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Julia Blessing / Gavel Media

Awkwafina’s Cultural Appropriation: The Ongoing Need for Accountability

On February 5th, Awkwafina logged off Twitter for the foreseeable future, citing the platform’s toxicity as a reason for the decision. She immediately received an outpouring of support from fans. If one was reading her Twitter statement without any prior context, it was easy to feel sorry for her, especially given the fair share of internet trolls she has dealt with over the past few years. 

Awkwafina’s real reason for logging off, however, comes from the controversy she has garnered for her use of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE). AAVE is a distinct dialect of English with roots in African-American history and culture. White and non-black POC are understandably asked to refrain from using language associated with AAVE, and rightfully so given the circumstances that surround its use nowadays. Among many other examples, Gen Z has come to claim many of the phrases belonging to AAVE as their own in recent years. As one can imagine, a wide variety of implications accompany this, which has sparked a larger conversation, one in which Awkwafina’s name has come up again and again. 

It is no shock that Awkwafina’s distinctive personality and charisma have rocketed her to extreme fame within the span of a few years. She typically plays fun and lovable characters that save the day, most recently in Shang-Chi. Much less discussed, though, is the fact that since the beginning of her career, Awkwafina has used AAVE and largely ignored any criticism that she has received as a result. Those who have followed Awkwafina’s work for a while can trace her use of AAVE back to the early 2010s, when she first embarked upon a rap career before making the transition to acting. While more recent fans may be unfamiliar with her music, they will indeed recognize her from the various blockbuster movies she has starred in, including Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s 8. Awkwafina's use of AAVE in these movies shows the extent to which she has been appropriating its use for her own gain over the course of a decade.

Though Awkwafina’s Twitter statements could have been used as an opportunity to own up to her mistakes, she arguably made the situation even worse. Painting herself as an innocent victim, Awkwafina essentially misled many of those unaware of the situation into thinking she was the faultless one. Funnily enough, in the specific Twitter statement that was supposed to function as an apology, Awkwafina never even explicitly mentioned her own history of using AAVE. In the so-called apology, she focused on her commitment to uplift all POC communities but was quite vague, giving the impression that she didn’t mean it. 

Awkwafina is only one of many artists who have shamelessly appropriated African-American culture for their own personal gain. Indeed, such examples of cultural appropriation have become so common that they are typically either deemed acceptable by the mainstream or treated with indifference. This, in part, can be attributed to the fact that we as a society have done such a poor job educating people on the topic of cultural appropriation. Unsurprisingly, there are serious consequences. In many cases, people will appropriate an aspect of a culture involuntarily, especially when invoking certain language and/or behaviors without necessarily knowing the history and background behind them. 

To make matters worse, there is a massive double standard with AAVE, which is especially ridiculous when one considers the fact that AAVE does not culturally belong to anyone who is not of African-American descent. When white or non-black people use AAVE, it is considered ‘trendy,’ but when black people use it, it is deemed to be poor, grammatically incorrect English. Thus, AAVE is weaponized against African-Americans as a way to continue to invalidate black culture and erase its historical significance. 

Awkwafina’s defenders countered with the argument that her use of AAVE was a form of cultural appreciation. Many pointed out that her intent behind using AAVE was not malicious, but came from a place of admiration. However, there are many issues with this interpretation. Firstly, it is important to distinguish between appropriation and appreciation. Cultural appropriation involves adopting elements of another culture that is not one’s own in an inappropriate manner and/or without giving due credit to that culture. Cultural appreciation, meanwhile, is honoring another culture by using some of its cultural elements properly and respectfully. The line between the two is not always clear. Examples of cultural appropriation are so ingrained within our society that we often fail to recognize them as appropriation and can even mistake them to be appreciation. For instance, some of the most beloved sports mascots are offensive toward those of Native American heritage, yet despite this, sports teams continue to capitalize on mascot branding. Perhaps Awkwafina’s initial intent behind her use of AAVE was never malicious, but that still fails to excuse her shortcomings. Awkwafina has been using AAVE for financial gain for nearly a decade, without recognizing the history behind it or giving back the money to the community which she capitalized off of. This still doesn’t even excuse the fact that she should not have been using AAVE in the first place. 

While Awkwafina’s halfhearted attempt at an apology ultimately fell short, her unrepentant response to the situation teaches us an important lesson. We have a duty to make a conscious effort to educate ourselves on cultural appropriation, but this means nothing if we do not also take action. In Awkwafina’s case, her unwillingness to own up to her past mistakes only reinforces the flawed mindset within every individual that we are somehow not part of the larger problem at hand. Nobody is an exception to this rule, and nobody is exempt from these crucial conversations. 

It is best not to judge a person by their mistakes but by their ability to take accountability for their actions. While Awkwafina failed miserably in this category, we should take time to reflect on this incident more deeply and come to see where cultural appropriation may be prevalent in our surroundings. In doing so, it is my hope that we can initiate the corresponding changes we want to see in our society.