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Awkwafina was called out for cultural appropriation for talking with a ‘black accent’. She joins a long list of celebrities accused of insensitivity. Photo: AP/Chris Pizzello

Cultural appropriation: Awkwafina joins Ariana Grande, Kendall Jenner and Justin Bieber on roll call of celebrities called out for being insensitive

  • Asian-American comedian and actress Awkwafina, criticised for the ‘blaccent’ she uses, is not the first celebrity to be called out for cultural appropriation
  • Ariana Grande, Kendall Jenner, Justin Bieber, Zac Efron and others have also been accused of showing insensitivity

Another day, another celebrity embroiled in a cultural appropriation scandal, this time Asian-American actress Awkwafina.

The star of films including Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Crazy Rich Asians and the comedy series Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens, came under fire over her use of a “blaccent”, or black accent, in stand-up comedy, film and TV roles.

Awkwafina, real name Nora Lum, took to Twitter on February 5 to issue a statement about her use of African-American vernacular English (AAVE).

“As a non-Black POC [person of colour], I stand by the fact that I will always listen and work tirelessly to understand the history and context of AAVE, what is deemed appropriate or backwards toward the progress of ANY and EVERY marginalised group,” she posted. “But I must emphasise: To mock, belittle, or to be unkind in any way possible at the expense of others is: Simply. Not. My. Nature. It never has, and it never was.”

In a follow-up post she said she would be quitting Twitter.

Awkwafina, who grew up in New York and is of Chinese and Korean descent, is one of many celebrities to have been caught out trying to tread a fine line between cultural appreciation and appropriation.

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In 2013, American singer Katy Perry caused a stir in Japan when she was accused of appropriating Japanese culture for her geisha-inspired performance at the Video Music Awards, while in 2018 Beyoncé was called out when she channelled ancient Egyptian queen Nefertiti at the Coachella music festival in the US.

Actor Zac Efron was in the spotlight for “cultural appropriation” in 2018 after the Hollywood star posted an image of himself in dreadlocks on Instagram.

Singer Justin Bieber got the same treatment in April last year when he came under fire for his post in dreadlocks.

Some stars are waking up to the issue. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver said last month that he had hired a team of “cultural appropriation specialists” to make sure his recipes didn’t open him up to accusations of insensitivity, something the Briton and other celebrity chefs have been accused of in the past.

But while there is growing awareness about cultural appropriation – defined as the unacknowledged adoption of creative or artistic themes, customs, or traditions from a minority demographic – celebrities continue to hit the headlines for their insensitive choices. Here are some recent examples.

Pharrell Williams was called out for cultural appropriation for wearing these sunglasses. Photo: Stephane Cardinale/ Corbis via Getty Images

A shady collaboration

In January 2022 Tiffany faced scrutiny for custom-designed sunglasses that US artist Pharrell Williams wore at a Kenzo fashion show in Paris. Fashion watchdog @diet_prada took to Instagram to state that the jewelled sunglasses – 18k gold with 61 round brilliant diamonds of over 25 total carats and two emerald-cut emeralds – were similar to “a set of extraordinarily rare Mughal spectacles”.

Angry internet users bombarded the US jeweller’s Instagram account. “This is a flat out copy of 17th century Indian/Mughal glasses called Halo of Light and Gate of Paradise and the fact that you don’t even mention an inspiration is so disappointing,” wrote one.

Nature dances to the wrong beat

The same month, K-Pop outfit Nature released Rica Rica, the all-girl band’s first song in more than a year. Cultural appropriation accusations soon followed when it was pointed out that the dance they use in the music video of the track is the African tribal dance Zaouli.

Band member Loha shared: “We were especially cautious as we understand that such issue (of cultural appropriation) is a sensitive matter these days. We had no intention of mocking other traditions, but the members and staff will make sure we take more caution next time.”

Singer Ariana Grande was accused of ‘Asian fishing’ for her make-up. Photo: Trae Patton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Grande accused of ‘Asian fishing’

In December, US pop star Ariana Grande posted photos of her with single-edged eyelid make-up and light skin complexion. Some internet users accused her of copying the style of K-pop stars. Others said she was “Asian fishing”, a term used to describe the behaviour of a non-Asian who tries to look Asian using make-up, clothes, or photo editing.

Kendall Jenner got into hot water when promoting her Tequila brand.

A shot of controversy

Kendall Jenner was accused of exploiting Mexican culture during the launch in May 2021 of her tequila brand, 818 Tequila, that featured adverts of farmers working at the Jalisco agave farm where the model’s product was made.

The harshest comments were reserved for images showing Jenner in a cowboy hat, pigtails and cotton shirt, with many taking to social media to condemn the “tone deaf” reality star for her offensive “migrant worker chic’” look.