My favorite thing to do when I want to take a break from the “real world” – work, school, politics, the news, etc. – is to immerse myself in non-serious things I love. For me, these things mainly include music and pop culture: specifically, boybands. As a boyband fangirl, I have gotten involved with my fair share of fandoms, and I’m well aware of the dangers that come with getting involved with a group of hormonal teenagers who have a serious passion for pop sensations. But I get involved anyway because for me, fandom is a great way to meet new people who share the same interests that I do. Thanks to technology, fandoms are becoming cross-cultural and borderless, and they enable all types of people to gather together and enjoy the same things in the same way despite our various differences.
Or so it seems.
I was a firm believer in this idealized notion of fandom unity when I first became a Korean pop fan. After falling in love with a K-pop boyband, I went online to look for more information on the band members and discovered a whole new world of music and people I didn’t know existed. At first, my experience was much like what I described above. I found and bonded with people from all different countries and cultures, and despite our various ages, ethnicities, and nationalities, our fandom was the great equalizer that brought us together.
But it soon became apparent that even in fandom, not all people are created equal. As I became more involved in the K-pop world, I started noticing how fans love to elevate Korean pop in comparison to “trashy western music,” but mainly use black musicians as examples of what is wrong with western music. Though most K-pop idols show admiration for various African-American artists, K-pop fans love to portray African-American music as inferior to its Korean counterpart, from the songs to the raps to the visual presentation. I even came across a blog post that praised “Korean dances” over “American dances,” featuring gifs of K-pop choreography juxtaposed against gifs of black girls twerking. The fact that some K-pop fans were so ready to put down black culture despite its obvious influence on Korean pop culture (do they think Koreans invented modern pop music and hip hop choreography?) was a bit off-putting.
In addition to fans dismissing K-pop’s cultural roots, I noticed a lot of K-pop artists were keen to copy images and sounds of black culture without really knowing much about it. At first I thought it was hilarious how K-pop labels sometimes dressed their band members in bandanas, baggy clothes, and cornrows as an attempt to look more “hip hop.” However, I soon got tired of this being K-pop’s only representation of black culture since this image was often used as the butt of jokes in the media. For example, sometimes K-pop stars are asked to do imitations of “black people” on variety shows for the audience’s amusement. In these moments, the celebrities turn into fake thugs, and as a black fan, watching them mock the way some of us talk made me uncomfortable. But I found that for every black fan that expressed their discomfort, there were at least ten other fans who dismissed our complaints as “whiny.” And it made me feel even worse to know that no one cared about black culture being simultaneously commodified and disrespected by the same industry.
But the most disconcerting aspect of the K-pop fandom was their defense of blackface. Unfortunately, since Korea doesn’t have the same history of blackface as the West does, some Korean celebrities have dressed in blackface for comedic purposes without any regard for its inappropriateness in a global context. And what surprised me the most was that rather than using these instances as moments to learn why blackface is wrong and educate others, many K-pop fans (including ones who’re familiar with blackface’s history) actually flocked to defend these actions. Their favorite excuse was “it wasn’t meant to be racist/they didn’t know,” which even if true, does not make blackface any less shocking or insulting, especially when it’s clear that it’s making fun of blackness and black culture: In one skit, two comedians showed up in blackface claiming to be parodying a half-black half-Korean cartoon character who looks/dresses nothing like what they portrayed. And in another skit, a K-pop star was made to wear blackface and act like a brute while starring in a fake watermelon commercial.
After realizing that being a black fan in a fandom that’s completely ignorant to black culture is a bit stressful, I decided to take a break from K-pop for a little bit. It was around this time that I discovered the British boyband One Direction, and upon joining the One Direction fandom, I thought, “Well, at least the band and the fans are from a primarily U.K. and American background – places that are more multicultural than Korea — so I’ll be dealing with less ignorance.” Besides, what would race have anything to do with One Direction?
A lot, apparently. First I watched as fans joked about how the half-Pakistani member of the band looked like a “terrorist” or “Mexican drug dealer.” Then I discovered that one of the One Direction members was dating a half-white half-Guyanese girl, and once again I felt isolated by the fans’ reactions. In addition to complaining about why said member “didn’t like white girls,” fans often dismissed his serious relationship as nothing more than “jungle fever” – as if he wasn’t allowed to be legitimately interested in a woman who wasn’t fully white. A lot of fans also loved to make fun of the girlfriend’s natural hair for being a weave (despite countless denials from her and her boyfriend), and some went so far as to call her racial slurs. And on top of all that, I even saw fans who thought it’d be funny to photoshop blackface onto pictures of the One Direction members themselves. I thought I had escaped this type of behavior after leaving the K-pop fandom, but it seems that no matter where I turned, racial jokes and insults were still rampant.
I came into these fandoms knowing full well how intense fans can be when it comes to defending their favorite bands. But the amount of casual (and not-so-casual) racism I encountered was unexpected and bizarre coming from something as seemingly harmless as teen pop. And the worst part was that it seemed to be everywhere: whether in the K-pop fandom or the One Direction fandom, whether it came from fans or from the artists themselves. Which sucks, because I thought pop culture was something that could be enjoyed across cultures and backgrounds, and yet I found it difficult to enjoy myself due to how both fans and artists treated my culture and background. And honestly, it’s sad to think that such treatment exists not just in ‘real-world’ contexts–work, school, news, politics, etc.–but even in fun, non-serious contexts like fandoms. Because if I can’t even enjoy something as trivial as a boyband without being isolated due to my racial identity, then what can I enjoy?