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Posted : 2012-03-19 17:30
Updated : 2012-03-19 17:30

K-pop, race and blackface


By Deauwand Myers

Is it 2012 or 1912? You’ll excuse my temporal confusion, considering the recent uproar over blackface and racism being espoused by some Korean pop music stars. Famous Koreans getting made up in blackface isn’t new at all but started at least as early as the 1980s.

A little history: Originally, in the 1830s, blackface was where white Americans put on black make-up and performed a minstrel show, reifying stereotypes of black Americans as the ``happy-go-lucky darky on the plantation,” ``the lazy Negro,” and the ``dandified [effeminate, emasculated, nonsensically happy] coon.”

Blackface became popular in theater shows throughout America and Britain; all the while, black Americans were working grueling and uncompensated 16-hour days as slaves, and after the Civil War and Emancipation, worked those same hours, on sharecropping farms for subsistence wages, being hunted like animals at night, and during the day, to be hanged on trees, beaten, tortured, raped and castrated. The new Jim Crow South replaced slavery with a new form of brutal dehumanization and systemic sociopolitical marginalization, where widespread violence, including murder, was the tool of choice.

Against this horrific historical backdrop, blackface flourished. It added insult to injury, to put it mildly, a kind of overt racism which did great harm and hurt to the black community. It was a tool of psychological violence, couched in the trope of entertainment.

Koreans, both those who still perform blackface and those who consume it, should understand the unequivocally racist nature of this ``art form,” and further, should be wary of its moral and social implications. Besides the obvious insult to black Americans (and frankly, most Westerners of any race), it makes Korea and Koreans look barbaric, unsophisticated, culturally unrefined, ignorant and ill-prepared to be the financial and cosmopolitan hub of Asia (and the world) it so desperately desires.

Consider the reverse: how would Koreans feel if famous black musical stars, like Beyonce or Usher, painted their faces yellow and squinted their eyes and acted in a way disparaging Koreans or Asians, more broadly. Replace eating watermelons with them gorging on instant noodles, or speaking broken English. Of course, this would never, ever happen.

Beyonce and Usher and whomever else know better. It’s morally reprehensible, and there would be an instant and vigorous outcry from Asian-Americans, the world community and everyone in between against a yellow face minstrel show. No broadcast network would air it; no advertiser would participate in it.

In short, the atmosphere in American society wouldn’t allow yellow face to happen; and if it ever did, the backlash would be swift and punishing.

That’s not to say Asian-Americans are treated fairly in America, because they aren’t. Korean-owned stores were vandalized and looted during the Rodney King riots in L.A. in the 1990s, (and much of it was done by blacks and secondarily, Latinos). Asian-Americans are grossly underrepresented in nearly every facet of American life: television dramas and comedies, news programs, representative government, corporate governance … the list is quite extensive.

Even how Americans choose to talk about Asian-Americans is ridiculous at times; look no further than the racially-tinged language sometimes used to describe NBA phenom Jeremy Lin. Perhaps even the term, ``Asian-American,” is problematic. What part of Asia do we mean? Vietnam, Japan, China, Korea, Laos, Cambodia?

Oh, we have a lot of work to do in better understanding race and culture in America. But Americans are far better at it than Korea, and the continued use of blackface in popular Korean culture is a glaring example.

The hypocrisy is also frustrating: much of K-pop is re-packaged black American music, from R&B to hip-hop to the dance and choreography thereof (much of which is so obviously inspired by Michael Jackson) that accompany the music. So, some K-pop stars have no problem copying and imitating black American culture and music, and then turn around and make fun of black Americans in one of the most grotesque, disrespectful, and historically insensitive manners imaginable?

Partially, I think the Koreans who do this don’t understand the history of blackface, find this history irrelevant, or think the consumption of Korean blackface is only domestic. Well, they’re wrong on all three counts. They need to learn about blackface, realize the historical subtext thereof, and understand that as K-pop becomes more popular, and the world ever-more connected, egregious misbehavior of this sort simply will not do. No, it will not do at all.

Finally, this isn’t some difficult, entrenched social problem needing complex solutions. Some Koreans, like some Australians and whomever else still performs and perpetuates blackface, need to grasp a simple fact: if something you’re doing is deeply offensive to an entire group of people (blacks in North and South America, France, Britain, Africa, etc.) simply stop doing it.

The writer holds a master's degree in English literature and literary theory and is currently an English professor outside of Seoul. His email address is deauwand@hotmail.com.

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