Citizen.Speak.Amplify

K-pop Idols And Blackface: It’s Not Okay!

It’s not easy being a fan when the idols you adore display blatantly offensive behaviour. As fans, we have a responsibility to call out harmful behaviour. The K-pop industry has changed perceptions around the world with their music and portrayals of masculinity. But as international fans gravitate towards an appreciation and understanding of Korean culture, the same cannot be said of K-pop idols cultural sensitivities. SHAAZIA EBRAHIM and FATIMA MOOSA discuss the problematic side of the industry – and K-pop idols’ affinity to blackface.

Recently EXO-CBX members Chen, Baekhyun, and Xiumin held a live stream on streaming app V Live to celebrate their mini comeback. The members played Jenga and it all seemed very cute and fun until it wasn’t. As retribution for losing the members could apply make-up to the loser and it soon veered into the territory of blackface. Baekhyun applied lipstick to Chen’s face, making his lips extra huge. Chen then remarked that he looked like a cartoon character, Michol, which has been criticised of exuding blackface.

Michol is a cartoon character in the popular South Korean cartoon, Dooly. Michol plays a singer whose character has been inspired by Michael Jackson. Many idols and other Korean celebrities have done parodies of Michol on popular television shows and everytime they are called out, the responses have been so cringe.

Instead of realising that the character in itself is so ill-conceived, the apologies have seemed to indicate that it in fact it’s international fans who have misunderstood the characterisation. However, the problem is not just that there is a divide between understanding Korean popular culture from an outside perspective. Culture cannot be regarded as sacrosanct if it’s proven to be offensive and discriminatory.

Later in the video Chen remarked that his lips looked too plump, according to the English subtitles in the video, causing the other members to burst into laughter. However for Korean viewers, he actually said “Isn’t this Kunta Kinte?” Kunta Kinte is the main character of the show Roots – a man from the African continent who is taken to America and sold into slavery. Invoking Kunta Kinte’s name in jest is disregarding the significance of Kinte in telling the story of people from the African continent who were sold into slavery. Many fans have called for Chen to apologise for his actions but there has been no response from the idol or his management as yet.

Last year the K-pop group Mamamoo featured in blackface in their concert video. The quartet ran a parody video of themselves performing Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson’s Uptown Funk wearing the same outfits featured in the original video, and some dark face paint – which was distasteful to say the least. Their actions caused outrage among the group’s international fanbases who castigated them on social media platforms like Tumblr and Twitter.

The group apologised on Facebook and said there was “no excuse” for their insensitivity. The apology read: “We were extremely ignorant of blackface and did not understand the implications of our actions. We will be taking time to understand more about our international fans to ensure this never happens again. We hope that you will help to educate us on these and other issues so that we can become better people and better artists.”

G-Dragon, of one of the biggest K-pop groups Big Bang, has a long history of offensive behaviour. In one of his worst moments – although they all have been pretty horrendous – posted a horrific photo on Instagram in 2012 in apparent tribute to Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teen who was gunned down by a neighborhood watchdog that year. But he’s wearing black face paint in the photo. G-Dragon’s representative told Spin that the photo was a “huge misunderstanding.” But G-Dragon has worn blackface before posing as André 3000 in a “tribute” video a few years before.

While Korean society and its relative homogeneity needs to be taken into account, that is no excuse for the behavior of some K-pop idols. Most K-pop idols have become famous globally and travel around the world to meet all their fans. They are exposed to different cultures and people. They have a responsibility to their international fans to sensitise themselves to the different cultures out there. While some practices might be part of Korean culture and aren’t regarded as problematic in Korea, we need to realise that the world is changing. This insensitivity and ignorance could result in the alienation of a number of fans.

As fans, it’s not our duty to educate idols. Sure we can call out their problematic behaviour, but idols and their record labels have a responsibility to their vast fan bases to check themselves and their behavior. We live in the technological age where there is a wealth of information freely available regarding racism, bias, and cultural sensitivity. Idols and their labels need to read up, speak to people or undergo sensitivity training if that’s necessary. If the Korean entertainment industry wants to open up the world to Korean society and spread the Hallyu wave to the rest of the world, then the industry needs to be aware the outside world and and account for their actions. It is time for these idols to do better and to be better.

Check out the rest of The Daily Vox’s K-pop coverage:
11 Reasons You Should Stan BTS
Redefining masculinity the BTS way
Hixtape is the lituation we never deserved
6 K-pop groups that are a must listen
Here’s Why BTS Has Such A Strong ARMY In SA
EXO Inspires South African EXO-Ls To Give Back
All The Words You Need To Know To Join A K-Pop Fandom

Featured image screenshot of EXO-CBX’s V Live stream
Editor’s Note: Previously it was mentioned that Xiumin applied the make-up. It was actually Baekyun.
12 Comments
  1. Aimee says

    It’s really sad that people make this issue about fan wars rather than trying to help their favorite idols improve themselves by calling them out for their behavior. Unfortunately, this will keep happening if they don’t do so.

  2. Aela says

    It’s really sad that people make this issue about fan wars rather than trying to help their favorite idols improve themselves by calling them out for their behavior. Unfortunately, this will keep happening if they don’t do so.

  3. Jordon says

    Good article however although the attention should be placed on the groups and their labels a large percentage should also focus on the fans. This incident was unknown to me until it came across my timeline and I decided to look into it more. What I’ve realized is that a lot of these fans are covering their “idols” track because they fear that their ignorance will reach a bigger audience. I was surprised to see that this wasn’t the only incident of kpop groups being racist or as their fans may call it “unknowing”. One thing that’s consistent however is that their fans have a great way of covering these things so that it seems like nothing happened. So how are these kpop people going to change if everything they do is looked over? The fact that there haven’t been a word from the group or their company speaks volumes as it just shows that they don’t believe it’s of no importance simply because their fans treat it as such. Instead “mind your business” and “they didn’t mean it” was all I could see. What surprised me was how dedicated the black fans were in making sure their idol image wasn’t destroyed. I’ve only heard about a few apologies but the sincerity is very lacking. I knew Korea was a racially ignorant country but it seems to be spreading to the fans too

  4. Jane d says

    A poorly researched article that does nothing to explore the nuances and complexities of this topic. Also most of the tweets you linked are written by ARMYs who have a fascination with being the arbiters of race relations in the kpop community while themselves being coons and apologists. As a kpop fan since the times of H.O.T I wish biased fans reporting on korea’s lack of racial sensitivity didn’t exist. It only serves to fuel fanwars.

    1. Maria says

      ARMYs have called out their faves a number of times and always made sure to let the management know what was wrong about something that was done. An overwhelming number of ARMYs is black or PoC, they’re also one of the most active fandoms on twitter/sns in general, on top of that many ARMYs don’t stan only BTS but also groups like the mentioned EXO or Mamamoo. So please do tell why don’t they have the right to comment on issues that concern them?
      See, you made your point in the very last sentence – it seems like to you it’s only about fanwars. Time to grow up and see the bigger picture.

    2. caffeine says

      The only tweet by ARMY that I could see is by the melgotnojams and _queenbenz_ so I don’t know where the “most of the tweets you linked are written by ARMYs ” came from. The latter is even a multi, and a black army. Tell why a person that’s most directly affected by blackface can’t talk about it?

      also this: “I wish biased fans reporting on korea’s lack of racial sensitivity didn’t exist”

      KOREA’S LACK OF RACIAL SENSITIVITY NEEDS TO CHANGE. THEY NEED TO BE CALLED OUT ON IT. Yes, its upsetting to see ppl use it for fanwars, but there is a need for change.

    3. MamsL says

      Yes, but I am just a bit annoyed by the fact that they mentioned mamamoo and GD who have both apologized, i get why chen is here but for mamamoo Idk maybe their is something I am missing here. I mean if we are not accepting apologies then might as well mention the idol with the most fuck ups in the industry even tho theyve apologized? Idk whoever wrote this article should try and keep their selective anger to a minimum. This website is biased it certainly does not seem genuine at all. Something is fishy i can feel it

  5. AA says

    Baekhyun applied the makeup, not Xiumin. Doesn’t really matter but you could at least get their names right lmao

  6. mina says

    I wish people would learn to accept heir istakes.. Ah,h, and of courses instead of saying shtty things, let’s educate them. If they don’t listen and try to understand, I guess that’s their problem.

  7. caffeine says

    I went to the @saminseok and they…. actually…… don’t think what EXO-CBX did was racist… whew

  8. Anonymous says

    Thank you for giving us a whole new perception towards the mistakes that the idols did. I was kind of dissapointed when i heard that they said those things but more importantly if the fans would call them out on it. The idols can take care of themselves when they receive good criticism of what they should or should not do…I suggest that when there’s another idol saying things or doing things that disrespect people, we should let them know as fans…Also please be mature when handling these things please…

    You wouldn’t want your idols to be ignorant right?

    Then do your role to not let this happen again…
    The idols can influence people and what they say matters to those people…

    If they mock people who are also part of their fanbase, those fans would be so hurt because to them, they trusted their idols to give them healing and offer a good time….not hurting them…

    This rant has been long enough…
    Remember: Idols are human too, they make mistakes but they do more damage than most people…They must reflect and apologize, not turn a blind eye to their responsibility as idols.

  9. MamsL says

    umm I’m am not a mamamoo fan but i do listen to their music every once in while. I just wanted to ask why they were mentioned when they apologized for their screw up? Is there something I’m missing here?

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.