Off Script: Despite representation, Awkwafina isn’t free from criticism

Andrea Bian, Op-Ed Contributor

On October 6, actress and rapper Awkwafina stepped out onto the stage of Studio 8H to an applauding audience. During her opening monologue, she paid tribute to the last and only other Asian-American woman to host “Saturday Night Live,” Lucy Liu.

“I remember how important that episode was for me and how it totally changed what I thought was possible for an Asian-American woman,” Awkwafina, born Nora Lum, said of the episode that aired 18 years ago.

The numbers are clear: Awkwafina and Liu are two of only five Asian-Americans to ever host “SNL,” along with Aziz Ansari, Kumail Nanjiani and Jackie Chan. It’s another example of the lack of Asian representation in Hollywood and beyond. For so long, Asian-Americans like me have yearned to see other Asians on the big screen in roles that are more complex than the quiet nerd or the socially awkward outcast.

“Crazy Rich Asians,” one of the summer’s biggest movies, gave us just that. It was a funny and heartwarming romantic comedy that put visible effort into portraying vibrant and layered Asian-American cultures. Awkwafina plays Goh Peik Lin, the main character’s bold, blunt best friend. Her performance was widely praised — a Rolling Stone review said she “steals every scene” of the film.

I love Awkwafina. I think she’s hilarious and a brilliant actress. But there’s something problematic about her onscreen personas that I can’t ignore.

Awkwafina held two starring roles this summer: she played Peik Lin and had a supporting role in Ocean’s 8 this summer as Constance, a skilled pickpocketer who helps the star-studded cast pull off a major jewelry heist. In both “Ocean’s 8” and “Crazy Rich Asians,” she adopts a manner of speaking that veers uncomfortably close to African American Vernacular English (AAVE), used by black people throughout the U.S. Among the countless voices that applaud Awkwafina for her performance, some have brought attention to how her recurring “blaccent” in the films can be viewed as offensive and culturally appropriative.

When I first heard that Awkwafina’s characters could be potentially offensive, my reflexive reaction was one of denial. I shuddered at the idea of Asians being criticized for appropriation; Asian culture gets appropriated all the time, so I didn’t even want to think about Asians themselves being guilty of it. I wanted the hype around Asian representation to last without something tainting its existence. I’ve seen both movies — I went to see “Crazy Rich Asians” twice — and had laughed at both characters’ lines and jokes.

But upon further research, I knew I would be in the wrong to ignore the voices calling Awkwafina out. In Kevin Kwan’s book “Crazy Rich Asians,” on which the film was based, it’s obvious that Peik Lin wasn’t written in the way she was performed; the choice was made by Awkwafina and the movie’s director. Awkwafina grew up in Queens, New York, a fact often used to defend her due to Queens’ large black population. But she does not use AAVE all the time. When she appears on late-night shows, her blaccent disappears. As much as it hurts to admit, Awkwafina — consciously or unconsciously — becomes a caricature on-screen.

And even though it hurts to admit that, I can’t act like my disappointment equates to that of black people hurt by that caricature. For Asian-Americans, we know that “Crazy Rich Asians” was all about us. But this particular controversy isn’t about us. We can’t decide whether Awkwafina is offensive, but it is at least our responsibility to listen. As a fellow minority that also regularly experiences cultural appropriation, we must listen.

That doesn’t mean we can’t think Awkwafina is funny or support the representation she brings to shows like “SNL.” It’s possible to admire an actress like Awkwafina and simultaneously understand that her roles can be hurtful and that she should be critiqued for them.

Asian-Americans might feel compelled to celebrate any and every role that features people of our ethnicity on screen. However, just because “Crazy Rich Asians” was the first movie to feature an all-Asian cast in 25 years doesn’t mean that we have to quietly accept instances in which it’s offensive to other minorities. We’re better than that, and we deserve to be selective about which roles best represent us.

What matters is the acknowledgment that something is hurtful and the conversation that follows. The moment we begin fighting about who owns what, who has the right to be offended at something and which minority has it harder, we all lose.

I feel guilty about laughing at Awkwafina’s characters without thinking about how they could be hurtful. But my guilt isn’t the point, and I can forgive myself for that. Meanwhile, I’ll be excitedly waiting for Awkwafina to bring her acting talent to the table in a way that treats other minorities the way we’d like to be treated.

Andrea Bian is a Medill freshman. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.