The opening beats of Kendrick Lamar’s “Backseat Freestyle” are rebirth. I’m not into rap music, but I swear those first few seconds have fundamentally changed me for the better.

I was at a party a few weeks ago. It was a party held by an Asian organization, so my community was around me, and I didn’t feel that inexplicable stress from parties with mostly white people. “m.A.A.d city” was bumping (look, I know I was talking about “Backseat Freestyle,” but the piece doesn’t work any other way — sue me); it was a good time. Through the pulsating of Kendrick’s beat, I heard people going off with the lyrics:

“This m.A.A.d city I run, my —”

Except they didn’t stop there. And even though I was in no shape to make a detailed race-relations analysis, one conclusive question rose to the surface of my thoughts: Did these motherf–ers just say the N-word?

In the Asian-American community, there is a subculture of hip-hop that permeates the lives of many people — including myself. We are encouraged by mainstream society to assimilate whiteness, to conform to the model minority myth and to pretend as though we aren’t different from the masses of Caucasian faces. But much like the modern cultural phenomenon “Bee Movie,” it just doesn’t make sense. So some Asian-Americans turn to the stories of other marginalized communities. Hearing 2Pac’s “Me Against the World” not only taught me about violence in impoverished areas and the experience of a Black man fighting racial prejudice, it also reminded me of the unspoken police violence and destitution in Chinatowns during the 1960s, the prejudices against Asian-Americans and how my community is fighting its own battles today.

On the other hand, many seem to have forgotten that hip-hop, while perhaps open to Asian-Americans, is not always an Asian-American space.

Meaning, it’s time to have a talk.

I am tired of hearing Asian-Americans scream the N-word at parties, but squirming uncomfortably when someone calls them out for it. I am tired of the J. Cole songs at parties when I know no one is really listening to the lyrics. And I am tired of Asian-Americans glamorizing the lives of popular rappers like Big Sean, but not realizing that Flint, Mich., still does not have clean water.

It is important to acknowledge that the Asian-American community has made incredible progress in being vocal about social issues. We have developed so much in educating ourselves about other communities, and how our community is related to theirs. We have our own shared history with the Black community that is powerful and should not be ignored. But I still hesitate to congratulate ourselves on what we have achieved because there are still so many people who just don’t care enough to learn. To my fellow Asian-Americans, before you get defensive (don’t hide from me now), really ask yourself: Do I understand the culture I love so much? There are still too many people who will awkwardly shift in their seats at the idea of protesting and speaking out in situations that are inherently problematic, or even trying to educate themselves about other ethnic communities. Don’t just say, “what’s up, my N—-r” to seem cool around your friends. How can you really love a hip-hop artist but negate the lyrics they write? And what makes you feel like it’s OK to use language like the N-word when you have not personally experienced the backlash of it?

No, you don’t have to be a Social Justice Warrior to like hip-hop. You don’t have to know every current event happening ever. You just need to be aware that many things are not yours to take, which is something I would think most Asian-Americans are familiar with. People make our food trendy, use our languages as accessories and wear our traditional clothing as costumes, all while dismissing our problems, contributions and history. How is that fair? The answer: It’s not. Which means it’s not fair to the Black community if we benefit from their culture but do not stand with their issues. Tell Becky to give the bindi back, but don’t snatch someone’s box braids in the process.

Education is also crucial in solving such a complex, obscure issue. More often than not, appropriation of other cultures stems not from malice, but from a lack of awareness. They just don’t know. A professor I had used to say things like “I love to study Buddhist scriptures” and “my tattoo means heart and mind in Chinese, my calligraphy teacher told me.” It made me uncomfortable because I used to get teased for those things, and now people were trying to tell me how amazing they were. But my professor didn’t mean harm. They were truly invested in learning about Asian cultures. They just didn’t understand that by correcting my Chinese, they were making me feel as though my attempts to explain my own culture weren’t valid enough. They just didn’t know. And that’s not one person’s fault. But we need to help raise awareness about what is OK and what is not.

The question of cultural appropriation is still a messy one. It’s not always going to be clean cut. Ethnic studies is just gaining recognition as a field of study, and the beginning of any new innovation is not going to be clear. My rule is, be aware of what your space is. Some Black people are trying to reclaim the N-word to empower the community (see: Donald Glover, “The N Word”), but the historical connotations and racial charge still carry over from the past, and that does not make it OK for others, including other people of color, to use it freely. We need to be respectful toward those who mind. It’s not our space to make the decisions, so we need to listen more carefully. You cannot extract the benefits of a culture without acknowledging the hardships of it. We can freestyle with Kendrick in the backseat, but we are not driving the car.

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