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Korean celebrities criticized for racism

2012/03/09 | 2695 views |  | Permalink | Source

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A screen shot of Lee Gi-kwang, a member of boy band BEAST who appeared in a local TV program in blackface in 2010

NEW YORK ― For many Koreans, "blackface" gags may simply be old-school comedy with no harm behind it _ but not so much for African-Americans.

And with a series of blackface performances by Korean celebrities spreading online, their animosity toward Koreans as a whole is rising.

"Nothing is ever funny if the joke is on you", says Olivia Keller, a cultural critic, who has been a closer follower of the fast-spreading K-pop fever. "It's really about time Koreans examine why their innocent comedy sketch is disrespectful to another race".

Korea's blackface gag dates back to the 1980s when comedians performed skits, wearing Rasta wigs with painted faces. Despite its racist subtext, the genre of comedy wasn't exposed to criticism _ until K-pop started grabbing worldwide attention.

"As much as K-pop grows popular, there's going to be just as much attention on Korea and its culture", says Keller. "You can't just choose the things you want foreigners to see. It's already beyond that stage now".

Most recently, MBC TV's comedy program "Quiz to Change the World" was scrutinized after airing two popular female comedians' blackface performance as part of its Lunar New Year holiday special.

But various U.S. online sites carry video and photo files of Korean celebrities' blackface acts that go further back.

Jezebel, a popular celebrity news site, includes a still shot of Lee Gi-kwang of boy band BEAST and all-girls group Bubble Sisters in blackfaces. It also shows a video of Girls' Generation member Kwon Yoo-ri "acting black" by doing an impression of African-Americans.

"This actually has been going on within K-pop for some time", according to Jezebel. "Now it would seem that it's something of an epidemic within K-pop".

Another site, Oh No They Didn't, also documented several blackface portrayals on Korean TV.

"Catchy tunes, dazzling stage costumes and precise choreography invaded our eardrums and brains at a rapid pace. But after seeing these Korean names on theater marquees or even the Billboard charts, do we really know what they're here for?" asked the writer. "What is the message Korea is trying to convey to us?"

Hundreds responded to the post, bashing Koreans for being racist, but some identified the controversy as a "cultural difference".

"Finding blackface racist is an American thing", wrote one blogger. "I've tried to explain why it's not offensive in other cultures but no one wants to even accept it. Probably there's not even a word for it in Korean as there isn't in Spanish". (sic)

K-pop fans who want to narrow the cultural gap have started a Facebook page for a more active solution.

"We are trying to create a movement that will educate Korean entertainers about what is or is not appropriate. This includes blackface, racial stereotypes and overall ignorance in the K-pop industry about its multiracial audience", according to Fans Against Discrimination in Korean Music.

Keller says starting a dialogue is the first and most important step.

"K-pop is becoming really big and the last thing it needs is an unintended racist image that can turn off thousands of potential fans", she said.


By Jane Han

jhan@koreatimes.co.kr

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