There’s an intense conversation happening in the Drag Race or comedy world, in general, regarding whether someone is allowed to use a minority/ immigrant accent (Asian, Indian, Southern/Ghetto, etc.) as part of a comedy routine. Some accuse it as an act of cultural appropriation while others defend it with an appreciation rebuttal. But, is it okay for comedians to use such an accent in their comedy?
Drag Race fandom is riddled with this question recently after Plastique Tiara used the Vietnamese accent in the character that she played in the second episode of Season 11. The challenge for the said episode is an acting one where Plastique got the role of Nails (which she characterized as a Vietnamese inspired by the growing population of Viet nail technician). She placed on top in the challenge after she hilariously portrayed her character, making everyone laugh. At face value, this seems appropriate, but some are saying that it is a cultural appropriation and that it was offensive for her to use culture as a comedy routine.
The thing is: Plastique Tiara is Vietnamese. She and her family migrated to the US when she was young. She actually had the thick Vietnamese accent as she is growing up in the US. This elevates the conversation on cultural appropriation, as it was allegedly committed by a person having the culture in question.
Oxford Dictionaries, which only put the phrase into its official lexicon in 2017, defines cultural appropriation as “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.”
So did Plastique Tiara appropriate her own culture?
The definition has two operative words and clauses: 1) unacknowledged and inappropriate, 2) adaptation of culture by members of another, more dominant culture. Hence, an act must qualify in both requisite. In this case, clearly, it was not cultural appropriation.
One thing to consider whether a culture has been appropriated is whether or not the original culture was acknowledged in the use of its elements. In this case, Plastique Tiara was very vocal about her Vietnamese culture and how she wants to bring the culture in a global platform like RuPaul’s Drag Race. She summed this up in an explanatory post she made on Instagram as a response to the issue. She wrote:
“When I first moved here from Vietnam, I didn’t know any English whatsoever. I spent 3-4 years in ESL and had the thickest Viet accent. I was so embarrassed to speak or to start a conversation with anyone because I thought all they would hear was the accent and not me. Today, I am Proud to have my accent. Because of that Vietnamese accent, we’ve raised activists, doctors, lawyers, engineers, nail techs, hair stylists, CEOs, artists, and entrepreneurs. That accent represents the incredible hard work, dedication, and sacrifice the Vietnamese people had to make in order to give the younger generation a better life and to thrive at their fullest potential. I am no longer ashamed or embarrassed. I am a blessed, proud, and grateful Vietnamese Immigrant.”
She even wrote the same thing in Vietnamese. The thing about cultural appropriation is that it’s easy for people to claim it without proper context and that’s precisely what happened here.
The second part of the dictionary definition talks about borrowing. Just put it this way: culture appropriation happens only when a culture is used by members of another group of people, not when a member of the culture uses elements of her own culture. She is not even an American with Vietnamese blood; she’s an actual Vietnamese who had a thick Viet accent which only learned to speak American.
Some argue that what she did was commercializing her culture and facilitate racial stereotyping. While this argument is valid, it entirely dismisses the context of the act. It was an acting challenge, and she created a character out of her old self – a gay immigrant with a heavy Vietnamese accent.
There’s something beautiful about owning your stereotype; it cannot be used against you. Plastique Tiara owned her think accent because she can – she earned it. Now that she was able to show the world that while she had a rough time dealing with it in the past, it becomes useful to her in the present (she placed high because of her hilarious performance).
It’s basically the same as black comedians using their “banji or ghetto” accent to deliver their performances or as Spanish people like Sofia Vergara using their thick Latin accent to identify themselves. Now, no one can tell them that their thick Southern accent or their Spanish is cringy (well, except Serena Chacha) because they embraced it and used it in their advantage.
Did she succeed because of the Vietnamese accent or because of her spot-on portrayal of someone with a Vietnamese accent? I think it’s more of the latter than the former. The bottom line is that she used an element from her culture without malice (as she does not intend push for racial stereotyping) and in good taste – it was funny as she wants it to be. /apr