An Asian American Perspective: Can a Way of Speech Be Cultural Appropriation?

James Shih

Screenshot from China Mac's IG live conversation with Eileen Huang.

Recently there has been some online controversy between TikTok-ers Eileen Huang (@bobacommie) and Nina Lin (@n.nina666) over a contentious video Huang made in which she called out Lin and a number of other Asian/Asian American creators for what Huang thought was appropriating black culture and using African American Vernacular English (AAVE) for clout and profit.

In response to the other accusations, Lin–who recently became viral on TikTok for her in-your-face attitude, wild humor, and New York accent–responded with her own video saying that the way she speaks is because of her environment. Lin grew up in an economically impacted area of New York City (some would call "the hood") and went to a predominantly black and Hispanic high school (Murry Bergtraum).

This feud would draw in rapper China Mac, a friend of Lin's, to call out Huang and go off on her in another video. There has been a lot of heat and discussion about this topic, as can be seen on the AZN Identity reddit, and has also caused Huang to pull her video and make her account private due to personal attacks. Since then, China Mac, Huang, and Lin have spoken together in public and private and have come to an understanding. This is a developing story, but instead of focusing on the controversy, I want to explore the bigger topics that this feud points to.

In this article, I want to explore the concept of cultural appropriation through the lens of speech: can the way one speaks, their accent, word usage, a form of cultural appropriation? What part does the Asian American community play? Where is the line between cultural appropriation and cultural authenticity? These are some of the concepts I want to explore in this article.

Note: Cyberbullying and personal attacks against any individual, including the ones mentioned in this article (Huang, Lin, China Mac) is morally wrong and can lead to legal prosecution. We should talk with one another instead of furthering the divide.

Screenshot from Jouelzy's Youtube channel.

Let's define some terms. In Jouelzy's excellent video Is Billie Eilish Culturally Appropriating? she quotes from Kenneth Coutte-Smith's writings that cultural appropriation is an extension of cultural colonialism in which "an ethnicity dominates another ethnicity by taking a claim to their cultural markers and redefining said cultural markers through the dominant cultural lens and claiming it as their own curation." Thus cultural appropriation, which is done without the proper respect and attribution to its source culture, is deeply harmful and distasteful.

A strong example of this can be seen in the recent "American Mahjong" fiasco where three white women decided to "Americanize" mahjong to make it more appealing to the white gaze (i.e. the dominant cultural lens) with their company The Mahjong Line. They took out the Chinese characters, bamboo, Chinese flower designs and replaced them with flour and other more "American" images...essentially colonizing mahjong. By saying Chinese Mahjong is too foreign and has to be "upgraded" for Americans is insulting and is a painful form of cultural appropriation. As Teen Vogue writer Sara Li puts eloquently, The Mahjong Line is "a complete obliteration of [mahjong's] rich history."

Another important term to define is African American Vernacular English (AAVE). According to the Linguistic Society of America, AAVE, formally referred to as Ebonics or "black speech," was a term coined in 1973 by a group of black scholars. It refers to the dialect of American English spoken primarily in African American communities. It shares some similarities with American Southern English such as the use of double negatives, e.g. "I ain't seen nothing" and Caribbean English creoles such as the lack of subject-verb agreement, e.g. "He do." It is a form of speech used frequently in rap and hip hop which have popularized AAVE around the world.

In the case of China Mac and Ms. Lin, based on our definition of "cultural appropriation," they don't fit the bill. They grew up in an environment in which AAVE and its specific New York variant, was the norm. China Mac–though a generation older than Lin–is a Cantonese speaking Chinese American that grew up in the same neighborhood as Lin. He also lived in multiple juvenile institutions as well as the prison system as an adult in which he was consistently the only Asian or one of a handful of Asians there. This is why China Mac speaks in a strong accent indicative of his background and Lin speaks in a similar, but slightly different (having not grown up in the system) variant. This also explains why Huang–who grew up in a predominantly white, affluent area of New Jersey–speaks in an East Coast upper middle class, white dialect.

It is tough being an Asian in America, especially when growing up in an environment in which one is the minority and is constantly seen as "foreign." Lin, Huang, China Mac and Asian Americans across the U.S. adapted to our environments and took on the prevalent vernacular, hiding traces of our parent's languages, as a way of survival and to avoid further ostracization. I onced received a comment from a screenwriting professor that I wrote too grammatically correct, that people don't necessarily speak in complete sentences. This made me reflect on how I, a son of Taiwanese immigrants, over-compensated in trying to speak and write in "perfect English" and to distance myself from "fobbiness" (being "fresh off the boat") as a way of assimilation.

Ways of speaking are ways of connecting with other people in one's immediate social circle. Humans all want to have a sense of belonging, and how we speak can cause those in our environment to judge us as one of the group or as an outsider. Hopefully, America grows to be more accepting of different accents and languages so that newly arrived immigrants do not have to hide their mother tongue and can proudly teach it to their children (that's another topic of discussion).

At a They Can't Burn Us All rally in 2020. Rick from Year of the Ox pictured above (right).

Looking again at English vernacular, it's interesting to note how "sounding black" and "sounding white" have completely different connotations. First off, this terminology is problematic in how it implies that all black people sound the same and so do all white people, which is far from the truth. For the sake of comparison, let's equate "sounding black" as using AAVE and "sounding white" as drawing from the Mid-Atlantic accent and it's variants. From my general observation, it seems that Asian Americans that are said to "sound black" receive more criticism than Asian Americans that "sound white." What this speaks to is a feeling of Asians as being white-adjacent, i.e. honorary whites, and as being anti-black.

Yes, there are Asians that seek consciously or unconsciously proximity to white power and there is anti-black racism in the Asian community. But what is not highlighted enough is that there are Asians that are actively fighting white supremacy and stand in solidarity with black movements like Asians for Black Lives. Also, there are Asians that speak in a wide range of American English vernacular (New Yorker, Southern, Californian, etc...), and this lack of representation in mainstream media can cause those who're unfamiliar with such subcultures to wrongfully accuse them of cultural appropriation.

As for Asians being honorary whites: it's nonsense. We've seen this with the rise of anti-asian racism during the COVID-19 pandemic in which Asians in America have been scapegoated for the virus. Honorary whiteness is a sham; a carrot carried by white supremacy, who has a stick to strikes us Asians down whenever it arbitrarily deems fit. This is a topic for another blog, but for now, let us say that Asian Americans come in many forms and speak in many different ways that are indicative of our backgrounds. As long as the vernacular used is indicative of one's lived experience, it is not cultural appropriation.

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I enjoy writing about film/TV, travel, slice of life, language, Asian American issues, and other interests. Thanks for reading! Please leave a comment or message if you have any thoughts to share =).

Los Angeles, CA

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