This is an excerpt from Please Like Me, BuzzFeed News’ newsletter about how influencers are battling for your attention. You can sign up here.
This newsletter is particularly hard for me to write. It’s personal, and I’m wavering between being sensitive to my own feelings about the issue and being sensitive to a huge TikTok personality whom I’ve been a fan of for the past year.
Linda Dong (aka LeendaDong) has grown a massive TikTok following. In her videos, she’s always wearing loungewear and glasses, her hair undone, as she casually drops witty and imaginative banter. Her look is antithetical to how we have traditionally seen influencers (perfectly manicured and dressed up). She normalizes and even glamorizes the slept-in-late-in-the-comforts-of-home aesthetic (how I look 85% of the time), which I really appreciate.
She also speaks in a vague but very apparent pan-Asian accent. In an earlier, less woke life, we would’ve called it a “fobby” accent, which is not a term I and other Asian people like to use anymore. But more on that later.
Linda now has 15.7 million followers on the platform. Her look, her hilarious personality, and her accent are all really engaging. In fact, that pseudonym she’s given herself, “LeendaDong,” is a send-up of her inflection.
Until recently, I thought, Good for her. I believed the accent was authentic. That was until about seven months ago, when a friend of mine, who’s also a big fan of hers, discovered her YouTube channel. On YouTube, Linda shows a version of herself that is wildly different from her TikTok persona. In multiple videos, she is in makeup, her hair is done, and, most poignantly, she loses the performative accent.
First I was gobsmacked by how pretty Linda is, both when she’s dressed down and dressed up. But I also felt uneasy realizing that her TikTok accent could have been a put-on or greatly exaggerated. In early January, I reached out to her over email and Instagram DMs. I said I wanted to get to know her and discuss how she conceived of her enormously successful TikTok account. I wanted her to ease this strange feeling gurgling inside of me about the potential character, or caricature, she was playing, and about the accent. I didn’t hear back, so I let it go. I convinced myself that this was perhaps an insignificant issue and that I was being particularly sensitive about it. If she’s providing joy and entertainment to millions of people, I didn’t want to dampen it by navigating the thorniness of racism and a cartoonishly Asian accent. Because she has not responded to my many inquiries, I can’t say for sure what her “real” accent is.
Plus, I didn’t want to accuse her of something that might also be a particularly personal or sensitive issue for her. Unfortunately, internalized racism is so common among people of color, especially in comedy. In order to have an edge, and any opportunity for commercial success that white people have, many people of color have to make their racial identity a constant punchline.
Linda didn’t get back to me then, and, after a few more emails to her and her representatives, she still hasn’t gotten back to me. But I recently discovered I wasn’t the only one uncomfortable with her TikTok persona.
Lisa Li, 27, has her own TikTok account of over 11,800 followers. She discusses the myriad forms of discrimination she and other East Asian immigrants often face in the US — sometimes from Asian Americans. Earlier this month, she posted a video about Linda, describing her as a “nerdy, heavy accent, Asian woman” who fits the “nerdy FOB stereotype.” Li also said she’s a fan of the @LeendaDong account since there are so few TikTok channels that are run by an Asian person and have such a large following.
Lisa said she also discovered sketches "stigmatizing Chinese students" from years ago that were written by and featured Linda; she added that Linda's current act is ironic and hard to understand.
When I spoke with Lisa, she told me she doesn’t believe Linda is acting in bad faith. “She was probably making it for entertainment,” Lisa said, “but it does belong in racism.” The portrayal makes her especially uncomfortable, she said, because new immigrants are taunted because of their accents.
“We went through a lot of troubles and struggles,” she said about new Chinese immigrants. “It’s very, very weird it’s Chinese stereotypes she was amplifying. … She must have witnessed other Asian people being made fun of when they have an accent, and that experience is sad. People laugh, and you decide to amplify that? It’s just common intuition, like, why?”
In the comments under the video in which Lisa discusses Linda’s channel, people thanked her for publicly raising this issue. One Asian person described feeling “uncomfy” watching Linda’s videos with this new knowledge. “I’m so glad someone is freaking saying this,” a top commenter wrote. “Ugh I really thought that was her actual accent,” another wrote.
Lisa said as a new immigrant (which is probably a better term than the colloquial “FOB,” even though there was an ABC sitcom named after it), she often feels “friction” with second-generation Asian Americans. “I’ve always been curious about [how] we’re supposed to be so close, but we’re not,” she said.
She believes Asian Americans have internalized microaggressions and, as a means of survival, will put down newer immigrants to make them and ourselves feel better. She hopes Linda can use her platform to raise awareness about issues that affect all generations of nonwhite immigrants. (Lisa said she had “a TikTok about Lululemon mocking Japanese people’s accents” that she tagged Linda in, hoping it would get her attention and she could amplify the message.)
I cannot overstate how complex this Linda Dong issue is, which is why I’ve been persistently trying to reach her and include her thoughts on the issue. (Linda, if you’re reading this, it’s not too late. I’d love to talk.) Lisa’s complaints and my unique perspective are not meant to antagonize her or her brand. Please, social media, do not conflate our points to point a finger at her.
In the media industry, people of color often have to both overcompensate and minimize themselves into a trope/stereotype in order to get opportunities. I have. Perhaps Linda saw an opportunity to portray this character that she knew would be charming to non-Asian people. I’m not sure she would have had the same opportunity to build a successful brand as a person of color on social media without…a quirky edge. Her hands are tied too.
But the issue with this kind of comedy is that she’s not making it clear that she’s playing a role, and that the role is rooted in something discomforting.
“Most comedians broke out of the persona in the end to address that it’s just a performance. She never did,” Lisa noted.
It’s hard for me not to think of my parents and their generation of immigrants when I watch Linda perform the accent. They have endured years of taunts and feeling inadequate for their heavy accents; they can’t help that their accents, unlike those of Europe, aren’t seen as desirable. Their own daughter (that’s me) has also been embarrassed by their accents because she internalized whitewashing so she wouldn’t be taunted by her white peers. That’s a heavy load for new immigrants like my parents to carry when they already feel like a forever foreigner in this country. To know that the accent can now be used for amusement, turned on and off for laughs from a non-Asian crowd, does not sit well with me.
I hope Linda can take a pause to consider this. I’m still a fan of her comedy — without the accent and caricaturing! She’s funny and obviously knows how to entertain. For those of us who are laughing at a fake pan-Asian accent, I urge you to take an even longer pause to reflect on that. I wish all influencers can have a successful career one day without denigrating themselves to cheap tropes. But that responsibility shouldn’t solely rely on them.