhood of Forest Hills is predominantly white with just 2.5% of the population identifying as Black and 24% as Asian.

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Despite the controversy surrounding her character, Lum was named the breakout star of Crazy Rich Asians. Lum has gone on to be featured in Ocean’s 8 and star in The Farewell, gradually shedding her costume of Blackness with each role. In Crazy Rich Asians, Lum wags her finger at the protagonist and advises, “You gon’ roll up to that wedding, you gon’ be like bawk bawk, bitch.” For Ocean’s 8, where her reputation of “stealing scenes” persisted, Lum drops the exaggerated hand gestures but continues to speak in AAVE; in her first scene, she can be heard asking, “Where she at? Where that bitch at?” After establishing her presence in Hollywood by performing the trope of the “sassy Black friend” in two blockbuster films, in The Farewell, Lum trades in AAVE for subtle sarcasm and accented Mandarin. Lum’s willingness and ability to appropriate Black culture for personal gain and stop when it no longer benefits her is reminiscent of Miley Cyrus, who co-opted Black aesthetics to break away from Disney innocence until eventually rebranding herself as wholesome a few years later. Lum’s autobiographical comedy series Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens, premiering January 22, may be Lum’s final act as Awkwafina before fully casting off the alter ego and her history of anti-Blackness with it, to re-introduce herself as Nora Lum.

In an interview with The Guardian, Lum explains that she uses the persona of Awkwafina as a protective mask: “Awkwafina is someone who never grew up, who never had to bear the brunt of all the insecurities and overthinking that come with adulthood. Awkwafina is the girl I was in high school—who did not give a shit. Nora is neurotic and an overthinker and could never perform in front of an audience of hecklers.” While filming Crazy Rich Asians, Lum reveals that much of her scenes were improvised, causing Peik Lin to have an on-and-off-again “Southern accent” out of Lum’s nervousness. It’s ironic that Lum recognizes the violence of Asian stereotypes, refusing to make “a minstrel out of our people,” but has not detected the ways Awkwafina shields Nora Lum at the expense of Black people, making a caricature out of another marginalized racial group and more closely aligning herself with the brutality of whiteness. Although Lum has previously attributed having shared, though different, experiences of oppression with Black people for her love of hip-hop and its themes of adversity, it’s one thing to find a sense of kinship with members of the Black community and another to perform and profit off of Black music and Black culture in a way that’s not afforded to Black creatives. 

Often, Asian Americans have turned to Black cultural and intellectual production to simultaneously cope with the impossibility of assimilating into whiteness, and to reject Asian cultural values that the white gaze marks as foreign or “Oriental.” In fact, the model minority myth was created by white hegemony to pit Asian Americans against other minorities, and propagate the illusion of The American Dream and upward class mobility. The stereotype is rooted in anti-Blackness that deliberately characterizes Asian Americans as “definitely not-Black,” implying Black criminality and posturing to an Asian American “goodness” read as white-adjacency. Too often have Asian American ruminations on identity unimaginatively arrived at the liminal space of neither Black nor white, a phenomenon arguably experienced by most non-Black communities of color in the United States. This should have been a jumping-off point to reimagine what Asian American identity could be but conversations have instead plateaued, and this current lack of specificity has allowed for any media presence of Asian people, including those in Blackface, to be repackaged as a win for Asian American diversity and inclusion.

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Awkwafina is not an isolated case, but part of a larger troubling trend of anti-Blackness perpetuated by creatives of Asian descent entering Hollywood, including YouTuber turned late-night talk show host Lilly Singh and Fresh Off the Boat creator Eddie Huang. Uncritically celebrating these personal career advancements as triumphs for the Asian American community obscures the institutions that, rooted in white supremacy, reward non-Black people of color for minstrel performances of Blackness. This is the lens from which we must see Lum’s Golden Globe in order to disentangle anti-Blackness from Asian American media activism and ensure that greater visibility is not rooted in offensive renderings in support of white supremacy.

Harley Wong is an arts writer based in New York. She is particularly interested in the legacy of colonialism in visual culture. Her writing has also appeared in Hyperallergic and Sartle: Rogue Art History.

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