Is Cultural Appropriation the backbone of K-Pop?
Updated: Dec 10, 2019
We see quite often new examples of cultural appropriation by k-pop idols. However, this usually goes unchecked and ends up being brushed under the rug despite the disapproval and disappointment expressed by what are usually international fans. It's a very uncomfortable feeling to support an artist only to discover that they find elements of your culture to be a joke, or something that doesn't deserve respect. It's even more disappointing when fans of said idols raise awareness about these issues and bring it to the attention of these idols (and their companies) on social media, but it just gets ignored. It's a very strange thing to witness since so many k-pop idols want international expansion and entry into the Western markets, but don't make have the cultural sensitivity training, the genuine desire, or the initiative to learn more about the various cultures of their international community nor how to respect them.
Before I dive into this, let's first discuss what cultural appropriation is.
WHAT IS CULTURAL APPROPRIATION?
Cultural appropriation IS a big deal (despite what people may think) because "when violence systematically targets a group of people through genocide, slavery, or colonization,the resulting trauma lasts through generations" (Maisha Z. Johnson, Everyday Feminism). That means that cultural symbols hold great significance, especially to those who've had EVERYTHING else stripped away from them for generations. When people try to take/borrow elements of someone else's culture for the fun of it, it enforces the idea that culture is just a disposable commodity that can never just be one's OWN to appreciate and hold on to.
Another reason why cultural appropriation is harmful is because people tend to say that they are just showing their appreciation for the culture, but still remain prejudiced to the people FROM that culture. I can't even begin to count how many times I've seen non-black people wear box braids and locs in their hair yet say the n-word. That don't make no damn SENSE! How can you like our stuff, but not like US? It's the same with kpop idols who say they like 'hip hop' and that they just want to be cool and then are caught saying 'nigga' or anything else that's inherently anti-black.
Lastly, cultural appropriation makes it cool for people OUTSIDE of that culture to take elements of another culture, but when people who are ORIGINALLY from that culture perform/wear/exhibit those cultural symbols, they're discriminated against. A good example of this is how black women are LEGALLY NOT allowed to wear our NATURAL hairstyles (afro, braids, locs, etc) in many corporate positions around the globe, but when non-black people do it, including kpop idols, they're praised for being 'trendy' and daring enough to experiment with their hair.
Here are some examples of Korean idols doing cultural appropriation:
Not only is this an example of cultural appropriation, but it's also an example of blackface. What I've seen quite often is k-pop idols and entertainers doing blackface to mock black people because they think it's funny. What people don't understand is that blackface is violently racist and was created by white performers hundreds of years ago to ridicule enslaved Africans, so the fact that it's still done today despite its horrific origins is sick.
This is just the same old case of someone appropriating black hairstyles because they think it's cool and refusing to hold themselves accountable when their fans call them out on it. Black hairstyles belong in black hair. Before anyone else should be allowed to wear our hairstyles, we should be able to and not have to face negative consequences for it, like being denied job opportunities, removed from certain schools, stereotyped as dirty and dangerous, etc.
Another example of Blackface. We hate to see it!
Sandara Park appropriating Indian culture back in 2009.
I honestly like Momoland, but this was a HOT mess and I feel like it's necessary for fans of k-pop idols to be able to call out their faves no matter how uncomfortable it may be because GROWTH is important more than anything else. The members of Momoland dressed up as various cultures, but only end up depicting stereotypes from each one, which is.... *drumroll* RACIST. Our cultures are not costumes.
I also really like Blackpink, but once again... we have to call this out because enough is enough. Imagine how tired we are. I'm so over seeing raggedy looking braids on people who aren't black.
Here's one that's UNBELIEVABLY racist and show's the group, Super Junior, mocking Indian Culture
Here are some examples of how international k-pop fans feel about cultural appropriation:
ON THE OTHER HAND, cultural appreciation is very different from cultural appropriation and this is a form of cultural exchange that is actually OKAY.
WHAT IS CULTURAL APPRECIATION?
"Appreciation is when someone seeks to understand and learn about another culture in an effort to broaden their perspective and connect with others cross-culturally" (Greenheart Club, Greenheart). Cultural appreciation is a beautiful thing because you're actually taking the time to learn more about the other culture(s) and embracing it in a way that's respectful and not demeaning.
Here is are two recent examples of cultural appreciation:
IDOL by BTS
In the IDOL music video by the Korean supergroup, BTS, they were heavily inspired by African culture, but more specifically, West and South African. They incorporated the dance move 'Gwara Gwara' which is VERY popular dance move from South Africa and they respectfully credited WHERE that dance move came from each and every time they were asked about it. People tried to dismiss the origins by calling it the "IDOL dance," but BTS always brought it right back to its South African roots.
2) Butterfly by LOONA
This reminded me of the 'Black and White' music video by Michael Jackson where instead of doing what some others would do and dress up as the varying cultures they were trying to represent using racist interpretations, they just incorporated them into the videos. They didn't feel like background characters or racial tokens. All backgrounds were celebrated and made to feel important. We love to see it!
With that being said, it's COMPLETELY fine to draw inspiration with sincerity from different cultures and channel that knowledge into your own artistic expression, but to co-opt it as your own, not even understand the cultural significance of what you're copying, or to just outright offend an entire demographic is just goofy. Put your clown shoes on!
WHY DOES CULTURAL APPROPRIATION HAPPEN IN K-POP?
Don't get me wrong. It's understandable that these Korean idols may not even know what cultural appropriation is. Nobody truly understands all of these social justice concepts from the second they're born. It's just not realistic. It's something that you need to decide to want to learn about for YOURSELF. You need to actually want to research what it is and how NOT to do it (or at least how to perform cultural APPRECIATION instead). What may hinder someone, like a k-pop idol, from even knowing what the concept of cultural appropriation is when you're living in a racially homogeneous society where almost everyone around you looks like you (in terms of race, not appearance), speaks the same language as you, and shares the same culture. So, it makes sense as to how someone may be ignorant about the rules of respecting another person's culture, BUT I genuinely don't believe that should be the excuse you fall back on deep into your adulthood. We all have access to the internet. We all have access to millions upon millions of informational resources to our disposal. If idols can look up new dances that black people have come up with, or choreography to copy from Desi cultures, or black protective styles to copy under the guise of it being 'trendy and cool', then I also believe they should be able to find out whether or not that is APPROPRIATE to copy in the first place. I've seen idols disrespect (intentionally or not) different brown and black people time and time again and it surprises me that people have still not learned their lesson. Like, how can you (or people in your company) get called out MULTIPLE times for the same mistake and even issue a half-hearted apology only to end up doing it again? WHAT'S NOT CLICKING???
WHAT SHOULD K-POP FANS, K-POP IDOLS, AND COMPANIES DO IN THE FUTURE?
I feel that as international fans of k-pop artists, we need to do a better job at holding idols accountable and sticking to it. Rather than just giving in and saying, "Oh well, there's nothing more I can do," we should be pushing harder for them to at least PRETEND to be more socially aware about the things that they do. I know that people often say that it's these idols' companies who make them do these disheartening things and that they have no creative control of what they do. If that's the case, I believe these companies should be learning from their Ls and doing a better job at not continually making these inherently racist mistakes. They need to stop being complicit. If respecting the cultures of others is such a major problem that they are having trouble solving, they should be instilling diversity and inclusion tactics into their on-boarding system whether that is hiring foreign staff and global representatives to help them learn more about these issues, or training their current staff about cultural sensitivity and cultural appreciation. It doesn't make sense that a lot more Korean entertainment agencies are aiming towards global expansion, modernization, and increasing their international fanbase, but they don't put forth the effort to respect international fans. K-pop fans come from all over the world despite the fact that we may not even know the Korean language and yet we're able to build these online communities, connect through our love of this kind of music, and show support for these idols and their companies, but they don't all do the same for us.
They should just hire me to help them with these issues! (Yes, this is self-promo).
In conclusion, it's tough having to see idols fumble their bag over and over again over issues that could easily be resolved if they learned that poking fun at or imitating other people's cultural backgrounds is not okay and never will be. I hope that for the future, especially at a time when more k-pop idols and groups are trying to make it into the West, that they do a better job at preventing this prevalent issue, learn how to be more culturally sensitive, and continue to draw inspiration from other cultures without crossing the line and offending them.