The term is making headlines this week after comedian, actress and rapper Awkwafina addressed criticism that she’s used a “blaccent,” or Black accent, and other elements of African American language and mannerisms during her career.
Critics say the entertainer has used a “blaccent” for years, including in her 2012 parody rap song “My Vag” and in acting roles in such films as “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Ocean’s Eight.” This weekend, the Asian American star, born Nora Lum, released a statement explaining her view of the racial dynamics at play.
“My immigrant background allowed me to carve an American identity off the movies and tv shows I watched, the children I went to public school with, and my undying love and respect for hip hop,” she wrote. “I think as a group, Asian Americans are still trying to figure out what that journey means for them – what is correct and where they don’t belong.”
To gain a deeper understanding of what “blaccent” is – and isn’t – we talked to Nsenga K. Burton, co-director of the film and media management concentration at Emory University, who has studied depictions of race in Hollywood.
What’s a ‘blaccent’?
A “blaccent” is speaking in a way that mimics or mocks Black vernacular by a person who is not Black, Burton says.
Another commentator defines it this way:
“‘Blaccent’ is a term describing the fake accent racists and cultural appropriators use when they mimic Black people,” says Mikki Kendall, an author and diversity consultant. “Black people have accents, but we don’t all have the same one and yet somehow those two groups always use the same accent when they imitate Black people.”
How does it differ from cultural appreciation?
“Blaccent” is part of the ever-evolving debate around cultural appropriation, or the act of adopting customs from another culture without the proper level of respect or acknowledgment.
Some people have described a “blaccent” as something different – a form of cultural appreciation. But Burton says that’s not the case.
“Cultural appreciation is when you have an affinity for someone’s culture without appropriating or exploiting it for financial gain or cultural influence,” she says.
“Cultural appropriation,” she adds, “is when you appropriate someone’s culture for financial gain and influence without acknowledging the origins of that cultural practice or reinvesting your financial gains into the community from which the culture was taken.”
But whether or not someone gives credit or financial support to the Black community, it’s “never acceptable to use a blaccent,” Burton says.
“Some people claim they can use it because they grew up around Black people and love Black culture. If that’s the case, then support all of Black culture. Don’t just borrow the most popular parts of it for your personal enjoyment and gain while ignoring the larger issues like anti-Black racism and state-endorsed violence that Black people face.”
Why is Awkwafina under fire?
Awkwafina is not the first person to be criticized for appearing to appropriate Black culture and vernacular for financial gain and influence. But instead of a full-fledged apology, she issued a statement Saturday explaining how her cultural influences growing up – movies, TV and hip hop – formed her identity, adding to the backlash.
Soon after, Awkwafina tweeted an apology of sorts, saying “I apologize if I ever fell short, in anything I did.”
“Lum’s unwillingness to address the issue head on or to respond to detractors without presenting herself as a victim of social media is what has led to the fallout around her use of a ‘blaccent’ as a tool for success,” Burton says.
Britni Danielle, an African American author and writing coach who lives in Los Angeles, said on Twitter that Awkwafina botched her attempt at an apology. “Awkwafina could have just said: “You were right. I did use a blaccent to make a name for myself and that was wrong. I wholeheartedly apologize, and I’ll do better from now on.”
So why is using a ‘blaccent’ offensive?
Burton says it creates a dangerous paradox by celebrating Black culture – but only when highlighted by non-Black people.
“Non-Black celebrities are celebrated in entertainment for appropriating African American culture, especially our vernacular, while African Americans are either demonized or overlooked when speaking in Black vernacular,” she says.
“The main problem is an unwillingness of non-Black celebrities to admit their appropriation of Black culture for their personal gain and to share their profits and celebrity with the very communities whose culture they poach.”
It’s not clear whether Awkwafina has credited Black artists for her performing style, shown public support for anti-racism efforts or shared her financial success with the Black community.
One activist describes a “blaccent” as an affectation that can be abandoned when it’s inconvenient.
“It’s not just that people cosplay blackness, it’s that they flip that performance off like a switch the instant they need to distance themselves from blackness,” added Bree Newsome, a Black artist and activist, on Twitter. “They don’t have that blaccent around the cops & they also don’t show up for racial justice issues. It’s minstrelsy.”
“Blaccents” and other cultural appropriation can create financial opportunities for non-Black people but don’t benefit the custodians of Black culture, Burton says.
“They want our rhythm but not our blues,” she adds. “You won’t march for Breonna Taylor, donate to social justice organizations or use your platform to bring awareness to issues impacting African American communities, but you will talk like us for your personal and professional gain.”
Burton cited the example of Black creators on TikTok, who’ve protested the lack of credit they receive when their dance moves are co-opted by White influencers.
“Black people also deserve the same opportunities and financial gains as non-Black folk appropriating our culture. It just isn’t right.”