I love K-pop – in fact, I’m obsessed with it. I’ve sacrificed sleep to watch Exo concerts or to find new information about bands like BTS and NCT (all subunits). However, there’s one thing I can’t stand about K-pop: the anti-black racism that idols often exhibit.
For instance, many K-pop idols are complicit in questionable behaviour such as cultural appropriation. I remember avoiding the music video (MV) for Exo’s “Wolf” because Kai’s “reggae braids” (as he calls them ) would always make me cringe. Equally cringe-worthy were Taeyong and Winwin’s hair in NCT 127’s “Limitless” MV. In fact, after this, there was a meme going around on the internet that confused WinWin with Jaden Smith. Some would argue that K-pop idols appropriating black culture, especially black hairstyles, isn’t that bad because they’re ultimately trying to appreciate said culture. However, there’s a fine line between appropriation and appreciation and K-pop idols seem to fall on the wrong side. This is because they remain ignorant of and perpetuate anti-black racism, whilst claiming that they appreciate black culture.
Korean girl group Mammamoo’s use of blackface when performing Mark Ronson’s and Bruno Mars “Uptown Funk” at one of their concerts in Seoul is just a recent example of the anti-black racism that K-pop idols take part in. They rightly received a lot of criticism from their international fans because of this incident. Unfortunately, this is not the first time a K-pop idol has taken part in blackface. For instance, Big Bang’s Taeyang used a blackface filter to look like Kanye West when wishing his fans a Happy Lunar New Year.
However, it could be argued that K-pop idols don’t fully understand all the connotations and history behind racist acts such as blackface. This is because Koreans don’t encounter anti-black racism in the same way as East Asians living in Western countries such as the USA or the UK do. Moreover, many Koreans grow up seeing blackface as the norm given that it has been part comedy skits.
Nonetheless, these are weak arguments. Yes, K-pop idols may be ignorant of anti-black racism such as blackface, but we’re living in a globalised world where we can access information at the click of a button. In fact, K-pop idols have used the internet to find the latest black dance moves, such as dabbing, which has been overkilled (not just by idols but by many people all over the world). They’ve also used it to listen to music by black American artists, such as Beyoncé and Lloyd. So, if they can do this then why can’t they take out the time to also educate themselves about the real struggle and discrimination that black people face?
Some K-pop fans have argued that all idols should get ethics training in matters like these. This could be useful if it appropriately addresses issues such as anti-black racism and teaches K-pop idols how to be proper allies to other minority groups.
Nevertheless, for such classes to be successful, idols would still need to take full responsibility for their actions and avoid their apologist behaviour. Unfortunately, it looks like Mamamoo didn’t get the memo. The group issued an apology for their misconduct straight away, which I was so happy about. However, this feeling was short-lived as the apology quickly turned into a we’re-sorry-we-did-this-but-you-should-educate-us-about-matters-like-these-so-it-won’t-happen-again kind of apology, which really isn’t an apology at all, to be honest.
Audre Lorde once said “[People of colour] are expected to educate white people as to our humanity. Women are expected to educate men. Lesbians and gay men are expected to educate the heterosexual world. The oppressors maintain their position and evade their responsibility for their own actions.” This kind of logic makes people of colour, in this instance, seem complicit in racism if we don’t take the time out to teach those in a position of privilege. Although the quote had white people in mind as those in the privileged status, and all people of colour as the marginalised group, I think it also applies to instances of anti-black racism perpetrated by other people of colour such as East Asians. It also exactly explains what Mamamoo did in their apology.
Being a true ally to a marginalised group means taking full responsibility for your actions and trying to better understand the group in question, which could include taking the time out to do your own research. This means that Mamamoo and other K-pop idols alike can’t and shouldn’t rely on their fans to help them avoid anti-black racism. To truly appreciate black people and their culture idols need to ditch the “you need to teach us” mentality. Until this happens, they’ll unfortunately continue to take part in anti-black racism under the guise of ignorance.