Awkwafina's successes in the past two years have been hard to ignore: There was her breakout role in the gender-swapped reboot Ocean's Eight; a part in Jon M. Chu's record-setting Crazy Rich Asians not long after; the starring spot in Lulu Wang's acclaimed The Farewell; and now, the Comedy Central series Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens, which was renewed before it even aired.
In a Hollywood where #OscarsSoWhite makes the rounds every year, Awkwafina's quickly rising career is a big step for Asians and Asian Americans; she even won us our first Golden Globe in the Best Actress category. Or at least, that's one narrative.
Beneath all of that, however, is the more complex reality of Awkwafina's career, which started with the Asian gangster New Yorker persona behind 2012's viral "My Vag." As pointed out by critics like Lauren Michele Jackson, who broke down Awkwafina's Crazy Rich Asians "Blaccent" for Vulture, and Harley Wong, who unpacked her reliance on Black aesthetics and slang for Wear Your Voice, Awkwafina's current success has relied on questionable forms of cultural appropriation.
As she borrowed from Black culture in order to make a name for herself, the woman born Nora Lum performed a series of racial stereotypes for coolness and clout, and through that posturing, she made her way from viral internet rapper to critically acclaimed actress. In the face of these weighty issues, how do we wrap our heads around Awkwafina and what she means for diversity in Hollywood? Her trajectory is all the more confusing for Asian Americans, who can see our stories reflected in Awkwafina's Asian heritage and American upbringing.
When it comes to unpacking the conversation around Awkwafina, many seemingly conflicting things can be true at once. Awkwafina is groundbreaking, but she can also feel like a step backward. She can be a sign of Hollywood's more racially inclusive future, while still proving how far there is to go in dispelling racial stereotypes. She can have her wins, but not everyone can or will celebrate them, and as much as the lens of representation has narrowed its focus on Awkwafina, it seems unlikely—given her past—that creators of color will ever fully rally around her. Awkwafina is for some people; she's certainly not for everyone.
Louder and more confident than Nora, the persona of Awkwafina allowed Lum to perform without anxiety, she once told NPR, and her public persona has always hinged on the idea that Awkwafina was a performance to be turned on and off. With her tongue-in-cheek moniker in place, she became known for brash speech inflected with Black slang and foul-mouthed raps, eventually catapulting her to a role on MTV's Girl Code in 2014.
Awkwafina's defenders have attributed her performance of Blackness to her multicultural upbringing in Queens, as depicted in her new series. But adding another layer to this predicament is the sense that Awkwafina has given up on this persona in recent months, coinciding with her garnering more serious roles and mainstream acclaim. As Veronica Wells wrote for MadameNoire, the AAVE- (African American Vernacular English) inflected manner of speaking Awkwafina once took on has subsided, and given way to what seems more like Nora Lum, though she recently told the New York Times that Awkwafina is an identity she's still hesitant to shed. If we look at her story this way, it's a case study in cultural appropriation: borrowing from a culture that isn't your own, profiting from it, and dropping it when it no longer suits you.
This shift has been noticeable—and has led to judgment from Black and Asian critics alike. A viral tweet from Black film writer Valerie Complex pointed out Awkwafina's"disappearing Blaccent." To this, screenwriter William Yu, a champion of Asian American representation, wrote, "It puzzles me that Awkwafina still has not acknowledged how she has used Black culture to her benefit. This refusal to own up exacerbates audiences that want to support her. A statement is not career suicide. There will be no boycott. Why refuse the chance to demonstrate empathy?"
If Awkwafina weren't being framed as a spokesperson of Asian America, it might be a different story, but she seems to be answering from that position. After her Golden Globes win, for example, she told the New York Times that her character's mentality in The Farewell was a point of view common among the American children of immigrants: "We are raised to feel like Americans, and when we go back we're told we don't belong there. [...] It's a constant feeling of being lost in translation, and that's something that definitely resonated with me." A stance like that makes people feel seen, and it's why this representation is worth unpacking. Still, Awkwafina hasn't acknowledged what she's taken from Black culture in order for her to ascend to her current post.
Of course, this issue is much bigger than Awkwafina. She's the biggest and most current example of the appropriation of Black culture by high-profile Asian Americans, but similar arguments have been made about entrepreneur and chef Eddie Huang and Indonesian rapper Rich Brian, formerly known as Rich Chigga.
Representation is undoubtedly a form of progress for the status of Asians in America, whose stories and humanity are often shafted in favor of white-centered narratives. Similarly, supporting Awkwafina doesn't just mean supporting Nora Lum: It means uplifting Chinese American director Lulu Wang and all the Asian American stories that have yet to be told by Hollywood's mainstream institutions. And though we shouldn't have to, it's proving to the entertainment industry that there's a reason to continue in this direction.
But the case of Awkwafina also shows the ways that representation alone can unravel, and how an oversimplified view of it can still fall short. Her narrative chips away at the idea that the "person of color" umbrella truly unites, like 2020 presidential candidate Andrew Yang rallying for skilled immigrants like his father over immigrants with "distress stories" as backgrounds. How much can Asian American representation really mean in the big picture, when celebrating a face that looks like our own comes at the expense of other marginalized groups? Who else are we siloing into stereotypes as we, as Asian Americans, seek to break free of our own?
It's not that representation isn't something to aim for, but that being Asian in America is about much more than just who's on screen. Representation should be a step toward seeing the interplay of marginalized communities. If we don't work to lessen the ways we—even inadvertently—hurt each other, the idea of championing diversity doesn't really do as much as we might hope.