According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, The definition of “swag” in terms of societal coolness is “bold or brash self-confidence: swagger, cockiness.” Money might be one of the lifebloods of American society, but swag is a force that’s just as important in order to gain friends, influence people, snag romantic partners, and sometimes even succeeding in business. The thought is that if you have swag, you’re golden, and if you don’t, you gotta figure something out.
Routinely in American society, those who have “swag” are thought to be Black. This is one of the few positive stereotypes we have–we’re seen as effortlessly cool, dripping with personality, and, as far as social cache goes, successful in earning a fire reputation that precedes us. When people say they want to be “Black,” what they’re really saying is that they want to have “swag.” (‘Cause being Black also comes with being terrorized by the entire country, and who wants that?)
Thus, legions of non-Black kids have tried their best to develop the swag they see from rappers, comedians, actors, athletes and other notable Black people including those within their immediate circle. Included among these non-Black kids are Asian kids, specifically Asian boys, who want to defy the stereotypes society has set out for them and elevate to the level of “swag.”
Over the past three years, I’ve watched two films that touch on the Asian male’s existential search for some kind of swaggy holy grail–Boogie, written and directed by Eddie Huang, restaurateur and author of Fresh off the Boat, and Chang Can Dunk, written and directed by Jingyi Shao. (Read my Common Sense Media review of Boogie here.)
In both films, the main character wants to achieve something beyond what they think is possible for them. For Alfred “Boogie” Chin (Taylor Takahashi), he wants to make it to elite college basketball, beat his rival Monk (the late rapper Pop Smoke) in an all-decisive basketball game, and get his girl Eleanor (Taylour Paige) to see him as worthy enough for her. In Chang Can Dunk, Chang (Bloom Li) also wants to impress the school and the girl of his dreams Kristy (Zoe Renee) by beating his frenemy Matt (Chase Liefeld) in a showdown to make an impossible slam dunk. To train, he goes to Deandre (Dexter Darden), a former basketball player-turned-YouTube influencer and sets off on a journey of self-discovery.
Interestingly enough, both films have to do with basketball, and I don’t think it’s by coincidence that basketball is one of the first things non-Black kids turn to when looking to acquire the seemingly elusive “swag.” In my own research about Black sports history for my book, The Book of Awesome Black Americans, I learned that the NBA has always been ahead of the game when it comes to diversity and inclusivity. But for most people, the NBA became what we know it as today in the 1970s, when more and more of the league’s superstars were Black. Nowadays, 99 percent of the league’s superstars are Black, with every team being majority Black. All the legends we look up to, from Wilt Chamberlain to Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson to LeBron James and Kobe Bryant–all of them are Black. Whose shoes are you wearing? You’re wearing Air Jordans, not Air Larry Birds. From fashion to hip hop to slang, basketball’s Black culture as influenced what we immediately think of as “swag.” So of course, if you want to get quick swag, you learn how to play basketball.
It’s also not coincidence that every aspect’s of the films’ relationship to the question about swag revolves around Black culture and Black people. Basketball is one thing, but there’s also the idea of having a Black mentor, such as in Chang Can Dunk, who can teach you the ways of “swag.” In Boogie, the titular character effectively elevates himself over his rival Monk, not only winning the game but, in a way, proving his imaginary “Black card” by beating the Blackest/swaggiest person he knows, who also happens to be played by a real-life rapper. I should also note that a big chunk of Boogie’s animosity towards Monk is an idiotic one–it boils down to Boogie being insecure about his sexual prowess since Eleanor was once Monk’s girlfriend and Monk and Boogie get into a ridiculously boyish tete-a-tete about who sexually pleased Eleanor better. So another layer–sexual mastery over a Black man–is added into Boogie’s win. This is part of the reason why I side-eye Huang’s obsession with Blackness because he often plays on the line of offensive appropriation. Let’s also remember that this conversation is supposed to be between 18-year-olds. Maybe 18-year-olds have these conversations, but it sounded super unbelievable to me.
Another coincidence: having a Black girlfriend. Now let me say point blank that not every Asian man with a Black girlfriend or wife is trying to be disrespectful to Black culture or trying to “be Black” or whatever. There are a lot of Black women/Asian men relationships in this country, and a lot of them are based in friendship, mutual respect, and love for each other’s cultures. Despite what a lot of the interracial cringe accounts will lead you to believe, lot of Black woman/Asian man couples are normal, doing normal, everyday couple things, like paying bills and raising children.
Now with that said, there’s a reason why I’m pointing out the showcase of Black girlfriends in both movies–Black girlfriends equal swag. If you can bag a Black girlfriend, that means you’ve got some pull, if we’re going by the viewpoint of basic America. You don’t just get a Black girl unless you’ve got swag, right? And what do both of these boys want to impress the Black girls they have their eyes on? SWAG!
As we should already know, you don’t have to have some definable level of swag to catch the eye of a Black woman. You can trip over yourself and if we think it’s cute, we will entertain you. In fact, that’s kind of what happened with Chang and Kristy–he wasn’t acting super swaggy when he first met her, but he gassed himself up to think he had to have swag to compete with Matt (a white boy who was the star basketball player, for context–Matt’s access to swag is also through basketball). She would later tell Chang that he didn’t have to change himself for her or anyone, nor did he have to go through this madness of challenging Matt to a dunk contest just to impress her–she wanted to get to know Chang for who he is as a person.
Similarly with Eleanor, she tells Boogie that he’s acting foolish and immature comparing her sexual past to her sexual present with Boogie. She was more experienced than him (which is something that also kind of seems racially motivated in terms of screenwriting, because is Eleanor sexually active just because she’s Black? But I digress…) but she wasn’t counting that against him. She was happy to be with him for who he is, not for what he’s got downstairs or not even for how well he can dunk a basketball. She wanted to know Boogie as a person, not for his level of “swag.”
The truth of the matter is that anyone can have swag–it’s not limited to a certain race or gender or sexuality. Swag comes from your own internal confidence and personality–there is no right or wrong way to have swag. Elements of what is considered swag also change throughout time–Stefan Urkelle, the cool alter-ego of Steve Urkel on Family Matters, is a Black character who was considered as having “swag” back in the ’90s. But would any of us consider Stefan as swaggy today, with his corny one-liners and baggy suits? I sincerely hope not. The eternal parts of swag boil down solely to how you feel about yourself. It’s your self-assurance, your self-pride.
But even though that’s the case, what is it that draws Asian boys and non-white boys in general to Blackness in terms of developing swag and finding themselves?
Wildly enough, I started my journey at Lipstick Alley, in which a person wrote how their Korean male friend told them why so many boys and men in Asia gravitate toward another aspect of Blackness and “swag,” hip hop. She wrote (including some of the original typos):
“He said hip hop and black culture is popular all over Asia. Not just because they like the music. But also because a lot of Asians see hip hop as very masculine,” she said. “They see black males in hip hop [as] masculine. He said hip hop [and] black culture is popular for the girls too. But [you] don’t see them mimicking the lifestyle. Plus the number of Asian girls that follow black culture is very low compared to the majority. But for hip hop [you] see mostly Asian guys that follow it.”
“A lot of them like the music and culture. But a lot of them use it to assert masculinity. They think acting hood, wearing certain attire makes them look like men,” she continued. “He said the stereotypes do run deep of Asian guys being nerdy, feminine looking and not good at sports. This is why [you] hear these k rappers saying ‘this is what hip hop is,’ ‘this is what hip hop is about.’ They’re really just saying this is what being a cool man is about. Plus [there’s] no Asian male representation here that’s in the mainstream. Both in music and in acting. Also that Kpop industry is mainly run by men. The image and music they push on the [boy groups] is 90% hip hop. They have the agenda of globalizing, breaking barriers in music but also helping the image of Asian men.”
A lot of this rings true if you take a look at how Asian men have been portrayed in America. I have a post coming up next week that dives more into the feminine and nerdy stereotypes Asian men have had to face throughout the decades in America. But until then, the 2018 edition of the zine Don’t Believe the Hype: Asian Americans in Hip Hop quickly summarizes some of what Asian American men have historically faced in terms of stereotypes.
“Asian American men are pegged as dorky computer nerds with no sex appeal, while Asian American women are categorized as submissive and exotic, with little creativity to offer but their sexualized bodies…In hip hop, we often seen hypermasculine and powerful Black men who garner ‘street cred’ and women and the images of Black women as sexual aggressors or as angry and overbearing women who refuse to take flack from anyone,” according to the zine. “The narrow and exaggerated images of Asian American men and women in passive and obedient roles fuel the notion that Asian Americans are the antithesis of hip hop, which often prides itself on its oppositional nature and display of hypermasculinity.”
The “sexual aggressor” line succinctly sums up my issue with Huang making Eleanor the more sexually learned between her and Boogie, since it lines up nicely with how Huang’s viewpoint fetishizes Blackness in the first place. But overall, you can see how hip hop has given rise to the idea that Blackness equals masculinity, and if you can tap into it, you can be seen as masculine.
We in America also forget that these stereotypes are exported to the rest of the world, including Asian countries. While negative stereotypes of Blackness and Asianness are also among the exported American content, the relatively “positive” idea of masculinity, particularly Black masculinity, is also being ingested by Asian consumers of American content. And by saying “positive,” I’m not equating 50 Cent or Future’s actions to being great representations of the average Black American male. We know they’re both bad role models, as well as a couple more famous rappers. But what I mean is this fantasy of masculinity, in which Black men are seemingly adored and fought over by women, have men wanting to be like them and befriend them, and being able to flaunt riches, wealth and that all-important swagger, is a fantasy that attracts many men who have consciously or unconsciously internalized what the media has told them about their own masculinity.
A great example of how non-Black men have been brainwashed by this fantasy? A conversation on the Reddit subthread “Change My View.” A self-described “short pasty white man” wrote, “Black men are an extremely privileged group and i wish i was black.”
He wrote (including typos):
“as a short pasty white man , Black men are extremely priveleged group of society, i’m not denying racism or the past suffering black people had to endure, and a lot of the black population still suffer racism, poverty and much more, which we as a society need to address, and i sympathize, but in today’s society the average young black man is a rockstar
Black dudes are extremely effective and sought of on sports of any sort, and are overall extremely athletic, tall and naturally strong, all my white friends had michael jordans poster on their room, not a single larry bird
Black dudes are very popular with women of all races, especially white women, that idea that black guys are good and bed and are well “endowed” really pays off and its hard to see single somewhat decent black dude for long, when i’m hearing my female cousings talking, they always are talking about some attractive black dude they’re dating, when they talk about a white boyfriend is always “oh he is cute and nice” but he is never the hot exciting one.
Black culture is the coolest thing ever, Rap and Hip Hop are the main stay of pop culture right now, every movie or game trailer is a rap song, young rappers score millions, the way black people dress are always the main focus of fashion and pop culture, and even among the snobby intelectuals you have things like jazz and blues.
when i wear my lakers jersey and blast hip hop on my car people say i look like a dork and lame, but when my black friends do it they’re hip and cool.
and i say black men because i know that black women have somewhat more difficulty finding a relationship, since the beauty standard is the small, delicate looking caucasian/asian type girls
i sincerely wish i was a 6ft tall black dude, and i’m tired to hear that i’m somewhat priveleged for being white, being white sucks, i wish i was black.”
He was quickly gathered in the comments, which I implore you to read for yourself, but the comment that changed his mind was one that outlined how he was buying into was a fetishized version of Blackness, and indeed, that is what is behind the wishes of people who say they wish they were Black or try to act like a fantasy version of Blackness (looking at you, Huang). Acting like a rapper or even acting like the stereotypical image of a basketball star is not acting like an average Black person. Average Black people are me, typing on a computer, or like your mailperson, or like your grocery store clerk, or your bank teller, or your Black family members. The average Black person has the same struggles as you–we’re all seeing greener grass in someone else’s lawn, while downplaying our own.
Another thing to keep in mind is what I said above–swag isn’t really about race and more about how you feel about yourself. Kenneth Chan wrote in his essay for Don’t Believe the Hype: Asian Americans in Hip Hop, “‘Expression Predilection: Reflecting on Asian/Asian American Rappers, Styles and Appropriations” how rap revolves around being authentic to the genre.
“One common theme within rap music is the concept of authenticity. To be authentic or ‘to keep it real’ means to perform genuine originality and creativity, and stay faithful to expectations of the genre. As scholar Oliver Wang notes, the authenticity of an artist might even be more important than lyrical and musical talent. If we accept a limited definition of what authentic hip hop is; Black, predominately male, and emerging from the 1970s South Bronx, then the idea of the Asian American hip hop rap artist doesn’t fit into these parameters…” But, he continues, “[F]or Asian American rappers, their music and reinterpretations of hip hop music reflects the Asian American experience. Of course, it’s important to acknowledge that Asian American hip hop, just like the Asian American experience, depends on race, class gender, location, etc. Asian Americans are one of the most diverse groupings in America. Likewise, Asian American hip hop can’t be understood as a singular genre or style.”
“…Hip hop music reflects the space and time of the environment it emerges from. If an artist isn’t able to convince their audience that their music truly reflects their experiences, it can come of as disingenuine, boring and trite,” he continues. “Poorly imitating styles doesn’t just come of as inauthentic, but also brings in the issue of cultural appropriation and anti-Black racism. In its most basic definition, cultural appropriation describes ‘the adoption or use of elements of one culture, by members of another culture.’ While this practice might seem like harmless exchange, we need to consider historical and structural inequalities and anti-Black racism, whether it be examples of police brutality, legacies of segregation, and institutional racism…For Asian American rappers and hip hop artists alike, developing their own style means to utilize hip hop as a way that authentically reflects their own styles, environments, background, identities, and on-going movements and trends inside and outside the music industry. Still these artists must negotiate and recognize what hip hop means as a Black art and the important stakes around cultural appropriation, theft, plagiarism, and anti-Blackness.”
This reflection of relatable experiences–the authenticity–is where true swag comes from. Being true to yourself, your heritage, your history, and how your life have shaped your viewpoints. Being authentic means being vulnerable, funny, quirky, weird–whatever you naturally are, but shared in a way that shows people you are proud to be who you are. It’s fine to show appreciation and love for Blackness, but as showcased in Boogie primarily, there’s the risk of becoming offensive in how you relate to the very culture you want to occupy. I think “swag” as an idea has become a commodified one, and with hip hop and rap being commodities themselves, people have grown up with this idea that swag–and Blackness as a whole–is an object you can own, or something you buy or train in. Both Chang and Boogie realize that’s not the case. You can hit as many slam dunks as you want, or date as many Black girls as you want, or have as many Black basketball trainers as you want, but you will still be yourself and be no closer to being Black. What you will have done, however, is forget what makes you special.
Chan’s comments on authenticity bring to mind my own exploration of authenticity when it comes to the K-pop group BTS and hip hop. I also came to the conclusion that for them to truly succeed in hip hop, they couldn’t copy it like how they were doing when they first became a group. They had to bring their own culture and experiences to the table. Rapper Warren G told them upfront to be themselves. RM recounts what Warren G on two accounts in 2015.
In one interview, he said:
“I wanted to ask Warren G a lot about hip-hop. Like Warren G stated, things like ‘shooting guns, doing drugs, robbery’ aren’t things that are hip-hop itself, but a negative side that’s included within hip-hop. It’s like an uninvited guest that shoved its way into hip-hop, but people said that that’s hip-hop. He also told me that hip-hop is something that’s open to everyone despite what race you may be or what language you may speak. I heard a lot of great things from him besides those as well. Although it may seem like a very obvious thing, but the weight of it just felt different when Warren G said it. And after everything he would say, Warren G attached ‘It’s all Good.’ When I heard those words from the side, then my mood felt really good. Should I compare it to the feeling of a grandfather telling good stories next to you (laughter).”
In other, he said:
“There are two things that Warren G told me that I will never be able to forget. The first is, hip-hop is open to any one. Despite what your race is or where you’re from, hip-hop is a type of music that is always ready to give you space for anyone who enjoys hip-hop. So, don’t restrain yourself behind any type of prejudiced thought, and the other one was you’re doing well, so no matter what others say, believe in yourself and do what you want. Although it’s something that anyone says, I think it touched me even more because he was the one to say it to me. He has a habit of saying, ‘It’s [all] good.’ But I think that it became a sort of spell. Something like Hakuna Matata. ‘It’s[all] good’, when I think of that phrase lately, my hearts becomes at rest a bit more.”
Thankfully, the group seems to have taken the advice and ran with it.
Chan might have given a slight criticism of American rapper Jason Chu and his music video “This is Asian America,” which plays on Childish Gambino’s “This is America” by saying that there is valid critique of if the song negatively appropriates Childish Gambino’s message about anti-Blackness, racism and police brutality. But with that said, Chu also gives a good example of how he has found his unique voice through hip hop by telling the Culture by Culture podcast how he married hip hop to his mission to reach and connect with other Asian kids struggling with mental health and other societal issues.
“There were fewer people trying to have this social impact in music, especially Asian Americans in hip hop…I felt like my background in terms of the mentorship I received, the life experiences I’ve learned from, there was more fertile ground for me to try to translate that into music. That led to an incredible ride that I’m still on.”
Chu also gets at an important point that I think would help a lot of Asian kids who think they need “Black swag”–why do you need “Black swag” when you can have “Asian swag?”
“Before I took any degrees, before I took any college courses or whatever, hip hop…implicitly taught me how to center voices of color, narratives of color, histories of color. Of course you got your Public Enemy and you got your Nas, but you know it’s the James Brown [song], you know, Say it Loud I’m Black and Proud, and growing up listening to hip hop music, the question I inevitably asked was what’s the Asian American version of that?…I don’t mean what’s the Asian American version of hip hop, I mean the Asian American version of Afrocentrism? Of Black joy and Black pride? What is Asian American joy? What does an Asian-centric existence look like?”
Granted, Chu admits he grew up in a predominately white area of Delaware, and people who grew up in Asian-centric neighborhoods have different experiences, but the question remains. Can finding your own version of joy for yourself, your race, your culture and your heritage foster swag? I think it’s clear that that the answer is yes.
I feel like an unspoken throughline in the magic sauce Black people seem to have comes from a love of being part of the African diaspora. Particularly among generations born in the 1960s to now, Black pride has become a key part of Black childhood experiences for a lot of families. There is a great joy in knowing you have a history that includes kings, queens, inventors, freedom fighters and social leaders. There is joy in being different. So the key to swag is, as I’ve hinted at before, is embracing what makes you you. Embrace your history, your leaders, your culture, and your own personal eccentricities. You are a kaleidoscope of fascinating qualities, and that is what qualifies as true swag.
In closing, if you’re an Asian kid wanting to have swag, you don’t have to look to the rappers or basketball players. You can love Blackness without fetishizing it, and you can love yourself without believing in harmful stereotypes. Just be you, and you’ll find your way to your own type of swag. Then you can avoid the basketball contests and just skip to getting the girl.