It's clear from the first ten seconds of Fresh Off the Boat, the new ABC sitcom about a Taiwanese family moving from Washington D.C.'s Chinatown to Orlando, Florida, that 11-year old Eddie Huang is an anomaly and he just doesn't fit in.
In the opening scene, the camera pulls back to show his tiny figure swathed in the baggy, brightly colored clothes synonymous with the hip hop uniform of the time, and little Eddie struck a now-familiar pose: he defiantly crossed his arms high across his chest and nodded, not unlike the way Kool Moe Dee and Run D.M.C. used to do at the end of a knowingly dope rhyme. This universal symbol of defiance was now being deployed to signify a little kid’s discomfort with his recent relocation from Washington D.C.’s Chinatown to the bright, bland landscape of suburban Florida. Young Eddie fully intends to shock with his wardrobe, using it to intimidate bullies and parents alike. A massive part of Eddie’s real life and onscreen cultural assimilation rested heavily on his affection for hip-hop culture.
But if there's a difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation, which one was this?
I went to Los Angeles in November to have a warm weekend with an old friend. On our last night in town, we went to see a benefit show at comedy hotspot Nerdmelt. Towards the end of the show, a buttoned-up white guy got on stage. He was nerdy in a way that reminded me of the nerds I grew up with in the 80s—light-washed jeans hemmed a little too high, a bulky, gray sweater with a generic winter pattern printed around the shoulders, and the kind of plain white, shell toed sneakers that you buy when you care more about cost than fashion. His short brown hair was pulled to the side, the way boys used to do on picture day in junior high with one of the hundreds of black plastic combs the photographer pulled out of a box for each student. It didn’t feel like a costume, but it could have been.
The first 5 minutes of his set were entirely comprised of his telling the audience he was going to “smack dat ass.” He made his voice deep when he used that phrase, like Geoffrey Holder or Barry White, and said “smack dat ass” over and over again until I wasn’t sure if I was watching a comedy routine or if I was part of an elaborate prank. I wasn’t annoyed by the repetition; I was surprised that the entirety of this comedian’s joke so far was that he was a white man affecting a black man’s voice, and that his act was predicated on the asynchronous visual of his being a white guy talking like a black guy. It made me deeply uncomfortable; I crossed my arms and sunk lower in my chair, waiting for him to finish. As far as I could tell, I was the only black person in the audience. I was also the only person not laughing.
I had a similarly uncomfortable feeling when Eddie stepped out of the dressing room to the beat of MC Breed’s “Ain’t No Future in Yo’ Frontin’” at the start of the pilot, begging his mom to buy him the pinky ring, stacks of gold chains, and Starter jacket he was trying on at JCPenney’s. Was the only thing funny here that he was biting a cultural style that didn't necessarily belong to him? And if so, what's so funny about it?
I liked these first episodes of Fresh Off the Boat, and I’m not just saying that because ABC cuts my paycheck. It’s as funny as any other family-oriented sitcom and shocking in all the right ways — a fellow student lobbed the word "chink" at Eddie in a lunchroom scene in the very first episode. It’s moments like this that remind you about the different set of rules minorities are often asked to follow and how uncommon it is to see them showcased on TV; when Eddie’s parents came in to discuss the racial slur, they flipped the usually apologetic script and asked the principal how he could allow such language in his school. It was a teachable moment that preferenced the wisdom and anger of Eddie’s parents instead of bolstering the racist system they were trying to work within. They were just parents sticking up for their kid, but that's harder to do when part of your parenting includes an extraordinary effort to assimilate to white culture. There hasn’t been a primetime sitcom starring an Asian family in 20 years (the first one was Margaret Cho’s short-lived All American Girl in 1994, also on ABC), meaning an entire generation of Asian-Americans have grown up without seeing their faces or their cultural values represented on the small screen in a big way. This scene, from the moment Eddie is called a racial slur to the second his parents are done talking to the principal, does more to evoke the multi-layered, intersectional reality of most immigrants and minorities, that constant push and pull between wanting to fit in and wanting to break out, than almost anything else on TV right now.
But the efficacy of their parenting and disconnect from American pop culture (at least generationally) comes to a head when Eddie displays a love for hip-hop, and particularly his clothes. While his parents happily sing along to Ace of Base, Eddie is a renegade in a Nas T-shirt. When his mother asks, “Why do all of your shirts have black men on them?” Eddie responds, “It’s Notorious B.I.G. Both me and him are two dudes with mad dreams, just trying to get a little respect in the game.” The joke lands (here’s a little kid talking like a streetwise adult about “the game”) but an unspoken discomfort is wedged in there, too — why are you wasting your time on black culture when whiteness is the clear pathway to respectability? Why are you rallying so hard against cultural assimilation? This is complicated by the fact that his mother, Jessica, is also having a hard time with their move to Orlando — when she first meets the mob of blonde, white, rollerblading neighborhood moms she asks if they’re all sisters, and Eddie’s insistence that he take Lunchables to school instead of noodles has her uncomfortably entering an American grocery store for the first time in an attempt to have help him fit in. Eddie’s family is a Matroyshka doll of outsiders; his dad is a wild west-loving Asian steakhouse owner who left D.C. to escape the oppressive cultural values that would have him working for his brother-in-law forever, his mother doesn’t fit in with the cookie-cutter Barbie version of the stay-at-home mom, and Eddie doesn’t fit in anywhere.
In this way, it’s easy to understand how hip-hop is crucial to the development of Eddie’s personality and outsider status. He’s trying to find a pathway to respectability on his own terms, which fits in completely with the hip-hop ethos. In a tense cafeteria moment, a potential fight with a loudmouthed white kid is diffused when he sees Eddie’s Notorious B.I.G. t-shirt. He perks up and says, “I bought Ready To Die the day it came out!” to which Eddie replies, “You bought it? I STOLE it.” He’s using the language and posture of hip-hop to cement his social status as a subversive badass when he needs it most. A black kid sitting nearby witnesses the exchange, and scoffs incredulously, saying, “A white dude and an Asian dude bonding over a black dude?” as if it’s the craziest thing he’s ever seen.
But it's not too farfetched, considering what I remember about the year I graduated high school. In 1995, hip-hop was already mainstream, and having fictional Eddie shop for his hip-hop uniform in JCPenney is indicative of how mainstream the genre had become. Snoop Dog and Dr. Dre were on the cover of Rolling Stone in 1995, and Tupac was on the first cover of 1996, following Ice T’s cover in 1992. Notorious B.I.G. had four top singles on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1995, and that was the year the Grammys added the Best Rap Album category. White suburban kids were already huge consumers of hip-hop and rap, which may have been why Eddie’s mom found it particularly troubling to see him walk around in Wu-Tang Clan t-shirts — suburban parents were terrified by the rise of hip-hop. They were similarly upset about heavy metal, but its loudness reminded them of a loose connection to rock music. Hip-hop was completely foreign to them, and brought with it a violence they couldn’t access or explain. It was also, at times, absurd and funny and just good music, but the parts that put people on edge glorified and discussed a very real kind of violence. No one wants to see their baby boy lip-synching to songs about shooting someone in the face, least of all the white parents who largely moved to the suburbs to escape that kind of urbanized violence.
But the reason white parents felt terrorized by hip-hop is the same reason I still get uncomfortable when I see someone outside of black culture using the language and posture of hip-hop culture, why the hairs on my arm stand up when white women describe their friendships as "ride or die," and why Iggy Azalea incurred the wrath of Azealia Banks —hip-hop and rap were born of a specific place, and made for a specific group of people. It was music that was socially stigmatized precisely because of who was in control of the message as well as what they were saying, with lyrics portraying with brutal honesty the systemic racism that created ghettoized conditions to begin with. Hip-hop has since gone global, but in 1995 we were still on the cusp, enough so that people in my predominantly white suburban town commonly used the word “wigger” to describe any white kid in my high school wearing a Cross Colours jacket and listening to Ol' Dirty Bastard. You weren’t just someone appreciating a style of music or a way to dress—you were a white nigger. You were racially transgressive.
There is a difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation, the crux of which are the historical lessons of dominant culture and the power structures that uphold them. As Tami Winfrey Harris said in her 2008 article on the topic:
A Japanese teen wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the logo of a big American company is not the same as Madonna sporting a bindi as part of her latest reinvention. The difference is history and power. Colonization has made Western Anglo culture supreme–powerful and coveted. It is understood in its diversity and nuance as other cultures can only hope to be. Ignorance of culture that is a burden to Asians, African and indigenous peoples, is unknown to most European descendants or at least lacks the same negative impact.
It matters who is doing the appropriating. If a dominant culture fancies some random element (a mode of dress, a manner of speaking, a style of music) of my culture interesting or exotic, but otherwise disdains my being and seeks to marginalize me, it is surely an insult.
I don't think that 11-year old Eddie is insulting, and he's certainly not part of the dominant culture, which is why this question of appropriation/appreciation in this context is an interesting one. From a cultural standpoint relating to power, Young Eddie has more in common with black culture even if that's not how he understands his fondness for rap T-shirts. He's effectively powerless. Perhaps that’s why Eddie Huang has such an affinity for black culture, both in real life and on the show. His struggle seems to be as much about race as it is about just being an outsider, and, as he explains in the pilot, “If you were an outsider hip-hop was your anthem, and I was definitely the black sheep in my family.” He was trying to find a stronghold by honoring the parts about him that he already knew were unique, and hip-hop helped him express that. Huang has (now famously) railed against the TV show for being void of anything resembling his actual experience:
I didn’t understand how network television, the one-size fits-all antithesis to Fresh Off the Boat, was going to house the voice of a futuristic chinkstronaut. I began to regret ever selling the book, because Fresh Off the Boat was a very specific narrative about SPECIFIC moments in my life, such as kneeling in a driveway holding buckets of rice overhead or seeing pink nipples for the first time. The network’s approach was to tell a universal, ambiguous, cornstarch story about Asian-Americans resembling moo goo gai pan written by a Persian-American who cut her teeth on race relations writing for Seth MacFarlane. But who is that show written for?
The show is missing is the violence that shaped Eddie's young life, and consequently, his affinity for hip-hop culture. Huang writes very candidly about being beaten by his parents as a child, and a network sitcom will never be able to accurately reflect how that shaped him. It would be an entirely different show on an entirely different network.
Huang gave a TED talk about self-identity in March 2013; he enters the stage singing along to Kanye West’s “You Can’t Tell Me Nothing” but curiously doesn’t mention how hip-hop shaped his identity for the entire 5 minutes he’s up there. It’s not until two months later when he sits down with Ta-nehisi Coates at the New York Ideas festival that he has an in-depth conversation about race, identity and hip-hop. When Coates called him a hip-hop head and asked when Huang first felt like he was a kindred spirit to black culture, Huang made an eloquent connection to his life at home and violence in the music.
“I was drawn to it, and I felt a similarity with it, because I grew up in a home where my parents beat me, right? And I talk about it a lot in the book, and no one needs to feel sad or awkward—that’s what happens in an immigrant home a lot of the time. I’m not co-signing that, I think it’s wrong, but the thing is is that when I heard [Tu]Pac talking about these things, and I heard all this music that was at many times laced with violence, I was a little desensitized towards it. It didn’t put me off. It was not, like, a barrier to my entry. So I would listen. I wasn’t listening for the violence, though, because I think hip-hop is much deeper, but when that’s what you grow up with—parents hitting you and things like that—that’s part of your DNA and fabric whether you like it or not. And a lot of people ask me would you do it different, and I said yeah, I won’t hit my kids like my father beat me, right? But also, they ask me, would you be the same person that you are, and I say absolutely not. And this is the gift and the curse, and I have to be honest about it. I do not encourage people hitting their children, but I would absolutely not be the same person.”
Huang goes on to say that hip-hop made him feel “less weird,” that he could connect experientially to something larger than himself. He also noted that he felt left out of most conversations about race, which were about black people and white people exclusively, until he discovered hip-hop — small things like seeing black culture embrace martial arts in movies like The Last Dragon or the Wu-Tang Clan’s entire oeuvre showed him how someone else appreciated Asian culture. Coates brings up the important point that Wu-Tang’s Asian obsession might have been essentializing that culture, too, and that’s where we come full circle to the idea of what it means to be culturally appropriative once something becomes a global phenomenon. Is there a difference between Tom on Parks and Recreation adoring hip-hop and the rapping granny from an Adam Sandler movie using hip-hop as the punchline to a very obvious joke? The question isn’t what happens to the culture that created hip-hop, but what does it mean to the cultures that embrace it?
How does Fresh Off the Boat's hip-hop identity measure up to Fox's Empire, ABC's or Black-ish? Both of those shows, in different ways, feature black families looking for legitimacy beyond the constraints of hip-hop culture. In the pilot for Black-ish, advertising executive Dre Johnson is excited about his promotion until he learns he's been promoted to the head of the "urban" division; in Empire, Lucious Lyon is looking for a way to leave a legacy of success far removed from the shadow of his thuggish beginnings. In both cases, Dre and Lucious still have to work within the boundaries of black culture to achieve legitimacy, like it or not. In the video for the New York Ideas festival, Huang quickly mentions in passing that he is a lawyer, and spends a little more time talking about how much he disliked the constraints of business clothing. That's the difference between a dramatized version of race and the reality of race; Huang can choose to identify with hip-hop but still go on to be a lawyer and successful business owner. He can hang up the cultural affectations whenever he wants to, simply because it's something he's allowed to grow out of. He may not like or prefer code switching, but it's possible for him. On TV, Lucious and Dre can transcend class quicker than they can transcend culture, and in real life, Eddie gets to do both.
Does hip-hop still exclusively belong to black culture anymore? And does that even matter if it offers a weird little kid some solace? That we’re even able to have this conversation is a result of finally seeing a TV show about an Asian kid having a hard time fitting in. If one of the Modern Family kids suddenly started wearing FUBU and talking with a Bronx accent, it would be an open and shut case of abject racism and posturing, and I’d be yelling about it on Twitter instead of writing about it here. Fresh Off the Boat allows us to consider the experience of being a non-white person in America from a non-white perspective. It opens a window and lets us see how American minorities lean on each other to survive. It's a little bit like a game of Telephone, but instead of getting a twisted, filtered version of the message about what it means to be a person of color in America after it goes around the rest of the group, you’re sitting next to the originator and getting it straight from the source.
Knowing more about Huang’s background helped me realize that his connection to hip-hop is solid and very much a part of him in a way that hasn’t been made clear on the TV show yet. Unlike the comedian I saw in Los Angeles, it’s also not an affectation; hip-hop music helped Eddie Huang get a foot in the door of what it meant to be American, and what it meant to be different. Those are all still real problems, possibly more so now that America has allowed the far right to pour its poison directly into the melting pot that used to sustain us culturally. It may not be exactly the show Huang wanted, but I can’t help but feel like Fresh Off the Boat is going to help another generation of kids feel like they’re a little less alone.
Danielle Henderson is a lapsed academic, heavy metal karaoke machine, and culture editor at Fusion. She enjoys thinking about how race, gender, and sexuality shape our cultural narratives, but not in a boring way.