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The NAACP Image Awards, Awkwafina, and Giving Space to Whiteness

On January 18, the NAACP Image Awards released their 2022 nominees for the 53rd annual award ceremony. Amongst those nominated was the actress Awkwafina, who has recently received criticism for using a blaccent throughout her career. Following the announcement, critics took aim at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People* (NAACP) for nominating the Asian-American actress despite her history of misappropriating Black culture (The Root). A second conversation started to surface: should a non-Black person even receive an award from a Black institution? If so, can these Black spaces and institutions do so without losing their original purpose?

Universities, publications, festivals, a designated month, and more were established to center Blackness unapologetically, authentically, safely, and beyond the white gaze. Black spaces and institutions like the NAACP Image Awards were created in response to white institutions’ hold on culture, entertainment, and awards. Despite the Oscars and the Grammys nominating Black artists and performers, creating “urban” music as a catch-all category for Black music means segregation remained. Black artists and creators were given accolades sporadically, if at all, and only when white critics deemed their work exceptional (Philadelphia Inquirer). 

TAKE ACTION

• Support organizations like Black Thought Project and Safe Black Space that center Blackness by creating sanctuaries for Black voices, perspectives, and healing.

• If you are a non-Black person, consider: how does your presence in a Black space impact the safety and comfort of those around you? Are you appreciating or profiting from being in this space?

Hollywood ceremonies continue to fall short even after the 2015 #OscarsSoWhite social justice campaign revealed that these prestigious institutions were just “popularity contests” run by old, straight white men (Variety). And while there were demands for more diversity in these institutions, there were also calls to “create your own committees [and] build your own institutions” (Twitter), emphasizing the necessity of spaces for marginalized groups. 

But even amongst people of color, white supremacy is still present. The absence of white people doesn’t mean that whiteness and the structural inequities that it creates are nonexistent. 

White and non-Black entertainers of color have competed beside Black nominees in various Black-centric award shows like the BET Awards or the Image Awards for years. Nominees are chosen after the entertainer, or their team submits their work for consideration (NAACP), potentially allowing anyone with a platform to have a seat at the table. 

Awkwafina’s nomination comes one month after J Balvin, a white Latino music artist, was named Afro-Latino Artist of the Year at the 2021 African Entertainment Awards USA (AEAUSA). The award show faced similar criticism since Balvin was called out for building “a career cosplaying Blackness” and making anti-Black statements. The decision to celebrate a non-Afro-Latine artist was critiqued as Afro-Latine erasure, as the award’s name was subsequently changed to “Best Latin Artist” to support their decision (Remezcla). 

This was an opportunity for an “organization that celebrates Africa to use this category to celebrate Afro-Latine talent doing the work in an industry that has failed to support them” (Remezcla). Instead, diluting the category by broadening the name, awarding a non-Black Latine artist in the category’s inaugural year, and saying that the award is “not based on race or color” but about “pushing the African music culture on the world stage” (code for making it marketable/accessible/palatable to white audiences) only further “enables the invisibility of an entire community.”

Opting to uplift non-Black entertainers to the upper echelons of Black entertainment at the expense of Black artists shows how whiteness permeates every institution. And how those who benefit from proximity to whiteness accept racial hierarchies, root themselves in Black spaces, and align themselves with Black solidarity only when convenient for them. While people of color experience racism and oppression, it’s not equal. And homogenizing narratives created from the use of terms like “PoC,” “non-white people,” “women of color,” even “Hispanic” and “Latinx” erase how anti-Blackness is still prevalent in non-Black communities of color. 

And to be clear, the issue isn’t whether or not non-Black people are deserving of recognition, but whether their work and image should be elevated over Black art and creators in spaces that were made out of necessity to celebrate and center Blackness. Especially when the need for these spaces continues to exist. Those within the Black community are voicing how they are not only being left out of predominately white institutions but also their own. 

The NAACP Image Awards have also been criticized for their underrepresentation of the Black LGBTQ+ community after the show Pose, which centers “unapologetically trans & queer” Black and non-Black characters of color, was snubbed across multiple categories (Essence). 

Unlike most of America, which is built on systemic, institutional racism, Black spaces and institutions aren’t racially exclusive events. There were created because there weren’t opportunities to learn, work, live, or celebrate. But whiteness and white-adjacent shouldn’t undermine these Black spaces’ original purpose. If we don’t show up for ourselves, who will?

* The terms “colored people” and “colored” were historically used to describe Black people during segregation and not a blanket term for people of color.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • Most Black institutions, including award shows, were created because Black people were openly and systematically excluded. 
  • The homogenizing of all people of color ignores the disparities within racial groups and how anti-Blackness perpetuates all communities. 
  • The desire to make Blackness palatable to white markets often means the erasure of Black people. 
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