Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Blackface In Korea? AGAIN? Bubble Sisters were NINE YEARS AGO!

[UPDATE] MBC has apologized and said "It will not happen again" -- we'll see.

Hat tip to Eat Your Kimchi.
More at Kushibo, and The Unlikely Expat, and Expat Hell

If the video's blocked on copyright grounds (they're shitheads, but they like to guard their stuff, those MBC folks), contact me and I'll see to it you get a copy of the video from the uploader.

OK, Korean media people. Here's the thing.

You, collectively, get to plead ignorance ONCE. Once altogether. Not once every three years: there's no reboot button. There are areas where you are supposed to have learned the lesson, and then not do it anymore.

And after that first "oh, we didn't realize," the free pass has expired. Forever. That Get-out-of-jail-free card is one-use only.

In fact, if you look at the makeup - all the way down to the white space around the lips -- it looks like the people who did this blackface DID know enough about blackface to make sure the Korean singers' makeup was identifiable as classic blackface.

To compare: (source)

 Note the Koreans in versions of Hanbok: Korea's traditional clothing.
 Notice also the TV Station logo on the top right.

 The Koreans lined up in the background, being entertained by the minstrel show.
 The caption at the bottom: one of the blackface painted actors shouts "I love you Korea!"
They're supposed to be dressed as a cartoon character.

That cartoon is extremely racist itself. You can read about it here.

And you don't get to say "Oh. That was another TV station/studio/music company that did blackface last time: they should have learned their lesson, but we can hardly be blamed..." Because you have people in your company who have been in the industry, who have been paying attention to the industry, since the last time some asshat did this. (in January)

So pull your head out of your asses Korean domestic media companies. Because your stuff gets put on Youtube, gets watched by all the expats living in Korea. Pull your heads out of your asses because a month after Girls' Generation got on Letterman, and (as is hoped) a whole bunch of new people started to pay attention to The Korean Wave, and began to be interested in Korea... here's what they see:

And that's embarrassing. Embarrassing for Korea, because some people? All they know about Korea is Girls Generation on Letterman, Hyuna's Bubble-Pop video, and now these screenshots.

Embarrassing for all the people trying to promote Korea overseas, to change and improve the image of the country.

Not all Koreans are racist. That's obvious. But Korea's media makes Korea look like a racist backwater from time to time. And with images like this, Korea's media makes Korea look like a really racist backwater.

And the Koreans who aren't racist, have to kick up a storm when this shit does happen, so that it doesn't happen again, and it doesn't take letters from the NAACP or the Simon Weisenthal Center to cause a retraction or an apology.

If this video gets pulled from Youtube (and it might), contact me. I'm in touch with the uploader, who has a copy on their computer.

Oh, but tu quoque, Roboseyo: you see, Billy Crystal wore blackface at the Oscars! Yes. He did. And he got called on it, a lot, because blackface just isn't acceptable. When "chinky eyes" got drawn on a Starbucks cup in America, it caused a bloggy firestorm. Because while America clearly hasn't solved racism (that's not how these things work anyway), America DOES talk about these things, and everyone can learn where the lines are drawn, because everybody is witness, or party, to these discussions.

It was just a little over a month ago - ONLY A FREAKING MONTH since since the last blackface fuck-up on Korean Television. (SNL Korea's blackface Dreamgirls skit). That time I was talking about the ambiguities on the radio -- why should American cultural sensitivities be suddenly forced on the entire world's media, just because someone might put something on Youtube?...

But when I look at these images, and this video... such attempts to contextualize go out the window.

Look at the video above. This is not a video that would only offend Americans sensitized to blackface. Look at these pictures. Find me an African who doesn't find that offensive. (source)

How about this music video. (Bubble Sisters were 2003. We STILL haven't learned, nine fucking years later?)

How about this fried chicken commercial. (Uploaded 2009; not sure when it aired)

This no longer strikes me as an isolated incident. This strikes me as something Korean society needs to have a soul-searching discussion about.


Because if foreigners wearing hanboks is the only acceptable way to put foreigners on TV in Korea -- either in Hanboks, or with bones in their freaking noses... Korea really, SERIOUSLY needs to talk about portraying non-Koreans in the media, in a way that treats them as humans, as adults, as thinking, feeling beings, and not just as embodiments of stereotypes,  (source)

as a validating foreign gaze,

or as pretty faces saying Korean men are handsome, Kimchi is delicious, and everything Korea is a wonderful! (Misuda accomplished more than that... but it did put otherness on display...and nobody's explained to me why the opinions of pretty, foreign women (put your emphasis on whichever of those words you choose) are more valuable than the opinions of non-pretty, or non-foreign, or non-women. I wrote about that here.

... if those are the only images foreigners get in domestic Korean media, we'll have another generation growing up who are unable to think of Korea's relationship with the world in any frame other than "us and them" and that's not a healthy attitude for a country that wants to be a global player.

The cultural argument needs consideration: last time around, I argued it's ethnocentric to say the whole world must ascribe to our values of what's offensive... but it's also ethnocentric, and just fucking disrespectful, to say "because we're a different culture, we're allowed to mock your racial/ethnic/gender identity group as much as we like. You just don't understand us." (And it's dishonest to continue hiding behind "We don't know any better" (you get to play that card once) or "You weren't the audience" (that's not how things work in the hyper-connected information age. Everybody sees everything all the time). Does Korea really want to be considered an elite/advanced nation? Then set that "Korea's still a developing country" excuse to rest and start taking ownership.

So between the type of tunnel vision that says "Everything that offends me must disappear from everywhere" and the type of tunnel vision that says "Because we don't share every aspect of your cultural history, we're allowed to brazenly continue practices that we are well aware are offensive to a lot of people" we need to find a middle ground where all involved cultures feel they're being respected. It needs to be a reciprocal conversation: not just a dictation of one media's mores to another culture, nor a flat cultural argument and a subsequent refusal to listen.

And the way to find that middle ground is to talk about it. Continually -- these kinds of discussions are never completely finished (cf: Billy Crystal), but every time we revisit the same themes, we've come a little farther, learned a little more, and are more likely to get things right. So let's talk about it. In English, and also in Korean.

Because here's what happens next: Korea's One Use Only "Get out of Jail Free" ignorance card has already been played (back in freaking 2003, when the Bubble Sisters used blackface)
Now that the free pass has already been used, every subsequent time garbage like this gets on Korean Television, or in Korean newspapers, bloggers are going to write about it. And send letters to groups like the Simon Weisenthal Center and the NAACP about it, and contact the journalists we know, and share it on facebook and twitter. And cause as much embarrassment as possible for korea, until the TV producers who say "Yeah, sure, paint her face black. It'll be funny." Stop saying that. Until the KTO has a sit-down with the chairperson of MBC and says "Stop undoing our Korea promotion work with your racist brain-sharts." Until SM Entertainment and JYP lay a little smackdown on local Korean media for making their Hallyu venture harder to achieve because instead of "K-pop? Weren't they on letterman" the initial respons becomes "Korea? Isn't that the country that still makes blackface jokes?"

And while we're here, let's not forget: there's already an anti-Hallyu backlash in Japan, and other places. As Block B discovered, it doesn't take much to get an entire nation up in arms at a percieved slight (cf: Jay Leno's dog eating joke and here), and you never know when this or that story unexpectedly goes viral. If MBC decides to mock the Thai, or Filipinos, or Vietnamese, next time their variety shows can't think of a joke, if the next target are some dirty Chinese instead of some blackface pickaninnies, that rumbling anti-Hallyu backlash could crystallize into something too big, and too angry, for an apology video to smooth over.

Korea wanted a place on the world stage. Well, now that you're here, this is what happens. Everybody watches everything, and dirty laundry gets hung out for the world to see. There are no more secret shames, so let's hope Korean TV programmers, music video producers, and the like, start treating non-Korean cultures with a little more respect and responsibility.

We haven't forgotten about you, T-ara. Don't worry.

More links:
Hitler and Anti-Semitic stuff:
Bar named Gestapo
Hitler bars.
Let's not forget the kinds of apologies Koreans have been known to demand in the face of insults to their heritage.
The Nazi Coreana ads: using Nazi symbols and Hitler references to sell cosmetics.
Explaining why Koreans suffered more than the Jews. Because it's a contest, and the people who suffered the most win.


Seoul stories said...

MBC is famous for its ignorance and stupidity... The only reason I watch MBC is because of Moohandojeon.

Allofasudden said...

You see it on Gag Concert at least once every few months. But for some reason that has always been ignored..

wetcasements said...

This is why we can't have nice things.

Sldtg55 said...

Where does this movie fit into all of this? 

Jonathan Nichol said...

I enjoyed reading your  blog.Really looking forward to read more. Want more.

The_Korean said...

Ugh. Just ugh.

To their credit, the production team did apologize: http://www.diodeo.com/comuser/news/news_view.asp?news_code=75594

Kind of half-assed, but small progress is still progress.

Brandon said...

Is it really that bad? After all, we're speaking about a nation of nearly 50 mil. people and you just listed few incidents, which are disturbing and I don't mean to condone them, but nevertheless, they are a few - made by a few people. If you put this into perspective, would you still say, that the problem is so grave in Korea? I'm asking, because I don't know, not because I would want to challenge you. I also read Michael's blog and he tends to be even more sensitive about this issue, which is understandable. But if you put yourself in a neutral position (i know it's nearly impossible), would you say racism is really a huge societal issue in Korea, that needs urgent measures implemented, maybe even by law?

Hakima Benali said...

Really interesting analysis. 

I would like to see the MBC's video but. It's no longer avaible

AlamoComplainer said...

I dunno. Makes me laugh.

Jenny Lee said...

Koreans who know this is racist are too tired with Korean practices such as these and have fled the bad/seriously perverted vibes.

Elaine said...

You said it better than I could have said it. And omg @ the T-ara video. I'm a K-pop fan, but I never saw that video . . . my mouth drop lower and lower as the video progressed. [sigh]

Matt said...

Definitely would like to see the full video. What's worse is that they're singing '신토불이,' which, as a 1990 comic book distributed to public schools by Nonghyup which urged the children to spy on their parents at the market to stop them from buying imported food explains, means 'body and soil are one.' The song is a noraebang favourite of a Korean coworker who is also a KTU rep.

One political cartoon I wish I could find was published after Roh Moo-hyun was impeached in 2004. It had 4 panels and showed people around the world being interviewed and asked for their opinion on Roh's impeachment. People from places like perhaps France or wherever give their opinions, and then it ends with an African with a bone in his nose and a speech balloon which contains only a question mark. I guess the intended interpretation was that Africans are stupid, but an alternative interpretation could be, "Why the f*ck would I care about Korea?" 

roboseyo said...

That's too bad... because if people made noise EVERY time, it has a better chance of stopping. The other option is an embarrassing report in Wall Street Journal or the LA Times.

roboseyo said...

The apology is an important part of the incident, half-assed or otherwise. Thanks for the link.

roboseyo said...

I'll be honest, Sldtg55... a movie made in a country that has a large-scale, very long and tortured history of race relations, and which also hosts extremely robust public discussions about race, media, and race in the media, might have very, very little to say about media representations of races and cultural groups in a country with a very short history of race interactions, which occurred on a very small scale, so far, and which is just now entering the forums of public discssion... but is set to increase.

Especially because the ONE movie you mention where black people dress as white people was nominated for multiple Razzie (year's worst) Awards, was savaged by critics (15% rotten tomatoes score http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/white_chicks/ ), and had middling box office results.

roboseyo said...

It didn't make me laugh. Our votes cancel each other out.
So we'll have to move on to other criteria.

roboseyo said...

send an e-mail to me at roboseyo@gmail.com and I'll put you in touch with the uploader, who has a copy of the file.

wetcasements said...

If you're interested in a highly academic but surprisingly readable history of blackface performance in America:


Guest said...

I have sadly come to a conclusion about South Korea. 

 At this time in history, they are only seeking one thing from the global community:
# 1 Priority---The money that comes from foreigners falling over themselves because South Korea's "brand" is far superior to all other industries on the planet (i.e. technology, music, dramas, movies, etc). 
African Americans, save your money and invest in your damn futures and economic empowerment.  Stop supporting the Hallyu because it is not supporting you?

bumfromkorea said...


Apparently, the Korean media companies knew enough to knock that shit off in 88'.  Love the way they just keep on doing this year after year, even though they already knew it is horrendously racist in 1988.  That just tells me they don't give a flying fuck... unless it directly affects their viewership.  

Thank god the 'viewership' now includes people outside Korea.

BlueSae said...

 well that number 1 priority is just about anything that other countries follow. it's for money reasons... Korea relies heavily for export. Like Japan that gets a lot of money for promoting its cultures and having people from other countries buy and import their stuff, Hallyu is a way Koreans can do the same.

Rusty Shackleford said...

This isn't even the first time this month. One of the 'comedy' shows did a Maori version of black face early in February. I found it on Naver at the time but doubt I could find it now. I watched it with my K-GF and she was embarrassed but still tried to defend it. I was appalled but not shocked. 

roboseyo said...

Do you have screenshots or links to that?

Rusty Shackleford said...

Just spent ten minutes trying to find it. I can't remember the name of the show. I don't think it was Star King. It was one of those (dozens) of variety shows. 

Rusty Shackleford said...

http://search.pandora.tv/?query=%EB%86%80%EB%9D%BC%EC%9A%B4%20%EB%8C%80%ED%9A%8C%20%EC%8A%A4%ED%83%80%ED%82%B9(253%ED%9A%8C)_15&tab=&langsort=&sq=KRHere are some screen shots, but the video has been taken down.

Rusty Shackleford said...

Found it. 

Jenny Lee said...

 of course this is true, and I have nothing more I can add.

Jenny Lee said...

I thought this might be of interest to you. Tiger JK (of Drunken Tiger) has written something on racial discrimination regarding Africa(ns) in Korea and has referenced this blackface incident (I don't know if 'incident' is the right word... so feel free to correct me if I'm wrong, I don't mean to offend anyone)

Jenny Lee said...

 aaaand I forget to link. Here: http://www.allkpop.com/2012/03/op-ed-guest-post-by-tiger-jk-a-simple-suggestion-on-racial-prejudice

Theater said...

The Church of 666: Sermons and Demons: My Black American Soul in Seoul, South Korea.  http://www.amazon.com/Church-666-Sermons-American-ebook/dp/B004TGV0K0

Sassymb said...


BIGANG. said...

Send this shit to the Korean Times English in Los Angeles  (or other local. I just say LA bcuz I am from there and there is a large pop of Koreans there) or some English Print Media like a Korean American Magazine. Perhaps Koreans just don't freaking get it because they have lived in their homogenous society for too long. Some non Asian needs to make fun of KOREANS most vulnerable points like slanted eyes or big faces or fat legs, they are so sensitive about that. If they felt first hand what they were doing they would shut up. I am half Korean and whenever a Korean makes fun of my co- worker's hairy arms or weight I just remind them that they would not like it if they went abroad and someone asked why their eyes were so small or their face was so big and round.   I don't support the Korean wave at all, I think there are plenty of Homegrown Korean American Acts we need to support and these imports should be boycotted until their ignorant country practices what they preach about globalism. It's embarrasssing! 

BIGANG. said...

Don't let them delete these videos from you tube.

Locohama said...

Yeah, I'm over here in Japan where the same kinds of things go on...it's beyond enough to eliminate any benefit of the doubt of the intention of these acts and behaviors. Enough to encourage distrust and animosity for most anyone who would tolerate it or suggest that you tolerate it.
Anyway, good post!
BTW, I've recently published a book related to this issue , where I try to get to the heart of racism here in Asia and back in the US as well called: Hi! My Name is Loco and I am a Racist
Check it out if you have a chance...it's available on Amazon in print and Kindle versions...here's a link to the book's webpage: www.himynameisloco.com 

pink cupcake said...

I am so embarrassed and horrified at these blackface and the racial ignorance of Korea... I lived there over 10 years ago and grew up surrounded by these wrong and backward stereotyping. The Korean media does not realize how these 'harmless' or thoughtless jokes and stereo typing are going to affect the viewers and how bad and backward this makes Korea seem.

One horrifying picture I came across was this ralley where bunch of Koreans painted themselves in black paint with picket signs with a picture of a black woman. I have no clue what this rally was about but it was clear that these people were trying to help this black lady or fighting for her. And still these people had no clue how offensive they were being. 

My cousins and relatives that came to visit us have such bad biased views on other races and nationalities(basically anyone darker than them), and sometimes make casual remarks that baffles and offends me. It's so hard to try to make them understand how wrong it is and change their views as they just think I'm being overly sensitive preacher and nagger. Being younger than most of them doesn't help much as they think I am rude for trying to correct or teach them.

Media have such a big affect on shaping people's views and I just wish the infamous Korean censorship committee would take a break from censoring music videos and turn their eyes on this matter.
Also, everytime there is something racist happening towards Koreans, people seem to get riled up and it is all over popular Korean sites, (like the chinitos, chinky lady comment) but when it's the Koreans doing it to someone else, they stay quiet. This is such hypocrisy yet no one realizes this?
I hope more shows that centered African-Americans, in normal, everyday way would be aired in Korea . Once the media start portraying other races in more positive way, I'm sure people's views would soon start changing.

roboseyo said...

uploaders don't have much control over that: Youtube defers to the copyright holder in a dispute

roboseyo said...

thanks for the comment Pink Cupcake. I disagree that things should be censored outright: I'm all for freedom of speech and expression... but as when Billy Crystal painted his face black to do his Sammy Davis Jr. impersonation for the Oscars, and got roundly criticized in the media, I'd be happier to see things go on air in Korea, and then prompt a public backlash, and a public discussion about what's cool and what's uncool, in terms of representing other races and cultures.

That discussion raises awareness and sensitivity in everyone who participates, or hears of it, and THAT's when people's views start changing for the positive.

Robert said...

Was this Bubble Sisters really such a big blowup?  Because I find no mention of any apology or "we didn't know it was wrong" on ANY Google link.  

Gord Sellar said...

The author of Love and Theft is, I gather, a bit more of an apologist than many would like. Personally, my favorite book on the subject is John Strausbaugh, in BLACK LIKE YOU.

Roboseyo said...



"However, they justified the makeup as being a gimmick after their management agency told them that despite having great powerful voices, they were too ugly and/or fat to success."

ask those girls again why they chose to do blackface make up. smh. 

and lol at korea making this mistake like.. twice on tv and get hella shit for it yet america makes the same mistakes over and over and over again and still continues on.

that no hope for america.

Roboseyo said...

I disagree that there is no hope for america. Because right now in Korea, it's only happened twice, but the public discussion about it has gone 
US: "Hey! Blackface is offensive!"Korea: "Huh? Oh? Is that what this is called? We think it's funny."
US: "Nope. It represents some really bad history of oppression."
Korea: "But... facepaint... funny... no Koreans look this way, so what're we gonna do?"
US: "Not that." 
Korea: Shrugs.

Whereas in America, the discussion went like that in the 1930s, but now it goes more like this:
NAACP: Hey! We've been through this before.
Racist People: Yeah. We thought it would be OK this time.
NAACP: Nope. It's never OK. We've been over that before, too.
Racist People: Do you want the apology in writing or on video?

--it's generally agreed upon that it's not OK, and understood WHY it's not OK, which means the conversation happens on VERY different terms.

For my money, I'll bet Korea learns that blackface isn't cool faster than it took the USA.

Roboseyo said...

superficial and fake country. kingdom of plastic surgery and number 1 in suicide rate will make fun of people?? 

Roboseyo said...

stay on topic and be respectful, or your comments will be deleted, or edited in embarrassing ways, gforce

Roboseyo said...

Not to say that they're right in doing this, but I seriously doubt they understand the cultural context and why it's racist. Just as the Spanish soccer team got called out by the American media for doing the old "chink eye" before they went to Beijing for the Olympics, and they didn't understand why it was offensive to Westerners of Asian decent (Asian-Americans, Asian-Canadians, etc). And this attitude is coming from Spain, a country where there are thousands Asian immigrants! I doubt a country as homogenous as Korea will "get it". Just as in the Netherlands where they have a racist Christmas tradition of a man putting on black face. This guy helps St. Nicolas deliver presents. Nobody sees this as racist because of the cultural context.

Roboseyo said...

Gforce does have a point, I lived in Korea for a year and a half and saw some of the things mentioned...

Roboseyo said...

fair or unfair, they're off topic, bubba.

Roboseyo said...

Roboseyo...i agree with about 95% of your point. As Korea try to globalize, they need to mature in what they put on public forum whether it's television, movies or whatever. You also have to realize Korea didn't and hadn't need to deal with this until about 10-12 years ago. Because K-pop hasn't gotten big and Hallyu hadn't been big. Not that it excuses this kind of behavior. Although i understand the Korean attitude on foreign things...(not wanting to use foreign products and failing miserably, eating Korean bred cow for ex). Older generation of koreans still have that sort of distance between them and the foreigners, while it isn't the healthy attitude, it is understandable since Koreans have been bombarded by foreign forces almost all of their history (Japan, China, Mongols, US...) With that said Korea needs younger smart thinking leaders in their media and other areas of expertise bringing up these kind of miscues whether it's intentional or not. Finally, in Korea there is hierarchy of age whether it's one has been in School or a company first (called sunbae and hoobae). So, if sunbae or director tells performer to do something and you argue about it, you will be blacklisted (sorry) in the industry for doing so. That's the 5% i hope you understand. As more and more people get into hallyu, i hope younger generation sees it's wrong to things like these.

Roboseyo said...

you don't have to explain seonbae and hoobae culture to me... and by the way, the idea that Korea's been "bombarded by foreign forces almost all their history" is a total myth (http://www.tomcoyner.com/war_of_details.htm) the chosun dynasty is remarkable in Asian history not because of all the wars and invasions, but because it was so stable, for such a very long time.

Meanwhile... if the sunbae hoobae thing is stopping Korean institutions and organizations from having fresh and relevant ideas, Korean culture needs to develop a workaround -- much the way Korean airlines use English in the cockpit (CF Malcolm Gladwell) -- in order that the people who are hip to modern global-thinking issues actually get heard.

Korea's radically reinvented itself/been radically reinvented as a country and as a culture about six times since 1868. It can do so again.

Roboseyo said...

I was watching a Korean sow called Running Man, and on the show they did a avengers theme, and a man was dressed up as nick fury, black face and all. i commented on the video( youtube) my comment wasn't hateful or rude, i basically said " no Korea, just no, not black face" Some how i ended up getting into a argument with a fellow African american who didn't see anything wrong with what they were doing. They just didn't understand, i felt like i was talking to a wall. I would said black face is OFFENSIVE. it happened a long time ago, Koreans don't know, blah blah blah. I feel like sometimes, my fellow African Americans who are fans of Korea, have their heads so far up Korea's asshole, they feel as if Korea can do no wrong.

Roboseyo said...

Thank you, Rosie. I didn't laugh either. I can't stand people pretending that there is no history to this.

And sorry, but an American white guy saying that in Korea, race is not an issue and after a discussion and viewing of the Bubble Girls... It's an issue to some black people there (and they are there), it's offensive to some Koreans, it's offensive to Americans of various stripes.

Fine, it makes you laugh AlamoComplainer, but I don't find people taking racist stereotypes from a time when black people were enslaved, from many years of Jim Crow, funny.

Laugh on.