Reminder: Black Culture is not your rite of passage
“Stir Black outrage” is on someone’s 2022 bucket list – multiple people, actually. Last week, several brands and celebrities were on the hot seat for cultural insensitivity. Bath and Body Works centered a “Watermelon Lemonade” candle in its Black history display. American Airlines changed its logo to a Kente cloth. Macy’s released a new collaboration with Black Greek-lettered organizations – following its 2020 controversy over calling Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. a “diverse dance group.”
For Krystal Covington, these are not accidental occurrences.
Covington said, “Because there is so much media content out there, marketers have come to make some ethically perverse decisions to generate free PR for their brands and stand out. When I first witnessed these I thought they were genuine mistakes, but as it became common with large corporations I realized there was no way it wasn’t intentional.”
Covington is a Chief Marketing Officer at Go Lead Consulting. While it is hard to stand out in today’s expansive media landscape, Covington notes, there are ways that brands can uniquely identify themselves without causing harm to marginalized groups. Sadly, it’s not just corporations capitalizing on Black outrage. It’s celebrities too.
During Black History month, Awkwafina released a statement finally addressing the claims that she takes from Black culture.
In the notes app “apology,” the 34-year-old comedienne wrote that Black people have “historically and routinely seen their culture stolen exploited and appropriated by the *dominant* culture for monetary gain without acknowledgment nor respect for where those roots come from.”
She went on to acknowledge that AAVE has been dubbed “Tik Tok slang” although it is derived from Black culture and that, “as a non-black POC, I stand by the fact that I will always listen and work tirelessly to understand the history and context of AAVE, what is deemed appropriate or backwards toward the progress of ANY and EVERY marginalized group.”
Despite this recognition, she went on to argue that mocking Black culture is “Simply. Not. My. Nature. It never has, and it never was.” To some, this statement was disingenuous on several counts: Lum never once wrote the words “I apologize” or “I am sorry,” Lum capitalized, bolded, asterisked, and underlined certain parts of her statement meant to emphasize that she meant what she said, and Lum was caught liking tweets that accepted the apology on behalf of the Black community.
These things considered, it is safe to say she’s unforgiven by the Black community.
Yet, Lum does not exist in a vacuum. She is one of several non-Black people who has used Black culture as a rite of passage. That is, they advance themselves through Black culture and then, when it no longer serves them, they discard it. For Lum, this can be seen in her roles of Constance in Ocean’s 8 (2018) and Peik Lin in Crazy Rich Asians (2018). In both of these roles, she employed a “blaccent,” or an accent that relies heavily on AAVE.
Lum attributes her use of a blaccent to her immigrant background, her public school upbringings, and her so-called “respect for Hip Hop.” In other words, she grew up in proximity to Black culture, and that is where her blaccent comes from. However, when it comes to Asian culture, Awkwafina is more guarded.
She told Vice, “I refuse to do accents…I don’t ever go out for auditions where I feel like I’m making a minstrel out of our people.”
This interview angered people because Awkwafina is saying that she refuses to play roles where Asian people are being mocked, but she is okay with mocking Black culture through her blaccent. According to Lum, that is not her nature, although it’s been a staple of her career since the beginning.
Lum told Reuters Showbiz last year that she was “open to the conversation” about her “blaccent,” yet when she finally addressed the controversy, she announced that she was leaving Twitter. Also, in that interview, her blaccent had miraculously disappeared.
Nonetheless, this is not just a conversation about Awkwafina but about the practice of culture cooptation as a whole.
We were all witness to Miley Cyrus’ Black phase. She was twerking at the VMAs and rapping with Juicy J, two things attributed to Black culture. Now, she is covering Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” and getting back to her rock roots. This is not coincidental. When it became clear that Hip Hop was no longer profitable to her, she abandoned it.
She was not the only one.
Important to note is the fact that Hip Hop has been named the number one genre in America. Given that fact, white artists have taken this opportunity to get in on Hip Hop and Black culture without understanding its roots.
When it comes to Black culture as a rite of passage, the period of time fluctuates. You have acts like Justin Bieber or Justin Timberlake, whose whole careers are made through cultural appropriation. Then, you have people like Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran, who dabbled with Black culture for a little bit but quickly retreated to their country/folksy roots when appropriation did not work for them.
For Swift, this was her “Shake It Off” era when she had Black dancers twerking while she stared bewildered. Sheeran’s Black phase culminated with his “No. 6 collaborations project,” where he linked with many Black artists and explored new sounds.
Afterward, he came into his “Weeknd” phase, where he essentially stole the Weeknd’s aesthetic. Sheeran’s appropriation is a bit layered, though. Beginning in his early days, covering Ginuwine’s “Pony,” he has always been influenced by Black culture. More recently, however, he has amped up his acculturation to the point where his sound is distinctly different than what it once was.
This is Sheeran’s Black phase.
Important to note is the fact that Hip Hop has been named the number one genre in America. Given that fact, white artists have taken this opportunity to get in on Hip Hop and Black culture without understanding its roots. That is, they will appropriate Black music without ever consulting with the stories behind the music.
Dreya Mac’s Tik Tok controversy is a prime example. Mac made the song “Own Brand Freestyle” where her opening line was, “Now I ain’t never been with a baddie. She ***, so I add her to the tally.”
Yet, a white lesbian on Tik Tok remixed Mac’s song and called it a “WLW (woman-loving-woman) anthem” without acknowledging the fact that it was already a WLW anthem. This is what I mean when I say white artists take from Black culture without understanding its roots.
Justin Bieber had a similar controversy when he took a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and used it as an opportunity to talk about his wife in a song called “Justice.” Nowhere in the song did he mention anything related to any of the principles Dr. King died by. There was no social justice – just appropriation and vibes.
Overall, non-Black artists, brands, and celebrities are voyeuristic in the sense that they profit from Black pain and Black outrage, and they need to stop. ~ℝ