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The Traumatic Black Female Experience in K-Pop Fandoms

Updated: Sep 26, 2020

SEPT 2020 UPDATE: For those who are interested, I have this article in video format with updated screenshots of fans being particularly vile, violent, and racist to Black fans of K-pop.

Fandoms are a pivotal part of being able to support the artists, tv shows, or movies you love. Being in a fandom can be useful because it allows people from every corner of the world to be able to bond and connect over something or someone that they love. Being in a fandom allows people to freely express how they feel about what they’re most passionate about in what’s supposed to be a judge-free zone. Ideally, being a part of a fandom is supposed to be a wholesome experience where people can exchange content and important news and updates, express their love and adoration for the person/thing they’re in the fandom for, and create memes or reaction videos to make the experience all the more enjoyable and funny.

However, that is not the case for everyone — especially Black, female fans of K-pop.

The modern, idol-based version of K-pop started in the 1990s, and has grown to resonate throughout the world, building active fan groups comprised of people from different countries and backgrounds — strangers who speak different languages and bond on the internet over shared passions for groups like BTS, LOONA, Twice, and MONSTA X. But for Black fans of the genre, in particular, the experience of joining a K-pop fandom can be quite different.

In 2018, Black members of the BTS ARMY (the name of BTS’s fandom) were written about by outlets like BuzzFeed and Teen Vogue for starting hashtags to call out racism they were experiencing on Twitter and on the social network Curious Cat. Hashtags like #BlackARMYSMatter and #BlackARMYSEquality provided rallying points for black fans to share their experiences. But racism in both the ARMY and the fandoms of other K-Pop groups still persists. “I created my Twitter account in April to discuss BTS with other like-minded fans, but I noticed that after a few of my critical tweets went viral with other ARMYs, hate started coming my way,” 24-year old Elizabeth Morris tells South Sonder.

Elizabeth says she’s received an onslaught of racist insults, been called just about every anti-Black racial slur in the book, told to go back to the “fields,” and a plethora of both rape and death threats, especially after criticizing BTS’s controversial decision to accept an invitation by the Saudi Arabian government to host a concert in the country. She felt performing there contradicted BTS’ image of being socially conscious, especially since BTS collaborated with UNICEF for their ‘Love Myself’ anti-violence campaign.

Elizabeth started her Twitter account to comment on different career moves by her favorite K-pop group, BTS, not to undermine their success, but to engage with BTS’ music and content with other fans. Most of her criticisms were about Bighit Entertainment and how they were managing BTS' career. Elizabeth said, "I would tweet about how [BigHit] was overworking the members while stifling their individual creativity, and that fans shouldn’t worship a company when we have no clue what goes on behind the scenes." She goes on to say "from the start, I made it known to my following that I was a Black, lesbian woman. Once I opened up DMs on my account, I received hate messages from accounts with zero followers, clearly aimed at me in an attempt to tear me down.” Adding, “One person sent me a pornographic photo of a man’s penis and made homophobic jokes toward me. Once I opened my CuriousCat account with the anon function on, that’s when the real hate began.” “Anytime I took a stance that went against what other fans were saying, I was called aggressive and accused of being an anti,” Elizabeth says. In the fandom, “antis” are people who actively hate an artist or a group, but are still interested enough to criticize them. She adds, “Being a Black fan in K-Pop has been one of the worst experiences I’ve had, and I’ve been in fandoms online since I was 13 years old. I’ve enjoyed K-Pop music since 2015, but this year was the first time I tried to actively engage in Twitter content. It’s left me feeling distressed more times than I’ve felt happy.” The harassment that Elizabeth received had gotten so bad, that she needed to notify the FBI. This was the message she received that forced her to do so:

It’s incredibly unfortunate that Black, K-pop fans are not made to feel like they can enjoy the music from their favourite artists and express both their joy and disappointment the same way everyone else can without being harassed, sent rape and death threats, or doxed. Dari Hart, a 23-year-old fan of the Korean group, Monsta X has had a similar experience. “Most of my harassment came from anonymous people online telling me that Minhyuk [of Monsta X] would never love a ‘darkie’” or “no offense, but do you actually think Minhyuk would date a Black girl like you?,” Dari says. “Mind you, I’m just a fan ... It’s been nice on Twitter to find a community of stans of color that I can connect with, but it’s hard watching the masses use our language, our mannerisms, and our culture, but then turn around and degrade us for the same thing.” According to a December 2018 study from Amnesty International, "Black women are disproportionately targeted, being 84 percent more likely than white women to be mentioned in abusive or problematic tweets. One in ten tweets mentioning Black women was abusive or problematic, compared to one in fifteen for white women."

"When people come to Twitter to talk about what's happening, it's our job to help them feel safe joining the conversation,” Liz Kelley, a spokesperson from Twitter told me. “This remains one of our top priorities." "Specifically, you may find our rules against abuse and hateful conduct helpful here, notably where the rules state: You may not promote violence against, threaten, or harass other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or serious disease."

Twitter recently released an updated report about their work in this area and the two most notable things that the spokesperson would like to point out are: “More than 50 percent of tweets we take action on for abuse are now proactively surfaced to our team for review, rather than relying on reports to Twitter. And there’s been a 105 percent increase in accounts actioned by Twitter (locked or suspended for violating the Twitter Rules).”

Back in 2018, Black female K-pop fans created the hashtag, #BLACKGIRLSLIKEKPOP, to raise awareness for the fact that Black girls enjoy K-pop too and that they shouldn’t be harassed, ostracized, or bullied on Twitter for enjoying what they love. 20 year old, Ambria Johnson, mentions this hashtag and says, "Black K-pop girls trended a hashtag called #BLACKGIRLSLIKEKPOP and there were people questioning why we were making everything about race and overall invalidating our experiences as Black, K-pop stans."

In December of 2019, Jess, also known as @SUPERI0RTEEZ, created the hashtag #BLACKSTANSLIKEKPOP with the help of @BYUNBABIE1 for Black, K-pop fans that were experiencing hate online for expressing an interest in this industry. They created the hashtag to support one other Black, K-pop stans, showcase their love K-pop, and let the message be known that they aren't going anywhere despite the ignorance and abuse they receive online.

Ekua Manso, a 26-year old, has been a been a K-Pop fan for nearly 12 years. In her particular case, she says she has seen a lot of disregard from fans in cases of cultural appropriation, especially concerning Black culture. “So many different scandals have happened over the years and I remember some time back then, there were comments on a Facebook post about a cultural appropriation incident from fans saying things like, ‘Black people complain so much. This isn't a big deal.’" Adding, “You aren't even Black, but you're trying to tell me what I should be angry and offended by? I have also seen folks says things like, "no one is trying to be Black" or "you guys aren't the centre of the universe".” She goes on to say, “people say such things to dismiss complaints and the very fact that K-Pop is already so deeply rooted in Black American music and popular culture. Acknowledging and respecting that and the boundaries that come with participating in another culture is not hard."

Recently enough, I have also experienced extreme violence and vitriol online for being a Black, female K-pop stan, albeit - most of the bullying came from BTS fans which was unfortunate as I am also a fan of BTS. I voiced my opinion on Twitter about how one of the sculptures in the background of one of Kim Namjoon, leader of BTS, pictures looked like the Jezebel caricature, which was confusing as it was heartbreaking considering how problematic that is. However, I received over 400 replies and dozens of messages in the span of 12 hours. 4 days later, I received in total over 2,446 replies. Many of those replies told me how wrong I, a black woman, was in speaking out against racism. I was called just about every anti-black slur in the book from a n*gger to a tar baby to people threatening to lynch me. People even falsified tweets against me and used that as an excuse to gather people to mass report me despite the fact that these tweets are doctored and not true. It was especially disappointing seeing bigger accounts engage in this racist bullying since they have larger visibility and represent BTS on a grander scale. Here are the fake tweets and my response to it:

I can't imagine BTS feel comfortable knowing how malicious their fanbase is perceived and yet I'm sure they're well aware of it. They're very active on social media from Twitter to Weverse, so I'm sure that at some point, they've seen their fans swarm down on people with threats ranging between suspending them to killing them.

With all of that being said, stan culture, as a whole, has borrowed many aspects of black culture and African American Vernacular English, in particular. A lot of the language used online amongst stans is language used by black people on a daily basis, but has been repacked and become mainstream by being “adopted by groups made up largely of white teens.” Stan culture was created on allowing people to come together and support one another in their admiration for someone or something, but it often leaves out black people despite their culture having a great influence on it.

Segregating an online community is fruitless when Black women will find a way to let their voices be heard either way. They are passionate about the things they love just like everyone else and they shouldn’t be condemned, harassed, and doxed just because they want to be out and proud fans — while being Black too. There are already so many Black women who have given up on being a part of a fandom because of the relentless bullying and harassment they experience even though a fandom is supposed to be a community that embraces all despite our differences.

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