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Nothing funny about blackface

It’s 2017 and the classless antics in Korea’s popular culture are more like 1917.
Apr 25,2017
SBS, one of the country’s largest broadcasters, is under fire from the international community and Korean netizens for airing a skit containing blackface on Wednesday.

In a “comedy” sketch on its gag show, “People Looking for Laughter,” Hong Hyun-Hee’s character dons blackface as she tries to convince her family she has what it takes to be a comedian. The episode was hard to watch. Hong’s offenses start with her dress — the dark makeup, large eyes, braided hair, exaggerated lipstick, an animal-print crop top, a skirt made of cabbage and a feathered headdress, perhaps a nod to Native Americans.

Just in case viewers didn’t get the racial undertones, she ends by singing “The Circle of Life,” the award-winning song from the Disney film “The Lion King.”

After letting two full days of angry comments and online vitriol pass, Seoul Broadcasting System issued an apology and removed the video clip from YouTube. An SBS reporter said he was sorry for the “inconvenience to the viewers because I could not carefully review the contents” before they aired.

It isn’t the first time Korean pop culture icons have been taken to task for adopting blackface, or using dark makeup to portray people of color. In fact, it isn’t even the first time this year.

K-pop girl group Mamamoo issued a public apology in March after a video clip from a concert showed the quartet in blackface. They said they were “heartbroken” for hurting their black fans. The controversial video, a parody of Bruno Mars, was filmed at a local sold-out show and sparked a massive online backlash from Koreans and the international community. Unlike SBS, Mamamoo apologized quickly.

Last year, male group UP10TION was in the hot seat after putting on dark makeup for a Chinese reality show. A year earlier, GOT7 member Jackson was criticized for posting a photo of himself in blackface to his Instagram account. After much criticism, he apologized and removed the photo. Even G-Dragon, one of K-pop’s most internationally beloved stars, has been accused of being racially insensitive. In 2012, he told Spin magazine that an image of him with a dark face and hoodie posted on Instagram was “taken out of context” as it paid homage to slain teen Trayvon Martin.

Although the outrage and apologies come fast and furious, blackface, not only in Korean pop music but on television shows and even in the theater, never seems to die. The “Aida” production, whose four-month run at Seoul’s Charlotte Theater closed last month, featured women in blackface and braided wigs for its set in Egypt. (Thankfully, “Dreamgirls” is avoiding this demeaning rathole and has hired actual black actors for its production, which runs through June.)

Blackface, a form of racial ridicule and mockery gained popularity during the 19th century and contributed to the spread of demeaning stereotypes of the “happy-go-lucky” slave. While it was considered a U.S. art in racist 1848, blackface rightfully went out of fashion with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s in the United States after a long, painful history of dehumanizing an entire race of people. Now, it’s time it goes out of fashion in Korea. There’s nothing funny about xenophobia.

Korean actors and pop stars repeatedly say they’re unfamiliar with the historic racism behind blackface but the “ignorance” and excuses no longer ring true. The claims of ignorance are infuriatingly hypocritical, given that much of the genre of K-pop is either repackaged black American music, often produced by black American R&B marquee producers. Some Asian-Americans even have said they fear the actions here in Seoul negatively affect black-Korean relations in the States. With the fastest Internet speed in the world, Korea can learn about global sensitivity with just a click.

Whether you believe that blackface is a result of ignorance, racism or a byproduct of a sheltered, homogenous society, the cycle of offend-outrage-apology must end. Using a group or groups of people as the butt of jokes is racist and the half-baked apologies are now meaningless. The offenders aren’t sorry. They’re just sorry until the next incident. It’s particularly hypocritical coming from a country that often insists on apologies (think Dokdo or “comfort women”).

It’s 2017, a time when Korea claims it wants to advance as a world-class country that attracts foreign professionals, and the classless antics in the popular culture are more like 1917. The country will never advance to be a global superpower this way.

Need a black person in a K-drama, stage production or radio show? There are a wealth of talented black educators, U.S. military officers, attorneys, engineers and even actors and singers living on the Peninsula.

I’m a black American who lives in Korea solely because I love this country. My experiences with Koreans across the country have been nothing but positive, but I’m no longer making excuses for the “inconveniences” or racism.

As the country is poised to attract a global, diverse audience to PyeongChang, Korea’s cultural community could prepare with a few lessons on acceptance and respectability, and extend them to its classrooms.

A Change.org petition circulating worldwide is calling for systemic changes in the culture, with petitioners saying that Korea is better than what’s being demonstrated. A friend of mine, who’s lived here for a few years, doesn’t think so. “Koreans don’t give a damn about foreigners and their feelings in Korea,” she told me.

I hope artists and the media here prove her wrong.

*The author, a U.S. citizen, is a business editor at the Korea JoongAng Daily.

Monica Williams