The Daily Beast had what I thought was an interesting article on K-Pop and African Americans.
One part kind of annoyed me, though. Michael Hurt, an African-American Ph.D. candidate at UC Berkeley’s Comparative Ethnic Studies department who lives in Seoul, starts talking about what he calls:
“The cultural naiveté excuse [for racist imagery in K-Pop], which I do think is a small factor, starts becoming a big excuse to hide behind, because they should know better today,” Hurt says. He cites the example of the Bubble Sisters, a four-piece girl group that made its debut in 2003. On their album cover, their faces are painted black and they’re wearing braided wigs and baby pajamas.
“Their image is essentially that of pickaninnies and jigaboos—a very specifically historical image of infantilized black people,” Hurt says. “To say, ‘Oh, we didn’t know it was offensive,’ doesn’t make sense, because in your research, you’d have come across the fact that this look is from an offensive genre in American pop culture.”
Now, I do totally agree with Hurt that the the Bubble Sisters were really racist and inexcusable. No debate there.
But if you look at their album cover: No, they’re not a specific historical image, unless plastic hair curlers were invented long before the 20th century. I’m pegging that as lazy racism–I’d bet that nobody involved with the Bubble Sisters looked up shit. Saying things like “in your research, you’d have…” suggests to me that Hurt needs to leave academia and live in the real world for a bit, because the vast majority of people never do any research on anything, ever.
Which is really the problem!
Honestly, what does the average American know about, say, Korea’s historical relationship with Japan? There are many things that Koreans consider extremely offensive because they reference the various atrocities Koreans suffered under Japanese rule. How many Americans could tell you what those things are? Why should anyone expect Koreans to be less ignorant than Americans? Why do we expect people in other countries to be better informed about the horrible things in our history than we are about the horrible things in theirs?
Obviously, education is key all around, and Koreans are cluing in that stuff like blackface is unacceptable. That’s all good, and I definitely encourage people to speak out, because it does make a difference.
But it’s just not realistic or particularly fair to say that people in other countries “should” be completely conversant in all the ins and outs of American racist symbolism. (Hell, nowadays how many Americans know what a pickaninny is? When Evan Mecham used that word, I knew loads of people who had to have it explained to them.) Maybe they should be conversant, but believe me, they are not.
Back in the late 1980s, I spent half the summer living in France. (I should note that the family I lived with was very progressive and well-educated.) At the time, there was a brand of clothing that was extremely popular–you saw it everywhere! It was brightly-colored casual wear, with a highly-visible logo of…a blackface caricature.
We’re not talking about a drawing of someone who happens to be Black. We’re talking: enormous white eyes, red lips that were so large they distorted the face–the whole racist pre-20th-century minstrel package.
YOU SAW IT EVERYWHERE. EVERYWHERE!
I didn’t say anything about it when I was there (mainly because I really had no idea what to say!). The family’s son did not own any of that brand of clothing, so when he came and lived with me and my family for the other half of the summer, I didn’t have a conversation with him about what not to pack for his trip here.
His visit went fine, and he flew out of San Francisco to return home. When we were in the airport, I spotted someone wearing a brightly-colored jacket decorated with a, you guessed it, enormous brightly-colored RACIST BLACKFACE MINSTREL CARICATURE.
In San Francisco!
“Oh, wow, you can tell that guy is French,” I said to my French friend. “No American would ever wear that jacket.”
“Why not?” he asked.
“You’d get killed!” I said.
“Why?” he asked.
“It’s racist!” I said. “That caricature is totally racist. It’s making fun of African Americans!”
He was stunned. He was absolutely stunned. It had never occurred to him that this cartoon-y caricature actually meant something horrible!
He kept telling me it was cute. I kept telling him that There Is A History Here.
It was an interesting moment for us both.
On the one hand, the whole thing was all kind of unbelievable to me–how could they not know?
But on the other hand, I could relate, because when I was a little kid, I used to love this guy.
It never once occurred to me when I was watching this cartoon that the guy was supposed to be a human being, much less an African. I got that he was kind of half-person/half-monkey (and I loved that when he got thrown to a crocodile, he came out of it with snazzy matching pumps and a purse), but the whole bit where I was supposed to believe him to be representative of all Africans went riiiight over my head. I didn’t realize what this guy was supposed to be–what he was supposed to be teaching me about Black people–until my senior year in high school.
And I’m American!
You just have to bear in mind that Americans had a couple of centuries to develop this elaborate symbolism of white supremacy, and that not all of it has obvious meaning to outsiders. Someone wearing something that in the United States would unquestionably Mean Something about the person’s political beliefs:
isn’t necessarily pro-racism or pro-slavery or pro-Confederacy (that’s from You’re Beautiful, a romantic comedy that does not even remotely touch on any of those issues). It just means that the person is deeply ignorant of our culture and history.
And I shall convey this character’s fragile health–and fragile emotions–by putting her in a shirt that says, “IF YOU AIN’T COWBOY, YOU AIN’T SHIT.” She is, for the record, in no way, shape, or form a cowboy.
Do I think ignorance makes this kind of thing totally OK? No. But I do think you have to judge the people who romp around in Confederate uniforms rather differently when they’re not from around here. The entire reason that educating people works is because most people aren’t horrible bigots who don’t care if they upset and offend everybody–they just don’t know about stuff and haven’t really given it much thought.