I knew I’d wind up writing about blackface before this project was done.
Early on in my research before I ever had the #StitchProcesses hashtag and back when I could pretend I wasn’t super invested (like yes, there was a time when I could “play it cool” about all of this), my youngest niece and I went on a binge of research on YouTube. One of the things that kept coming up during my early outlining was how so many of the lists of cultural appropriation taken to extremes involved blackface from idols as part of the problem.
Within minutes of scrolling through YouTube, we came across acts like the still active and (sort of) blackface-ing Bubble Sisters. We saw a (racist in its own right) documentary on blackface in Korea and Japan that showed a large number of blackface moments that left us both shaking. Some of the same incidents involving idols – like A Pink’s Bomi made up as Michol, the Bubble Sisters’ everything, and Super Junior’s Shindong and Yesung in two separate instances of Blackface and other members of the group supporting a performer in blackface – show up on those same lists about cultural appropriation.
The only problem with that is that blackface is not a form of cultural appropriation. It is minstrelsy and horrifically antiblack on top of that, but it’s not appropriation. They’re not appropriating anything, they’re insulting it.
If racism is a line with points charting problems, cultural appropriation like what we normally see from idols tends to be at the “milder” end of the spectrum and aggressive, actively dehumanizing forms of racism like black and brown face are at the opposite end of it, for me.
I understand that at the end of the day, this disregard that inspires both cultural appropriation and black/brown face boils down to a dehumanizing desire to consume and become the “Other”. (The “Other”, a concept used in theory to talk about perceived outsiders to a society, is documented across countless theorists across the years.)
Cultural appropriation, for many, comes out of a misguided desire to appreciate something they don’t understand. Black and brownface? That shit’s just hateful.
You don’t do that because you truly respect and understand what Black and brown people worldwide go through. You’re not doing black/brown face because you adore and respect Black and brown people. You’re doing it because you think we’re beneath you. Because you think you’re somehow better than us.
I expected to talk about blackface because of past idol issues that still plague modern fandoms now and the way that folks will brush it off as something harmless instead of an ongoing aspect of antiblackness in Korea.
Like Ask A Korean’s TK Park who, on October 31, 2019 wrote a (likely now-deleted) whole thread (and supplementary tweets) excusing blackface in Korean entertainment that included such gems as:
“This is why I find the “blackface in Korean pop culture” annoying. People are dying from racism, and you wanna talk about TV shows? Are you sure you’re not lazily superimposing an American racist symbol, assuming the symbol has the same significance and priority in Korea?”
“Let’s get even more real. When POC fans of Korean pop culture complain about racism in Korea, in most cases they are not complaining because racism in Korea hurts and kills people, but because they don’t like the pop culture product they’re receiving.”
“No – when English speakers talk about racism in Korea, it is about blackface and cultural appropriation and some shit that appeared on S Korean TV. Because that’s how they process Korea: not a real place with real people, ,but a simulated theme park on a screen.”
(Like if you check out the first link where I start unpacking his thread, the antiblackness he is actively engaging in even beyond his wild defense of blackface is not hidden.)
So yeah, truthfully, I thought I’d finally get around to unpacking TK’s shameless antiblackness and circle back around to this. After all, he has yet to stop being antiblack on main –like mocking me (from behind my block) over talking about Korean antiblackness towards a Black basketball player and saying that Korean BLM protests were a sign of American hegemony, but –
I really didn’t think I’d have to talk about it because five high school students from did blackface as part of a graduation photoshoot and then a bunch of people started defending them and… doing revenge blackface once the practice got called out.
Last week or so, photos went viral of several Uijeongbu High students who decided that the best way to embody Ghana’s dancing pallbearers (a strange thing to make into a meme, by the way) was to put on blackface in 2020.
The response to the viral photos was kind of predictable.
Almost universally – because some of us across the diaspora have worms for brains – Black people raised our voices and expressed this weary disbelief that we’re still seeing casual blackface done in South Korea.
Additionally, non-black people with common sense – including Koreans on the peninsula and abroad – were disgusted by the photos as well… and by the comments that some sites translated from online users in Korea, many of whom involve trolls who don’t think that blackface is a big deal but that a Black person educating them about why it’s wrong (see the backlash to Ghanian Sam Okyere’s comments in Korean and English from Korean internet users that is still ongoing and deeply antiblack in nature and execution)
Comments translated on Netizen Buzz (via the @notnetizenbuzz account on twitter) include:
“ㅋㅋ seems like the only one triggered is the journalist ㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋ how do you function in real life? ㅋ”
“Then what about all those face whitening creams and advertisements? It’s okay for women to make their faces whiter? Isn’t Kabuki make up racism against white people too? I don[‘t think painting your face black is as important as to whether there was an actual intention to be racist within the action itself. The’re parodying a custom that actually exists in Africa… People need to back off a bit…”
“So blackface is racist now? Why are there so many fools? How can anyone look at this and call it racist? Then are people who tan racist too? Let’s draw a line somewhere. Why are there so many people trying to victimize themselves?”
“Then what about when the kids parody white people ㅠㅠ with blonde wigs and blue lenses, is that racism too? Isn’t this just a bunch of kids enjoying an aspect of culture?”
Then there were the tweets about how those boys were just doing cosplay (echoing Henry Lau’s comment on Yesung’s blackface selfie repost in 2017 that compared it to wearing a blond wing and cosplay). I blocked a bunch of people on twitter who just thought the best thing to do with their accounts was to defend blackface by comparing it to something that isn’t inherently racist.
To claim that those students were basically doing cosplay – but not acknowledging that they definitely could’ve done the gag without painting themselves brown – is to ignore that Black people worldwide have long since been talking about the antiblackness of cosplay communities… up to and including blackface and the backlash Black people get for calling it out.
If Black cosplayers can cosplay anime characters without lightening our skin to do it, why does everyone need to darken their skin and do the most with their hair to make it clear that they’re portraying Black people or characters?
And as Corey mentioned in “Real Talk on Blackface and Cosplay”,
Blackfacing is in and of itself, disrespectful. The practice itself, is ground in racism and stems from a history of a society that insisted on not only refusing to allow black people to perform on stage and film, but at the same time, portraying black people on stage and film in the most stereotypical degrading and racist ways possible in order to continue to foster the image of black people as ugly big lipped, nappy haired, lazy, unintelligent and unproductive. With that said, the most “respectful” way to pay homage to, or otherwise address blackfacing, would be to not do it at all.
You can cosplay Black characters without darkening your skin in the same way that Black people, from the dawn of cosplay, have managed to cosplay lighter characters (including different East Asian characters) without lightening their skin or painting themselves yellow (for full offensive factor) to do it.
When you put yourself through the steps of blackface – buying paint and setting spray, painting yourself, leaving the house looking like that – you’re choosing to do something to mimic another ethnicity. You’re choosing to turn people – not culture, a whole group of people – into entertainment and into a costume.
It goes so far beyond cultural appropriation.
The other thing that keeps coming up across the responses to these teenagers at that high school is “well they don’t know that blackface is specifically wrong and racist and they didn’t intend to hurt anyone”.
Okay, but… my classmates in high school and college probably didn’t know that blackface was a specific brand of evil and guess what they managed to never do once in our friendships.
At the end of the day,though, it doesn’t actually matter what anyone doing blackface thinks about what they’re doing. Their intent isn’t magical and honestly, chances are that they don’t even recognize the antiblackness inherent in the actions they took to get them here.
Chances are that those teens definitely didn’t know the history of blackface in and out of Korea prior to like a week and a half ago, but that doesn’t negate the fact that they live in a country that has actually normalized blackface performances over the past few decades because of the US exportation of antiblackness, Korean interaction with Black American US soldiers, and just the worldwide belief in antiblackness.
But since no one knows the history, let’s talk about that:
Blackface as Koreans were probably introduced to it undoubtedly came from white Americans (and maybe, Europeans) who have been doing blackface for years. However, the United States’ brand of minstrelsy (one linked with a particular kind of entertainment) was something that’d been exported for over a hundred years by the time that the US was getting good and comfortable in Korea.
In “The Birth of American Music”, the third episode of The 1619 Project’s associated podcast, Wesley Morris unpacks the birth of minstrelsy entertainment in the US in the 1800s and how that actually shaped music development here. This podcast episode is great and a must-listen, but there are a couple of things that are relevant to this conversation and so I’ve provided two segments from the transcript with the most interesting parts bolded them. (I’ll be unpacking my thoughts about them underneath the second quote.)
This part about where minstrelsy and blackface got big:
And the place that minstrelsy took hold was in the North — places like Philadelphia and New York and Boston, where you’d have these theaters dedicated to minstrel acts, where minstrel acts would just move into a theater and do their act night after night after night after night after night. And a lot of these performers had never been meaningfully south to have a meaningful relationship with black people. And so they just made stuff up, based on what they thought black people were like.
And this segment where Morris asks and answers some questions about the practice:
Why is this happening? What was so captivating about seeing black people represented this way? Why would a white audience have clamored for it so much? I think one of the things that it offered was an opportunity to feel good about a thing that actually felt really bad at the time. People were really torn about whether to continue with slavery or whether to abolish it. The minstrel show didn’t really give you an answer, but it provided a platform by which you could either escape from actually having to think about that question that really was tearing the nation apart, or depending on which show you would wind up seeing, it fully engaged you in the lightest possible way about enslaved people and how you didn’t really have to feel so bad for them, because they like being enslaved. You got to laugh at a thing that you actually felt so anguished about. You get to watch these black people, who are really a source of national agony outside the theater, become fools inside the theater. And in sitting in that theater, watching these white men in blackface make fools of black people, a white audience could feel cultured. They could feel civilized. They could feel superior to the people they were watching be made fun of. And in a crazy way, watching them dehumanize would really have been an opportunity for a white audience to feel so much better about their own humanity.
First is the whole thing about blackface and minstrelsy shows being incredibly popular in the North and performed by people who largely didn’t have any interaction with Black people. They didn’t know who we were as people so they a) didn’t see us as people so they wouldn’t mock us in really obvious ways and b) couldn’t even perform in a way that didn’t hinge on startling stereotypes about what they believed Black people must’ve been like.
There aren’t a lot of Black people in Korea.
That’s a fact.
From friends I have who’ve lived there or who live there now, it’s been made very clear to me that even in Seoul, there aren’t exactly a ton of visible Black people running around the joint. For many Korean people, their main engagement with Black people is via a Black celebrity. This could be a local like Insooni or Han Hyun Min, a regular on Korean variety shows like the aforementioned Sam Okyere, or a visiting US celebrity like Rihanna.
But for blackness? The most consistent exposure tends to be either watching popular movies with Black US/European actors OR… another Korean performing it either in the hip hop clubs of Itaewon, on variety shows (where they’re either “talking Black” or doing blackface), or while blacking up to portray us in dramas and films.
And since none of the people involved interact much with real Black people… their minstrelsy mimicry of us couldn’t be true to life even if they tried.
Then there’s the fact that blackface lets non-Black people wallow in their supposed superiority over us by donning this makeup and digging into the deepest and dirtiest of stereotypes.
(Some examples include: BEAST/B2ST’s Lee Gikwang donning it to eat some watermelon on an episode of MBC TV’s Hot Brothers, cannibalism for a KyoChon ad (the article itself is… racist as well, let’s be real here), and another “savage Africans” appearance in 2017 on SBS’ Laughing Legend Match.)
Blackface and pretending to be Black, unlike cultural appropriation, doesn’t involve appreciation.
It involves an explicit disregard for Black people – who are never expected to see the incident and can’t expect an apology for it.Blackface is something that is just… done on television and in plays and in films in Korea with no real recognition or consequences in part because of the histories it involves between our countries…
For example, Morris, our guide through US musical history, also points out that:
“By the time you get to the 20th century, minstrelsy is still with us. It is the basis upon which American movies are built. This country’s first movie blockbuster, D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation,” full of white men villainously in blackface.”
If you think that the antiblack history of US film doesn’t impact portrayals of Black people in Korean film and drama history, I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.
But here’s the thing, while we do get to blame a fair amount of historical blackface in Korean media and I’ll allow folks saying it didn’t originate in Korea (as I don’t have anything that shows blackface entertainment predating the US imperialism package) –
There’s no excuse for the ongoing blackface issue that’s clearly older than I am.
In 2012, Gusts of Popular Feeling posted an article called “Three decades of blackface in Korea”. In the article, the author documents blackface in Korean entertainment (including plays and advertising and popular television and how children’s cartoon character Michol from Dooly the Little Dinosaur) dating back to the seventies and continuing to the point of publishing.
There’s no excuse for something like Jazzy Misfits, the movie that Good Girl cast member Cheetah was just in, Jo Min-soo(최지수), the actress playing Cheetah’s mother is clearly significantly darker than she normally is in order to play Afro-Korean. (Which means that Cheetah is also playing a character of African descent…)
That was filmed in 2019 and released this year.
There’s no excuse for Backstreet Rookie to have the character Han Dal Sik culture vulturing in a major way with dreads (skirting the line between appropriation and blackface, for some) or… the incredibly awkward interactions his character has with a Nigerian character in a store. That show either just finished airing or is in the process of wrapping up.
That’s not some 2010 shit… that’s on right now.
So this isn’t all from ages ago and that Korean entertainment companies and broadcast stations have stopped approving.
This is an ongoing and unaddressed issue harming people now that is seen as so necessary and integral to some Korean people’s entertainment that we’re not just seeing popular actors doing it in the dramas and films they’re doing now, but teenagers blacking up in Korean high schools (including some doing it on purpose to harm Sam Okyere primarily for daring to offer empathy and education.)
It keeps coming up that “those teenagers/that idol/those reality or variety show cast members can’t know that blackface is racist”.
Okay, but why don’t those specific people know it’s wrong?
Why don’t they know that it’s wrong to mock or mimic people of another ethnicity? Why don’t they know that it’s inappropriate to pretend to be another race for a gag? Why don’t the people defending them ever think that it’s wrong to defend someone harming others with this insensitivity?
Or rather –
Why don’t they get that you can’t just pick and choose when that behavior is offensive depending on whether you like or respect the people being mocked and misrepresented.
People of color in various communities uphold hatred towards others all the damn time. There are upsetting and uncomfortable stereotypes shared across our communities, and it sucks that people are just mean as hell for no reason.
However, this is a special issue, this situation with the students of Uijeongbu High in blackface and Sam graciously offering empathy and education – a literal teachable moment, by the way.
Because while Sam and other people are being accused of “attacking” Koreans or of “making Korea look bad” for talking about blackface being a big ass bad thing…
The fact that a simple statement of displeasure is met with rampant hatred and harassment done on purpose in response to the criticism and a refusal to even consider that we’re harmed by this in part because it reinforces beliefs that allow people to see us as unworthy of respect and humanity… Well that says volumes about what’s important to the folks responding and that’s what’s making people look bad.