Why appropriate?

There are some really great writings on anti-Blackness in Asian and Asian American communities that reassure me I’m not alone in my thoughts and experiences. This is one of my favorites. (I love the author; seriously- go read more of Kim Tran’s stuff.) I would also recommend this article that better explains the link between the model minority myth and anti-Blackness, but really, there’s a plethora of readings to choose from when you simply search up the topic of “Anti-Blackness in __(whatever non-Black community you’re interested in)___.”

Part of anti-Blackness within Asian communities, aside from culturally distancing ourselves from Blackness as we strive (and fail) towards whiteness, is culturally appropriating Blackness. I’m not here to debate appreciation versus appropriation. The internet does a fairly good job of that. I will, however, bring up what is often left out of the conversation on Asian appropriation of Black culture: the why. More specifically, the socio-psychological why. Because it scares me how people can discuss at length what something is and how it’s bad and not question where it came from or why it exists when that’s such an important part of the story.

Story. I chose that word because I feel that concepts, isolated from the narrative, cut out room for personal understanding. I can’t tell you the amount of effort my school goes through to improve “diversity and inclusion” via classes, workshops, training programs, etc., only to leave people with a superficial understanding of social justice, self-congratulatory pride, and agonizingly, no desire to learn more. Whether on the part of students, the institution, or both, I don’t know, but I’ve observed time and time again this complacency that comes when people consider themselves “woke.” Okay, you know about the plight of [insert minority group(s)] now and you’re really angry, but are you even friends with anyone from these groups? And not on a surface level. Or maybe you’re really riled up about certain areas like feminism and LGBTQIA+ issues and _____ racial group because your _____ friend is very active and vocal, but in the process you forget that intersectionality stems from the desire to learn and understand more? And not fear of getting flack from other groups for not including them?

In sum, I think that social justice- or human connection & empathy, really- is rooted in the story. And when the story is stripped of its human elements, leaving only labels, descriptions, or concepts, it becomes removed from reality and so does our understanding of it. Which makes for a horrible lack of warmth, understanding, conversation, and intersectionality.

But to return from my tangent, I want to bring up the topic of shaming the foreign and its relation to anti-Blackness and white supremacy.

Let’s start with white supremacy. I’ll admit it, I used to be afraid of using this term because of how blunt it is, so I can see how some people would reflexively react defensively upon hearing the words, but how else would you call it for what it is and jolt people out of their comfort zones? Since the first google search I did defined white supremacy as a belief (which is so, so misleading), I’ll clarify that I’m referring to whiteness. As in, the elaborate institution that elevates whiteness and centers everything around it. And part of white supremacy is the other end of it: anti-Blackness.

I’m not going to start discussing Claire Jean Kim’s racial triangulation theory, but I’ll include a diagram just so you know what I’m drawing from when I talk about certain things:

It’s obviously not all-encompassing (where would Native American and Indigenous peoples fall?), but for the purposes of discussing Asian Americans’ relationship to Black and White people, it’s helpful.

As you can see, although Black people are at the bottom when it comes to racial valorization, Asian Americans are pretty far in civic ostracism, meaning we are deemed pretty foreign and un-American. Until the Asian population in America quadruples with time and we are represented more on screen in less stereotypical lights and become more civically engaged and are embedded in more people’s minds as part of American society, people will still casually wonder whether I speak English and try to guess my ethnicity when they see me walking down the street. That’s just how it is for now.

And what does now look like? Shame. Rejection. Whatever other words you have to describe the aversion to foreignness.

We still hide our ethnic lunches for fear of the smell being too intolerable, our accents for fear of being ridiculed, our eye shapes for the fear of being less attractive (according to Eurocentric standards) and less human. If all traces of your heritage is something to be ashamed of, from language to food (before hipsters make it suddenly edible) to cultural garb, how would you define yourself? It’s not a surprise that I grew up witnessing other Asian Americans running away from Asian and towards American. And “American” usually means White or Black.

Within the same middle school, I saw some Asian American girls with hoop earrings and high tops and others with brand-name bags, accessories (the equivalent of today’s designer athletic clothing, Kendra Scott, Vera Bradley stuff), and so on. Depending on who their friends were or what they could pull off, these were survival strategies. And this is what I meant by the why. I’m not saying I condone cultural appropriation, I’m saying it’s so much more nuanced than just identifying it and calling people out. I think we need a better understanding of why people feel the need to take elements of others’ cultures in the first place.

Now, really loving rap and hip hop because you think it’s cool and edgy and makes you less boring of a person while actually having no close Black friends? That’s not okay with me. Especially if you’re taking up space at Kendrick Lamar concerts where Black people could be LISTENING TO THE MUSIC MADE FOR THEM.

Adopting elements of Ebonics or AAVE in your speech because that’s what you grew up listening to from teachers/community figures/other icons/etc. and how you talk with your black and brown friends? Some people might not be okay with this, and it is a little fuzzy to judge at times, but I personally don’t think it’s fair to be hard on someone speaking or acting in a way that’s consistent with their community or environment. (Though this is a lot less common so I can see why people who didn’t grow up in a mixed, predominantly POC community would be put off by it.)

My last example: Asian American men and Black culture. This is a messy area. And I feel like it’s a case-by-case type of thing. When it comes down to it, I don’t know how to feel about this, and furthermore, it’s not up to me to pass judgement because dialogue about appropriation should be centered around the thoughts and feelings of the people whose culture is being appropriated. And I’ve learned that there are differing opinions in every community. Groups of people are not monoliths. For example, I don’t enjoy non-Asian Austinites loving bánh mì, but if they’re paying Viet-owned businesses, then… I’ll just get my food to go. But with the “White Girl Asian Food” truck in Austin, a lot of other people and I just feel all kinds of nope, whether they were being upfront with their advertising or not.

Anyway, I wanted to note that Asian men’s socially constructed roles in American society are… not so great. Asian and Black Americans are further put on opposite ends when it comes to gender. While Black people are viewed as hypermasculine, Asian people are viewed as hyperfeminine. So while it is near impossible for me to not be perceived as a super sexualized and feminine object, it is very difficult for Asian men in the U.S. to be viewed as masculine. History* has made it as such.

*Please look into your Asian American history, I can’t stress this enough. There were literally laws that enabled the construction of stereotypes such as Asian people being smart, or good at math, or Asian men as effeminate or sexually undesirable, or Asian women as  very sexually desirable. (Related: a more thorough and intersectional bit on Asian men.)

So if being an Asian American male deems you as less masculine… and Blackness is seen as masculine… and so are Black and hip hop culture… perhaps adopting aspects of Black or hip hop culture seems like an attractive option for some Asian American men. Just a guess.

Whether this taking on of Black culture comes from being good friends with or living in a community amongst Black people, or from very obvious appropriating without appreciating Black culture or Black people, or something in between, that’s a different story.

I just wanted to illustrate a broader picture- that maybe appropriation of Black culture isn’t as clear-cut as it seems. With some of the Asian American men I know (as well as with other men), I get the feeling that it’s more of that masculinity aspect they’re reaching for when appropriating, but since Blackness and masculinity are conflated, you can’t take that masculine culture without also taking Black culture.

If Asian American men had more options for performing gender, I don’t think there’d be such a need to use another culture’s tools. Obviously, I’m not excusing the stealing of another’s tools, but I do keep in mind that people steal out of need.

As for celebrities or more privileged groups who do have more options to be, but are still appropriating? Get creative.

And that applies to Asian Americans, too, if not especially. In order to have more opportunities for ourselves, we must create them. Stealing hurts everyone and borrowed things must be returned eventually. So I don’t know about you, but I’m on a life-long journey to create things for myself and people like me, using knowledge of and from myself- and that includes my heritage.


2 thoughts on “Why appropriate?

  1. Remember that Asian privilege post I was going to write? It didn’t happen because I got angry-tired and fell asleep. Good on you for writing before you fall asleep, Thanh.

    Let’s revive the lost art of actually commenting on blogs!!

    I admit this is the first time in awhile that I’ve even been thinking about appropriation just because I consider it one of the “lesser” racial offenses (most other forms of racism tend to kill people or deny them access to resources). In general I agree with everything above, mostly because you and I took the same college classes lol.

    But! I feel like one of the thorny bits of Asian appropriation of blackness has to do with how Asians are percieved as “near-white” by many people of color. People approach Asian usage of AAVE as if all of us are suburban white kids, but this obviously erases our complex immigrant histories.

    To be fair, many Asian boys also adopt white boy identity in order to fit in. I am not denying that this happens, but this also occurs with other racialized boys as well. Most importantly, most immigrant stories will tell you that this approach never works. If you’re non-mixed Asian then you just flat out aren’t white, no matter how hard you pretend otherwise.

    Also, I want to move past a lot of this kerfluffle about appropriation. That doesn’t mean that Black people are obligated to like Eddie Huang, and I’m not obligated to like Rihanna and Katy Perry. But we have to recognize that the model minority myth will continue to hurt both Asian and Black people as long as we stop believing that we share the same struggle. What’s the easiest way to divide activists? Convince the Asian activist that he has white privilege. Convince the Black activist that Asians are unreliable allies that are inherently bourgeoisie. This is how the revolution dies, and it’s not a death that is discussed frequently enough between Black and Asian academics who claim to care about social justice.

    Anyway, this is a solid post. We should exchange ideas again sometime.


    1. Agreed with all of the above! In my sleepiness, I totally forgot that I was gonna write in a bit about the “white” strategy Asian people use and how that one’s a lot less noticeable and rarely mentioned because it’s got different politics and dynamics.
      I think in my links other people explained the proximity to whiteness stuff a lot better than I could’ve and I wasn’t gonna rewrite what’s already out there. But you bring up a really good point. This post was difficult to write in part because I myself, while I was writing, had to separate in my mind white and Asian appropriation. While a lot of people think it’s the same because of the whole “honorary white” mess, it’s not, and I hope that that showed through my writing. I hinted at it, but the Asian Americans I mentioned who did appropriate because of their social environments/neighborhoods were from my lower SES ethnic enclave. Which is a lot different from appropriating when you grew up in white suburbia.
      Thanks for commenting and looking forward to your own writing!


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