Nora Lum, better known as Awkwafina, made history after becoming the first actress of Asian descent to take home the Golden Globe for Best Actress for her role in the 2019 hit The Farewell.
Asian voices are practically non-existent in Western media, so Nora’s win is a huge accomplishment for the Asian community. And while the award is without a doubt history-making, it hasn’t been without controversy. Many people have called out the rapper-turned-actress on her overuse of stereotypical black mannerisms in her early career.
Born to a Chinese-American father and a Korean mother, Nora created the Awkwafina persona in high school. The Queens-bred comedic rapper wore urban fashion and spoke in a blaccent that seemed unnatural for someone who grew up in the predominately white and Asian neighborhood of Forest Hills. But despite being criticized for her lack of authenticity, Awkafina’s minstrel act didn’t hurt her career. It actually helped it.
Songs like “My Vag” and “Green Tea” quickly went viral, scoring millions of views on YouTube.
And then in 2018, Hollywood came calling. She starred in Crazy Rich Asians, playing Goh Peik Lin, a role in which she relied heavily on the “sassy black friend” character trope. In Ocean’s Eight she played Constance, a hustler, and pickpocket from Queens. In both films, her over-exaggerated mannerisms and blaccent were on full display. It wasn’t until The Farewell that she dropped the act.
Her reliance on black stereotypes is quite ironic, especially since she understands just how problematic racial stereotypes can be on a community. Speaking to Vice in 2018, she explained that she would never take a role that she considers harmful to the Asian community. She said,
“I refuse to do accents. I’m not OK with someone writing the Asian experience for an Asian character. I make it very clear, I don’t ever go out for auditions where I feel like I’m making a minstrel out of our people.”
Why hasn’t she kept that same energy when it comes to her profiting off black speech and culture? Does black culture not deserve the same respect?
It’s unknown if Awkwafina is apologetic for her use of black caricature tropes, mainly because the last time she spoke about it was in 2018 during a press tour for Crazy Rich Asians.
“I welcome that conversation because I think as an Asian American identity as a people, we’re still trying to figure out what that is. So I welcome the conversation.”
It’s doubtful that Awkwafina is going to have the conversation anytime soon. As she’s garnered more attention from Hollywood and solidified her place as an A-list celebrity, her signature blaccent has magically disappeared. This is actually incredibly common for non-black celebrities who use black aesthetics for their own personal gain and then nonchalantly drop the act once they’ve reached peak success (think Miley Cyrus, Fergie, and Justin Timberlake).
Awkwafina’s next big career move is her own show on Comedy Central, Awkwafina is Nora From Queens, which is semi-autobiographical. It will be interesting to see if she renews her old persona and returns to her culturally-appropriating ways for the series.
Maybe one day Awkwafina will finally acknowledge her problematic past. But as for right now, it’s a bit hard to celebrate her success when it was built on a minstrel idea of what blackness is.