Before Crazy Rich Asians steers into its third act, Rachel Chu, the Asian-American protagonist living the fish-out-of-water experience in Singapore at the invitation of her boyfriend, Nick Young, meets with her college friend Peik Lin for some much-needed girl talk. Seated side by side against the bright Peranakan-style shop houses, the two go over the latest development in the psychological warfare being played by Nick’s mother, Eleanor, who has declared that Rachel “will never be enough” for her son. Rachel begins to admit defeat, and says she intends to skip the very wedding she’s flown over 9,000 miles to attend. “I don’t want to cause any drama there, I feel like I should just … sit it out,” Rachel says with a sigh, the emphatic professor of economics now wracked with insecurity.
Peik Lin, refreshingly brash, calls “bullshit.” Throughout the film, Peik Lin is Rachel’s lone ally. She reframes Eleanor’s conduct for Rachel in terms that her game-theory-minded brain understands well, likening the situation to a game of chicken. “She’s coming at me, thinking I’m gonna swerve like a chicken,” Rachel realizes. “But you can’t swerve,” Peik Lin interjects, throwing up her left index finger. “You gon’ roll up to that weddin’ and be like ‘bawk bawk, bitch.’” She switches to her right hand, head and finger bobbing side to side.
This moment is not exactly representative of the character, nor Nora Lum’s performance, but its dead-center placement in the trailer has become the outsize evidence of both those things, both before and after the movie’s release last week. For some, Peik Lin provides the opportunity to finally discuss some nagging notes in Lum’s résumé, particularly the rising stardom she’s accumulated as Awkwafina, her bold, ratchet-adjacent stage ego who first went viral rapping a Mickey Avalon cover called “My Vag” (“My vag, a Beyoncé weave / Yo vag, a polyester Kmart hairpiece”). Since then, her persona has veered too close to black aesthetics for comfort, including her recent role as Ocean 8’s Constance, “a scrappy, die-hard hustler from Queens” much like herself, as she told The New Yorker’s Jiayang Fan. (On Peik Lin: “I’m not like her at all,” she told Fan.) Sliding in and out of a grammar that speeds past certain consonants, utilizes the habitual “be,” and takes on a twang with danks and struggles aplenty, Awkwafina has inspired the resurrection of that dreaded portmanteau reserved for nonblack people with black voices, hardly seen since Iggy Azalea could claim song of the summer: blaccent. Peik Lin’s flirtation with black vernacular, along with the character’s general swagger, clinches the case, and another buzzword enters the frame: appropriation, a word that now commonly connotes knowing, cultural theft.
Appropriation is a tricky thing in the 21st century, yet it has somehow grown only more clichéd in public conversation. Ever since Miley Cyrus the minstrel twerked up on Robin Thicke (another minstrel) onstage at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards, the simple observation of appropriation has proven enough to serve as an analysis of the appropriative gesture itself. The very fact that something cultural now resides in two places at once — in the traditions and communal enclaves of black folks; on the body of a white or nonblack person — (allegedly) implicates the latter as the thief who cherry-picked from outside for material gain.
It is not just an interracial matter, revived whenever a white rapper hits the Billboard charts or Nicki Minaj dips into Orientalist aesthetics, but an intra-racial, intercultural, cross-cultural, cross-regional, and diasporic one as well. In March, Craig Jenkins and Frank Guan had a conversation about appropriation on Vulture to discuss “the Bruno affair,” inspired by writer Seren Sensei’s argument that Bruno Mars parlays musical traditions that don’t belong to him into mainstream success, afforded him by his brown-but-not-black skin. Jenkins mentions Drake, who has similarly been semi-seriously accused of borrowing from the diaspora when it suits him. The dialogue between Issa and Molly on Insecure has attracted “skepticism about the veracity of Rae’s and Yvonne Orji’s ‘blaccents,’” The Atlantic’s Hannah Giorgis noted. Meanwhile, vernacular invented by black and brown queer folk has become commonplace in the vocabularies of straight, cis individuals of color, as well as white people.
What can explain the ease with which the knowledge and creations of close-knit communities become circulated as profitable products in the arms of others, if not a deliberate and concentrated pickpocketing from one person to another to another? The flow of money and celebrity and canonicity supports the deduction, which is why the true observation that “everybody appropriates” can never and will never hold water (until, like, the end of white capitalism, a.k.a. the world). It is not by accident that people in power acquire cachet and adoration (and more power) when they don facsimile costumes of the people kept from power. And yet, power doesn’t often propagate itself so plainly in popular culture. We see its influence in what ends up valued and not valued, but more often, appropriation goes undetected. A white person may be just as likely to learn black lexicon from another white person who learned it from a Twitter user who often retweets Rihanna-related content. In the year 2018, it’s hardly, if ever, a straightforward route from A to B.
“It’s interesting that nobody makes the claim of appropriation until somebody feels that something inappropriate is happening,” theorist Homi K. Bhabha remarked last year in an ArtForum roundtable on the topic of appropriation. And indeed, appropriation only gets called by name belatedly, once enough witnesses have been called in to the scene of the performance, not the crime. We see Kim Kardashian smugly regal on the red carpet in Fulani braids, but we are not privy to the exact moment she was inspired to crown herself in African style. Was it another bout of Bo Derek cosplay? Had she seen it on Instagram? Did a naïve stylist drip the poison in her ear, assure the mother of three black children that the braids squeezing her scalp looked absolutely fabulous?
Beside the Kardashians, there is our very regular, everyday intake of the words, styles, and sounds that surround us, intensified by digital connections that make the world seem smaller and larger at the same time. “Unlike citation or quotation,” Bhabha continues, methods of true, time-limited borrowing, “appropriation assumes a proprietorial sense.” The question is: “Who owns what?”
But in the language of ownership, there is the danger of reinscribing the very repugnant simplicity one would seek to undermine, as if any part of any culture among people of color was coherent enough to be lifted and moved from one place to another without being changed (or losing parts of itself) in the process. A poem of such poor quality as Anders Carlson-Wee’s “How-To,” published then apologized for in The Nation, for example, never would have been published in the first place by somebody as poor and black and disabled as the speaker he aims to inhabit. And the charge of a “blaccent” in Crazy Rich Asians uncomfortably invigorates the contradiction. On one hand, yes, anyone truly familiar and fluent with a black vernacular can sense a tremendous reach has occurred. Breaking down an essay by Carvell Wallace that critiqued Meghan Trainor’s strange enunciative choices, writer Kara Brown notes that the diagnosis “involves a calculus that is mostly instinctive.” It is a feeling, an informed suspicion better felt in the bones than cross-referenced with a grammarian, not because black languages lack their own grammar, but because, so writes linguist J. L. Dillard in the landmark 1972 study Black English, “We could diagram Black English, but we would know no more about it afterward than we did before.” Either you know, or you don’t.
On the other hand, Awkwafina’s antics don’t, to me, conjure blackness any more than Ed Sheeran’s bars. Is a “blaccent” an evocation of blackness, or of something else — power, imperialism, commerce, the digital age? Maybe blaccent shouldn’t function so metonymically, and maybe it shouldn’t imply blackness at all (blackness has enough to contend with), but that something else instead, indicting not an individual instance of theft but a global phenomenon that makes it impossible to know whether a nonblack millennial from Forest Hills studied black culture like a textbook or grew up with the same media as most of us, where blaccents in the mouths of white, snappy performers has been autonomous and apart from the actual speech patterns of black people since America had a theater tradition to call its own.
Consider the many adolescents, now men, who’ve forged a personality around Pineapple Express and adore Post Malone, the way some young women have developed a shtick around Broad City’s fictional “Yas Kween” Ilana — there are blaccents built from blaccents, but maybe not from blackness itself. A certain millennial cool-kid identity is already predicated on basic appropriations that get overlooked when every case becomes exemplary, instead of evidentiary. It’s all very messy, and power makes it messy, but treating the blaccent as something authentically black and stolen doesn’t make it any clearer. “There isn’t a ‘relatable’ white girl inserted into the middle of Crazy Rich Asians,” writes BuzzFeed’s Alison Willmore, yet there’s a whole genre of relatable white girl quirkiness that Awkwafina’s Peik Lin sources from. And while she successfully imitates something, it’s not black language.
In conversations around Awkwafina’s blaccent, the actress’s regional and musical background has been used to both defend and attack her — she’s either the most shrewd opportunist or the most down chick her side of the color line. These extremes of opinion aren’t helped by the way certain profiles borderline fetishize the Awkwafina backstory, as if the idea that an Asian-American woman who grew up in Forest Hills (or literally anywhere in the country) loves rap is too absurd to be true. (Perhaps that is par for the genre, making everyday stories unusual, and perhaps that’s par for celebrity, too.) A recent Rolling Stone profile describes her delivery in Crazy Rich Asians as “Miley Cyrus-meets-New Jersey patois,” an incoherent mishmash that feels nonsensical, selected for the sheer fun of it.
Returning to the film, culture clashes are at the core of Crazy Rich Asians: namely, the invisible hyphen that ought, according to Eleanor, to exclude Rachel from the Youngs. And Rachel is not the only one in the story who underscores the plain fact that there are a million and one ways to be Chinese. The cinematic universe of Crazy Rich Asians comes together through a compilation of both banal and conflicting intra-cultural exchanges, disturbing any sense of what might constitute authenticity in this age.
When we first meet Peik Lin, she is running, arms outstretched in Stella McCartney pajamas, with a hug and extended “Whaddup?” Rachel compliments her look and Peik Lin cocks a hip with a fast, twangy, “I know some things never change right?” They sit down for lunch, and language, always there but not always marked, enters the conversation because of an accent. Not Auntie Neena’s, Peik Lin’s mom, whose “lah” and “ai-ya” pass without explanation (either you know, or you don’t). It is Wye Mun, Peik Lin’s dad, played by the instantly recognizable Ken Jeong, who approaches Rachel at the table speaking hesitant English, and not too convincingly. “I don’t have an accent,” he tells Rachel with a laugh, which is really to align his accent with hers and Peik Lin’s and a presumed American audience. Peik Lin’s younger siblings are eating chicken nuggets, drawing back to a memorable line from Kevin Kwan’s novel about starving children in America. Her dad dubs her Asian Ellen and Peik Lin rolls her eyes while an older family member laughs. Wye Mun urges his son, P.T., to flirt with Rachel; informed that Rachel is already spoken for, he, like his daughter, is quick with the comeback: “I don’t see no ring on her finger.”
Though the film as a whole draws us into a community understood to be very local and small, the world and America intrudes unspectacularly. P.T. conspicuously snaps a photo of Rachel, presumably to share with a similar fast-moving, far-reaching social network dramatized in the film’s first few minutes. A network that speaks in memes and hashtags, that knows and recites American pop-culture phenomenon thanks to America’s aggressive, imperialist export of its own values. This is not cause for celebration any more than other colonial matters pushed to the margins or overlooked altogether in the film: Singapore’s minorities, Malay and Indian peoples, and the working class who prepare the food and set the arrangement lingered over by the camera’s eye. Writer Connie Wang carefully maintains the rhetorical difference between a story told for Asians or for Asian-Americans; Crazy Rich Asians is the latter, “framed by our American cultural baggage.” That baggage includes the blaccent as a matter-of-fact comedy heuristic.
There is another moment where accents are made explicit, midway through the large family and etcetera gathering at Nick’s ah-ma’s estate. Nick and Eleanor are in his old room; both are talking around each other. She prys gently, insinuating what might be insinuated by Nick’s decision to bring Rachel to Singapore to an event surrounded by so much family. Nick smiles. “When there’s something to say about Rachel and me, you’ll be first to hear,” he tells her. “Some things, I need to figure out on my own.” Eleanor shakes her head. “Is that an American accent I’m hearing?” Nick only smiles, unbothered by the slippage he probably didn’t notice.