Oh, yikes… Remember when the Cool Asians said the n-word in ‘Mean Girls’?
Not being white doesn’t mean you’re black
If you’re a real Mean Girls fan, then you probably remember Trang Pak as the grotsky little beotch who was sleeping with Coach Carr at the same time as Sun Jin Dinh. And why wouldn’t you? It’s an iconic Cool Asian love triangle.
But what you might not remember is the moment that Trang Pak very casually drops the n-word in an argument with Sun Jin Dinh about whether or not Dinh is “scamming on” Pak’s boyfriend (the early 2000s were a wild time for our vernacular).
You can watch the movie clip below (the scene in question starts at 2:28) for a little context:
The comment is played for laughs, and the film moves on from the scene without a hitch. After all, Mean Girls came out in 2004, before political correctness was de rigueur. A similar joke probably wouldn’t make it into the script of a teen comedy in 2017, let alone the final cut of the film.
But Trang Pak’s casual slur was a surprisingly astute nod at a common misconception among non-black people of color at large, and Asians specifically: that your otherness grants you full access to the n-word.
Sorry, but no.
This behavior is especially prominent in certain regions, where the n-word slipped into the cultural lexicon relatively unchecked. Those who elect to say the n-word tend to rationalize their actions by positing that they only say it during songs, or would never say it to a black person.
But that’s bullshit, because not being white… doesn’t mean you’re black.
You don’t have the same historical context surrounding the n-word and you don’t face the same type of discrimination that remains a constant in the day-to-day lives of black Americans. Which is to say that when you, a non-black person, says it you’re not re-claiming a tool of oppression.
You’re just being a racist dick.
Asian people dabble in black culture, from music to fashion. Frankly, so do all other races. But there’s been a notable uptick in Asian participation in black cultural spaces, like streetwear and hip-hop. It has become more and more commonplace to find young Asian people rocking brands like Supreme and Yeezy, or adopting hairstyles traditionally associated with black culture.
Big caveat: It’s not racist to wear Palace or listen to Lil Uzi Vert if you’re Asian, and it’s kind of fucked up to suggest otherwise. If you know how to behave, your heritage should not be a barrier to entry into genres of music or styles of clothing, nor should it preclude your enjoyment of those genres or styles.
I’m a person of Asian descent who listens almost exclusively to rap music, but I still have to check myself and make sure I’m staying in my lane when I’m scream-rapping almost every word to Lil Wayne’s A Milli at a friend’s house party.
Asian people are underrepresented in popular American music in general, and the few prominent Asian hip hop artists often skirt the lines between creating original work within a traditionally black genre and appropriation.
Some rappers, like Dumbfoundead and Awkwafina, navigate this line successfully by explicitly incorporating aspects of their Asian identity into their music and working to be conscious of the Culture as a whole.
But other Asian artists have faced backlash from blurring the boundary between appreciation and microaggression. Korean rapper Keith Ape was accused of cultural appropriation in 2015 for the music video for his breakout single It G Ma.
The video showed Ape and his friends sporting grills and corn rows, and menacing the camera with finger guns. Ape later released a remix, and another music video, through Complex that featured black rappers like A$AP Ferg and Father.
In 2016, M.I.A., who is of Sri Lankan descent, caught fire last year for her insensitive comments about the Black Lives Matter movement. The fallout from her statements resulted in her being dropped from the lineup of the 2016 Afropunk Festival in London.
Did Tina Fey know what she was tapping into when she wrote a script where one Vietnamese girl called another Vietnamese girl the n-word in a high school gymnasium? For sure, no. It does not seem like she has a finger on the pulse of current youth culture, given her last couple of movies.
But whether purposeful or not, this throwaway moment in Mean Girls serves as an uncomfortable reminder that sometimes, Asian youth culture thoughtlessly appropriates that of their black peers, and has done so since Aaron Samuels first asked what day it was back in 2004.
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