Chet Hanks’ Cultural Appropriation Has Gone Too Far

The actor/artist’s janky Jamaican accent and “White Boy Summer” highlight the importance of Black people telling their own stories

Photo: Axelle/Getty Images

Chet Hanks, son of Tom Hanks, has become one of the most polarizing culture vultures across the World Wide Web. And honestly, it was kind of funny at first. You might’ve been able to laugh through dude’s cringe — dubbing himself Chet Haze and White Chocolate, roaring his best renditions of Jamaican patois. But things became much less amusing a couple weeks ago, when he declared the months following the Covid-19 vaccine rollout in the United States as “White Boy Summer,” followed by the release of a music video for a song of the same name.

“I’m not talking about Trump, NASCAR-type White boy summer,” he proclaimed, seemingly attempting to distinguish his own racial pride from that of overt supremacists. “I’m talking about me, Jon B., Jack Harlow–type White boy summer.”

Hanks’ announcement and subsequent music video emerged amid breaking news that he allegedly abused his ex-girlfriend Kiana Parker, who is a Black woman. Parker has accused Hanks of accosting, grabbing, and making physically menacing movements toward her person, presumably in the midst of him posting self-made videos that show him speaking like a reggae artist and asserting kinship with Black culture. (Hanks is reportedly also suing Parker for assault, battery, and theft.)

I can’t separate Hanks’ music and rampant appropriation from his real-life drama. Not only are the recent domestic abuse claims appalling, but it also seems inevitable that some will perceive his alleged behavior as a reflection on the culture to which he’s gravitated. His antics invite unworthy, ignorant questions about whether Black folks are innately violent and misogynistic. His appropriation, however, distracts from better questions of how a White male scion of one of our generation’s heralded actors became a man-child embroiled in such a mess. His stealing of my culture is a distraction from better questioning about the exploitative convergence of wealth, power, and Whiteness.

Since its inception, White supremacy has been a form of organized appropriation. Western Europeans stole Black people from their motherlands; they created the New World through exploited labor. According to Frank Wilderson III, as emancipation picked up around the world, White supremacy created three prisms for the Black experience: slavery, colonialism, and immigration. All three elicit survival responses — like appropriation — from White supremacy.

If the purpose of colonialism is to redistribute resources from the colonized to the colonizer, Chet Hanks did exactly that when he adopted Jamaican patois. His branding of “White Boy Summer” is a bleaching of Blackness derived from one of Megan Thee Stallion’s signature catchphrases, which is also the name of her collaborative track with Nicki Minaj and Ty Dolla $ign.

Hanks’ use of Jamaican patois gives his appropriation a sense of agency that African American vernacular or conventional English does not. It tells his followers that he went out of his way to learn a Black dialect, stealing from Jamaicans in the diaspora, many of whom immigrated to the United States only to face discrimination when putting their culture (and dialect) on display. He reaches into White supremacy’s toolkit of colonialism as his choice of exploitation. Even when taken to task over the perhaps unintended harm his appropriation may cause — as he was during a Clubhouse chat in December — Hanks continued to wield his counterfeit patois with little regard for those he offended.

We can resist appropriation like that of Chet Hanks by reclaiming our stories. Slavery, colonialism, and immigration determine how Black people contextualize their experience in the West. Marcus Garvey was a historical product of all three. Toni Morrison and James Baldwin dedicated their careers to exploring the experiences of Black men and women who endured slavery’s afterlife. In the essay “Black Like Them,” Malcolm Gladwell shares how the slave story impinges on the immigrant experience. Black people who migrated from the West Indies enjoy the advantages of immigration and then see their traditions fade as their children assimilate. Frantz Fanon, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Zadie Smith all work within the intersection of colonialism and immigration. The Black experience is rich with stories, which makes the products of our ancestral pain ripe for the plucking.

My upbringing made me sensitive to how White supremacy accesses the prisms of the Black experience to fuel its thievery. I’m a polyglot who read Roots and The Autobiography of Malcolm X; my high school senior project was a rap; I daggered and wined at parties that blasted dancehall, soca, and zouk; I spent a summer in Cape Town listening to co-workers talk about the difference between Zulus and Xhosa. I’ve worked my entire life to tell Black-as-hell stories that the White gaze can’t mug for credibility, vitality, and profit.

My passion as a writer is to understand how the experiences of slavery, colonialism, and immigration shape Blackness in America. Appropriation seeks to rob me of the opportunity to do that by giving White people the chance to tell my stories.

I see Jessica Krug’s and Chet Hanks’ appropriation of Black identity as acts of spiritual violence. They’ve exploited the shared history that connects my people for their personal gain.

Last year, Jessica Krug mugged all three of the Black experiences to make herself excellent and successful without confronting the legacy of her ancestral pain. A professor at George Washington University, Krug built her career as an Afro-Latinx scholar who researched racism and White supremacy. She was an influential voice in racism studies; many Black scholars amplified her voice.

The Black academic community quaked when Krug revealed that she had fabricated her identity. Rather than being an Afro-Latinx scholar from the Bronx, as she claimed, she was actually a Jewish White woman from Middle America. Krug exploited the Black experience for her own personal and professional gain.

For Black people who aspire to a career in academia, Krug’s appropriation amounts to another act of unwilling seizure of their work, compensation, professional opportunities, and trust. How many Black scholars were passed over to promote the work of Krug, who won multiple awards and fellowships? How much money did Krug’s theft of Black identity — claiming our slave story for her own — net her?

Who lies about being Black? White people like Krug, who prioritize personal advancement over the community they seek to serve. In this national climate, where White supremacy seeks to politically entrench itself for another generation, Krug’s choices show why Black people remain on guard and how appropriation can be deeply detrimental.

I see Jessica Krug’s and Chet Hanks’ appropriation of Black identity as acts of spiritual violence. They’ve exploited the shared history that connects my people for their personal gain. In this way, they also avoid their pain. Who can look at Hanks and see through the tattoos and his bumbaclot uttered in an appropriated accent and not see a child who wanted more attention from his father growing up?

The White gaze will steal and appropriate to take the focus off their delayed introspection. Our conflicts, while real to us, are simply the work of distraction to them. Knowing this, it is imperative that we tell our stories — and insist that they tell their own.

Hal H. Harris is the founder of Established in 1865, a blog dedicated to exploring Black personhood. He tweets at @Established1865.

I write for me and us, not y’all. The founder of Established in 1865, a platform dedicated to exploring Black personhood. I Tweet @Established1865. #weoc