I saw a bumper-sticker on an expensive car in an upscale shopping area, which read: “Female Asian Driver: Good Luck Everybody Else.” My first thought, times being what they are, was: “Man, I really hope that that car does in fact belong to an Asian woman.”
Turns out this is a fairly popular bumper-sticker — it is a reference to a Family Guy bit — that you can buy, inevitably, on Amazon. Amazon is very useful for shopping, and its review section also provides excellent reading material, including this one from the reviews of that bumper-sticker: “Great bumper-sticker! Funny gag when my unsuspecting girlfriend found it on her car!” The line between brashness and abject stupidity is blurry, and blurrier still after you’ve been smacked upside the head by your girlfriend.
Asian-American women put up with an unbelievable amount of stereotype-based nonsense, some of which strikes me as pretty amusing, though it’s probably less amusing to them. (A woman of Taiwanese background once explained to me her first-date protocol for identifying and weeding out men with an Asian fetish. It probably would have been funnier as a movie scene than in real life.) But, in this age of heightened social sensitivity, Asian-American women can also easily end up being social-justice offenders, particularly in the eyes of those with a professional commitment to being offended.
Nora Lum, better known as her rapping alter ego Awkwafina, is having her turn in the barrel. At issue is a scene in Crazy Rich Asians in which she employs stereotypically African-American pronunciations and mannerisms when giving a friend a you-go-girl pep talk. Lauren Michele Jackson, writing in Vulture, insists that “her persona has veered too close to black aesthetics for comfort. . . . 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.”
One of the interesting things about Black English is that nobody really knows where it comes from (or where it is going, a question known in linguistics as the “divergence/convergence controversy”). One theory is that Black English developed out of the convergence of the different African languages spoken by slaves. Another theory holds that Black English is rooted in old British English, having maintained certain features that are no longer common in standard American or British English. Many of the features associated with Black English are common in Appalachian usage as well. (The cultural linkages there are complicated. Thomas Sowell, in Black Rednecks and White Liberals, posits that the worst parts of dysfunctional black-underclass culture are holdovers from white-redneck culture imported from the South during the Great Migration.) There’s a whole wide, interesting body of academic literature on the subject.
John McWhorter, a professor of linguistics at Columbia, writes:
A white person’s depiction of Black English may still rankle, and I have often sensed that the rub is that the white person may think Black English is the only way that black people can talk, that they are somehow impervious to mastering standard English. And that prejudice was definitely real for a great while. Now, however, educated whites are quite often aware that black people can talk in two ways depending on circumstance.
And not just black people, of course. “Code switching,” the habit of matching one’s usage to one’s audience, is universal. To take one entirely theoretical example, a white guy from West Texas may speak differently at a family reunion than at a job interview at National Review. A person who speaks a mix of Spanish and English at home may use more or less Spanish depending on his interlocutors. And Black English is not used by black Americans exclusively. Crazy Rich Asians is a comedy, and Awkwafina is a comedic persona, but it would be no means out of the American character for a native of Forest Hills, Queens, U.S.-born with Chinese and Korean ancestry, to employ Black English from time to time. Or much of the time — the variety of the American scene is endless. HGTV star Joanna Gaines has a Korean mother and a Lebanese–German father, and talks like a woman born in Wichita, Kan., and raised there and in Waco, Texas. Which is (also) what she is.
I understand why people of Mexican background are offended at the sight of drunk frat boys parading around in sombreros and why the “Colonial Bros and Nava-Hos” Thanksgiving party at Cal Poly was ill-considered. Ethnic humor is always safer when it comes from members of the group in question: When researchers suggested that a 9,300-year-old skeleton found near the Columbia River in Washington were Caucasian, the editors of this magazine sternly demanded the repatriation of “any martini shakers or penny-loafers found at the gravesite.” (Kennewick Man was later determined to be more closely related to Southeast Asians than to Western Eurasians.) But those lines aren’t always clear: From one point of view, Awkwafina might be seen as lampooning black speech; from another, she might be seen as lampooning Asian Americans who borrow from black usage, which some do.
It’s a wonderfully mixed-up country. Jazz and hip-hop are musical forms with distinctively American roots, but that doesn’t mean that Dave Brubeck or the Beastie Boys were engaged in the musical equivalent of blackface. This is a country in which Ralph Lifshitz, a Jewish kid from the Bronx, could mass produce WASP wardrobe staples, sell the country-club set their own fantasies back to them under the name Ralph Lauren — and become a favorite designer of young black men in the process. Americans, being largely good-natured people, are torn between the desire to learn about and appreciate other cultures (including other American cultures) and the mandate to “stay in your lane.” How that is really supposed to work, I don’t know, but I doubt that Ralph Lifshitz played a lot of polo in the Bronx.
My colleague Kat Timpf keeps a pretty good catalogue of all the things deemed “problematic” in these thin-skinned days: hoop earrings and nameplate necklaces on white women, a television show about eating spicy chicken wings, etc. It is a never-ending project. There isn’t that much organic outrage in the world; it is by necessity manufactured.
If only there were some easy way to distinguish between the decent and well-intentioned and the callous and hateful. Perhaps we should consider the philosophical maxim of Raylan Givens: “If you get up in the morning and you meet an a**hole, you met an a**hole. If you meet nothing but a**holes all day, you’re the a**hole.”
Social-justice warriors take note.
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