Mamamoo faced immense backlash from international fans for incorporating blackface/brownface in their cover of Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ Uptown Funk at their recent concert. But then, in a rare move, RBW and Mamamoo swiftly issued an apology that does acknowledge the issue at hand.
So what does this mean? Several comments left by South Koreans online demonstrate that the country is not completely in the dark about blackface/brownface and its implications. Why, then, is it still present today? How does this reflect on the rest of the South Korean entertainment industry? The writers of OH!Blog weigh in below.
In light of Mamamoo’s blackface controversy, I will take this opportunity to address this issue as whole. My fellow writers will cover on that. Blackface (according to Wikipedia, everyone’s favorite go-to encyclopedia website) is a form of theatrical makeup used predominantly by non-black performers to represent a black person. It is one of predominant features in racial archetypes. Blackface, usually portrayed by not of color actors/actresses to act or pretend as black people for purposes like comedy and other theatricals.
South Korea is a homogeneous country, much like their neighbors Japan and North Korea. People from these countries have lesser interactions with other cultures or races, and it’s understandable that they might be oblivious about others outside of their usual constitution. Not saying that it’s okay to do blackface (and brownface too) because it is a part of so many cultural ills made by societies. Cultures, ethnicity, race, and et cetera (for clarification) are social constructs; with crucial ramifications for the world. Those constructs determine who you are, what you are, and people’s perceptions (including yourself).
If you think blackface is okay, you are wrong. Very wrong. Why is that? Blackface is harmful. This is because of tropes associated with it. I can’t and won’t say what those tropes are because it will hurt many people even though this article is meant for clarifying and educating readers. Yes, that harmful. There are many forms and ways to express characters or situations without offending people, and blackface is not it. The problem started from long ago during early days of US’s entertainment. This created a stereotype, where it is okay to make fun of black people. Though time has passed and things changed a lot. Now many are aware of cultural appropriation, though with some minor “glitches” from the ignoramuses. Of course. Most recently, Mamamoo.
Mamamoo and their label are at fault for this. Both made speedy acknowledgement and apologies, luckily. They have realized their mistakes and won’t do it again. Since this issue kind of blew up, hopefully the attention that it has been getting at will enlighten many people who are still not aware of blackface and why it is not an okay thing to do. Another person’s skin is not a fun outfit for you to try on. That is all from me.
Honestly, other than the fact that their ‘mistake’ is one from ignorance, I don’t particularly have an extensive opinion on this issue. The dark period in American history, with the discrimination of African-Americans, is something unfortunately not taught in history classes all around the world. South Korea being one of the many. However, I’ve learnt that even as someone, who had been taught about this era and whose residing countries’ history has a relatively similar situation, not even I am truly aware of all the finer details and things to avoid. I remember there was once a thread on the OneHallyu forum, where someone pointed out a famous person’s’ twin Twitter name change as racist towards an African-American celebrity. And even then I didn’t exactly understand the racism behind the words. The one person that asked for clarification on what prejudice was evident, was negged by many of the American users.
And this leads to my next point. In handling matters dealing with prejudicial actions towards African-Americans, most Americans are a little ethnocentric. Similarly, how issues such as the rising sun is not known to many citizens of Western countries, African-American history is one also not widespread in many Asian countries. However, this does not excuse Mamamoo from the mistake they have committed. I, honestly do not see the artistic element towards painting one’s skin tone a certain colour to cover another artist. Regardless of whether it was ‘blackface’ or if someone painted their skin tone yellow when covering an Asian artist, why is it necessary? This is an issue that by all means could and should have been avoided.
This situation is a very sensitive issue, and one I nearly feel I lack the authority to even write about. So I want to focus on the significance of it and why I think this marks a turning point for other controversies similar to this in K-Pop. While there have been past instances of idols painting their faces and phrases like “blackface” thrown around, these controversies have largely stayed amongst international fans. The differences between what i-fans and k-fans make into controversies is sometimes rather striking. But Mamamoo’s scenario is one case where the outrage from the i-fans actually reached South Korea. Apologies were issued almost immediately after the controversy blew up, both in English and Korean for fans and non fans alike to read. A conscious effort has been made to acknowledge the offense dealt to people whose nuanced cultural history is not common knowledge in South Korea.
I think it’s fairly safe to say there is no malicious intent behind these scenarios. That doesn’t, however, mean that people were not offended by them. And I am in no way trying to deny this. But ignorance is effectively the easiest way to unintentionally cause emotional hurt or insult someone. Unfortunately, I have seen a fair number of people being opportunistic about this whole situation.
There was a performance of “Uptown Funk” on a South Korean show in late 2016 where the artist had done the same painted “brownface” as Mamamoo did in their concert. And everyone was mute. I-fans were mute because this wasn’t a mainstream K-Pop artist and few likely even watched the performance. And South Koreans were mute… why? Why was there no blowup with this broadcasted performance but with Mamamoo’s concert VCR? They are equally offensive. Koreans are stepping forward now to point out the thoughtless actions of Mamamoo, but only when i-fans brought them to light. This in itself shows that the ignorance of blackface is still very much present in South Korean society, despite the way some international fans tried to used k-nets’ condemnation of Mamamoo’s mistake as proof that they are already “woke” to the offensive nature of blackface. Because if this was true, they could drag Mamamoo for intentional racism and not simply ignorance.
What is interesting to me is that much of k-nets’ comments pointing out why blackface is even problematic use the analogy “imagine if someone painted their face yellow for a performance of an Asian artist.” This is the clearest analogy for them to understand blackface. However, blackface in the USA has a history far more nuanced than simply mocking a skin tone with a painted face. The Korean analogy, while it has a logical basis, still shows ignorance on this subject. And it’s not an ignorance I anticipate, nor expect, to ever disappear. Every nation, every group of people in that nation, have such a complicated histories behind them. We as human beings can’t begin to understand or study them all. But when mistakes like Mamamoo’s are made, we do have every responsibility to make them right. Apologies should be made, and this time can be used to learn and reflect. So while this controversy is another unfortunate case of ignorance, I think a lot was learned from this. I-fans showed that their actions can make a difference. And the South Korean response showed that, at least somewhat, the offense surrounding blackface is starting to become more understood.
Even as a Southeast Asian who looks very much brown, I would still say that I hardly have the authority to discuss brownface, let alone blackface, itself. Brownface doesn’t personally offend me, perhaps because I was never raised in the USA, where it’s clearly more of an issue, likely because of its differences in history with racial dynamics. This doesn’t mean that I’m dismissing the issue as a whole, of course.
What I would comment on, however, is the fact that Mamamoo’s debacle underlines a weakness in South Korea’s entertainment industry. Korean music companies are particularly noted for their intensive training regiment. Nearly every single aspect of their presentations is meticulously planned. And yet, every sign points to their lack of expertise in basic social awareness, beyond East Asia. This wouldn’t be that much of a problem, realistically speaking, if Korea has little interest in packaging their mainstream entertainment as a cultural export. But given their increasing emphasis on international recognition, the entire industry is in dire need of major reforms with regard to understanding its target market.
In short, this could have easily been avoided in the first place. Korean companies don’t have to cater to the international market’s every whim, but a little cross-cultural management goes a long way in averting disaster. They are, after all, running a business. That said, RBW and Mamamoo’s response to the backlash was commendable, and k-nets’ online response to the matter seems promising. Perhaps there is hope after all.
Without simply reiterating what others have already said, of course, blackface is obviously taboo, and those who are offended by it are well within their rights to be. I’m not here to contest whether people “should” be offended or not. It offends me, I personally don’t approve of K-Pop idols doing it and I’m glad that Mamamoo’s agency came out with a swift acknowledgment and apology instead of ignoring the offence they may have caused many of their fans. It’s certainly a step in the right direction and shows that they have some consideration for their overseas audiences.
That said, I’m able to disapprove of it because I’m a westerner who has grown up surrounded by context for why blackface is so offensive, while the majority of Koreans have not. In Western Europe, where I’m from, the use of blackface to undermine and discriminate against people of colour throughout history is well-known and documented and, while I wouldn’t say the entire continent is so enlightened as to completely reject its use (we still have far to go ourselves; the use of blackface in Western entertainment is all too recent), the majority of us can agree that seeing blackface used in a modern context is shocking because it is regarded as so blatantly racist that there cannot be any other intent behind it.
So of course, when we see a Korean idol “blacked up” for laughs, we’re unable to see it as anything but malicious and derogatory even if the intention is far from that, and it’s upsetting to us. That’s not to roll out the oft-toted “they didn’t mean it” excuse, since while I certainly believe there was no ill will meant on Mamamoo’s part, lack of intent is no excuse for ignorance and people are justified in their offence regardless. But should we hold people who are not from our culture, who didn’t receive the same Western-centric education we did, to the same “deal breaking” standards of what is and isn’t agreeable regardless of whether those same expectations are present in their own culture or not?
I’m not saying “we should let Koreans do blackface because they don’t know any better” but that we should put ourselves in their shoes and attempt to understand the Korean cultural perspective before we arrive at any swift judgments of young idols made according to Western standards and ideals.
Being Korean isn’t an excuse for being offensive to people of other creeds and cultures, but it does explain the lack of immediate understanding as to why blackface is a no-go zone for the rest of us. As an example, take the way international fans react to Koreans getting angry about instances of the Japanese imperial flag appearing on idols’ clothing, references to the disputed Liancourt Rocks, or netizens being aghast at idols being unfamiliar with key points in Korean history. While some may understand the nature of the offence through parallels with their own national backgrounds, many Western fans are unable to see what the “big deal” is and presume that netizens are simply overreacting because that’s what netizens do. Take a look at any given K-celebrity scandal involving Korean societal norms and you’ll find plenty of Western fans who are all too happy to pick apart Korean culture as if its shortsightedness and hypocrisy are uniquely obtuse and obvious. While they may not be wrong in their criticisms, to many Koreans these people are basically saying “Why can’t they just be like us?”
This whole controversy around Mamamoo is a prime example of how people living in South East Asia are not sensitive towards racism. The way they portrayed Bruno Mars and his crew in a comedic way was obviously offensive to international fans. If Bruno was to be exposed to the video, there’s no doubt he would not be impressed. Why couldn’t the girls simply not adopt blackfaces? Other Korean artists like Park Hyo Shin delivered a stunning cover without indicating race. The blackfaces really did not add much to Mamamoo’s cover but the fact that the audience found it entertaining is rather disturbing. The problem does not only lie with Mamamoo and their management and production staff. Social awareness and lack of racial sensitivity among some of the Korean public are the prime concerns here. Honestly, it is hard to see much change occurring in the near future even though these issues should be taking much more seriously.
Another person’s skin is not a fun outfit for you to try on.
What are your thoughts? Do share with us and thank you for reading.