Comedian and actress Awkwafina has finally addressed the controversy around her “Blaccent” with a statement — one that comes years after critics have called her out for appropriating African American Vernacular English (AAVE) in her comedy performances, rapping and more.
The Shang-Chi star released the statement on Twitter and announced she would be leaving the platform. “There is a sociopolitical context to everything, especially the historical context of the African American community in this country,” she began.
— nora (@awkwafina) February 5, 2022
“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 towards the progress of ANY and EVERY marginalized group,” she wrote.
Several people have criticized the star, saying her apology comes too late, and also that it fails to fully take accountability for the harm she has caused to the Black community. Two weeks ago, she faced backlash over her nomination for an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Character Voice-Over Performance, which reminded fans that she has been hesitant to apologize for her history of using AAVE while building a profitable career off of it.
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What is AAVE?
AAVE is defined by Britannica as “the form of Black speech that distinguishes itself from standard English with its unique grammatical structure, pronunciation, and vocabulary.” Examples of AAVE include sayings and phrases such as “that’s cap,” “stay pressed” and “we been knew.”
AAVE is often stigmatized when used by Black people, who are sometimes seen as uneducated and unprofessional for using it when speaking. It’s why code-switching — the practice defined by the Harvard Business Review as “adjusting one’s style of speech, appearance, behaviour and expression in ways that will optimize the comfort of others in exchange for fair treatment, quality service and employment opportunities” — is common for Black people in predominantly white spaces.
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Why is Awkwafina using a ‘Blaccent’ harmful?
When people who aren’t Black use AAVE, it reduces Black people to stereotypes. It also takes away from the cultural significance of specific slang and words by making a mockery of them and can be seen as a form of cultural appropriation.
“Putting on any marginalized person’s identity in comedy equates a person’s voice and culture to not being taken seriously,” Cheryl Bedford, the founder of Women of Color Unite — a group working towards the advancement of women of colour in the entertainment industry — told BuzzFeed about Awkwafina’s use of AAVE. “It’s making fun of, and it upholds white supremacy by turning the voices of a community into a joke,” she said.
Awkwafina has been asked about her use of AAVE numerous times over the years, including during the Shang-Chi press tour. She said she was “open to the conversation,” and thought the discussion around having a “Blaccent” was “multi-faceted and layered,” but did not say she was sorry for her actions.
.@awkwafina addresses controversy of her using a ‘blaccent’ in films: pic.twitter.com/razgNiTFke
— Reuters Showbiz (@ReutersShowbiz) September 10, 2021
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How Awkwafina’s apology falls flat
The timing of the statement frustrated a lot of Black people, given that it came out during Black History Month. And although her statement acknowledged 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 didn’t address how she participated in doing exactly that. Nowhere do the words “I’m sorry” show up anywhere in the statement; instead she apologized “if she ever fell short” in anything she did.
Well, I’ll see you in a few years, Twitter – per my therapist. To my fans, thank you for continuing to love and support someone who wishes they could be a better person for you. I apologize if I ever fell short, in anything I did. You’re in my heart always ❤️
— nora (@awkwafina) February 5, 2022
Firstly, using the word “if” indicates that Awkwafina thinks she may not have done something wrong. The apology also doesn’t acknowledge how her career benefitted from her use of appropriation, which ignores the very root of the problem. In making the statement and then quitting Twitter, she doesn’t leave much room for people to hold her accountable on social media to see if she will make changes in the future.
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Why this is an opportunity for Awkwafina to grow and do better
Although her apology fell flat, we don’t think Awkwafina should be cancelled. She now has a chance to do better, by taking responsibility and by not using a Blaccent going forward. She’s shown that she is capable of giving excellent performances that don’t involve using a Blaccent — her role in The Farewell, for example, was powerful and deeply touching.
She has a chance to lead the way when it comes to doing things right, and this is her opportunity to show she is listening to and learning from the Black community. We hope that she is able to grow and move forward while creating positive representation.