Critical Discussion: “MAMAMOO’s Use of Blackface: Understanding How Racism is Not a Binary”

“MAMAMOO’s
Use of Blackface: Understanding How Racism is Not a Binary”

Posted on March 5, 2017

That
said, for where this post will be going, I wish to unfold the current
controversy so that everyone truly understands why the situation is a critical
one, and more importantly, I wish to address the idea that racism is a
“binary.”

Personal
Message:
Needless
to say, I am incredibly shocked and feel both disappointed at MAMAMOO for this
incident in the first place, yet I still feel incredibly proud of them for
sincerely acknowledging and apologizing for this incident. There is a lot to
discuss for this Critical Discussion and indeed, these situations are why I have this type of post: because pop
culture tends to tie into social topics—whether intended or not. More
importantly, however, when these social-related topics arise, how it is handled
is definitely of interest and arguably even telling the current norms and such in
place.

With this discussion about MAMAMOO’s
recent use of blackface for a concert, I understand it is an incredibly
sensitive topic and no matter how one feels—whether one feels “betrayed” by the
beloved ladies and is no longer a fan or that one finds that this all
miniscule—the purpose of this post is not to necessarily change or neglect how
fans currently feel on an emotional level. Every fan’s individual emotional
reaction deserves to be respected. That said, for where this post will be
going, I wish to unfold the current controversy so that everyone truly
understands why the situation is a critical one, and more importantly, I wish
to address the idea that racism is a “binary.”

By “racism binary,” I am referring
to the unspoken assumption that racism is an “either” situation; either one is
racist and a completely awful human being or that one is non-racist and is
utterly open to all racial differences. MAMAMOO’s situation provides an
excellent example of why this racism binary is false: seldom are people
entirely on one end of the spectrum and more often than not, we will find
ourselves hovering in the middle. For example, there is a concept of “implicit
bias”—biases one has not due to their
individual beliefs and actions, but rather biases one accumulates in a society. This applies to race, gender, and every
other social aspect. Without getting into the detail of how implicit bias works
as that entails a whole separate post, the point is this: for one to claim they
are utterly non-racist is unlikely. This is not
because of their own actions and beliefs—I very much believe a vast majority of
humans try their best to be ethical in the world and thus non-racist—but
because societally there are hidden messages spread throughout that can alter
one’s thinking on a very subtle level.

To use myself in an honest example
as this might make implicit bias more understandable and relatable, as many may
know given the plethora of posts that tackle social topics, readers might
assume that I genuinely am incredibly open and without biases at all. This,
obviously, is false: I am as any normal human—the only difference that I might
deserve minimal credit on is the fact that I am open on discussing these sensitive topics in the first place even if at
the risk of people then assuming I am no longer “non-racist” and other labels. To
share my biggest personal implicit bias with race—though it might be more
accurately labeled with “colorism”—it is that I do have a hidden bias that
assumes lighter skin complexion is prettier than darker skin complexion. I only
discovered this when I found myself thinking that BB creams or simply even
lotion with skin-lightening properties are great, and more specifically, when
during a summer I found myself very
much disliking how tan I was getting and how I “needed”—yes, I thought in that
particular language of necessity—to go back to looking quite pale.

These were signs that I had an
implicit bias with skin tone, and thankfully I managed to bring and address this
on a conscious level—even if, as readers can tell, these are quite disturbing
biases to consider especially since I strongly
assert that all skin complexions are beautiful—and indeed, this is true as all skin complexions are
beautiful regardless of implicit (or explicit) biases one may have. Overall
this is all to say I am a human and given my cultural background and how I am
constantly watching Korean shows where, indeed, lighter skin is considered more
beautiful, I had an implicit bias form that I now am addressing and attempting
to correct. The best step, though, is the very act of acknowledging one’s
biases and shortcomings despite how uncomfortable this may be. Whether it is
with gender, race, sexuality, class, and so forth, addressing one’s biases and
admitting to them is crucial even if current times are extremely polarized with
these topics. (For example, even my admitting of my wrongful implicit bias on
skin tone will very much put me at risk with readers for the very fact that I
admit I have this implicit bias. Again, having biases are not bad if one addresses them and corrects them
to be more ethical, but many forget this point or are simply uncomfortable with
this very admittance in the first place due to risk of then being labeled as
“utterly racist and horrible.”)

For another issue with the racism
binary, there is the risk of clumping in accidental racism from intentional,
malicious racism—even if the former sounds ridiculous. After all, readers might
be wondering: “How can one accidentally
be racist and offend a specific community? It all has to be intentional.”
Unfortunately, racism is much more complex and there are cases where one is
simply unaware—“ignorant” if we wish to say, though I dislike this word as it
carries a negative connotation—of their actions or in fact even intend to do good but end up
unintentionally being racist. I would even argue that this form of racism is
the most common form we tend to find today; seldom are people genuinely
maliciously trying to be racist, but instead, are accidentally racist—which,
again, is still an issue but it requires a different approach than a sincere
racist who is simply being a purely unethical person who very much hates on
sheer differences.  

A perfect example of “accidental
racism” is when fans of K-Pop who are non-Korean claim they “wished they were
Korean because they love Korean culture so much.” On an intentional level,
these fans are not intending to be racist at all; they genuinely are sharing
their openness, care, and respect for another culture and to the degree of
which leads to some “envy.” The issue, though, is that these fans are treating
Korean culture as a “costume” or an “exotic entity” that one throws around in a
fun, objectifying matter. Thus, what they are saying is racist even if unintended.
It is not wrong to like K-Pop or Korean culture or any other culture that one
does not belong to, but when one uses the language of “wishing to be,” in
reality it is offensive on the grounds that they are implying cultures are
clothing thrown around to be switched and changed at any moment when that is
not quite the case. (Though it should be clarified that one can assimilate into a culture and this
is fine; a Japanese individual can move to Korea and assimilate into Korean
culture, for example, and this is definitely fine and not objectifying.) As I
say, being respectful and open to other cultures is definitely great, but never
should an objectifying tone take place.

But without getting too distracted
on that topic, the point is this: sometimes people are racist without intending
to be, and in these cases—such as in MAMAMOO’s case as we will get
to—acknowledging one’s mistake and educating oneself on their shortcoming is
what is necessary—and indeed, this is what MAMAMOO is doing. With that, let us
discuss MAMAMOO’s use of blackface.

_______________________________________________________

Context:
I will link Soompi’s article
regarding this incident as I find that Soompi is oftentimes
a reliable English translated source for K-Pop news—and indeed, based on my
reading of the article, they seem to have encapsulated much of the current controversy
and have even updated the article with RBW Entertainment’s and MAMAMOO’s
apologies and reflection. As such, readers can refer to the article for the
full context of the current situation. However, what I do wish to discuss is
the concept of blackface as unless if one is from the United States, this
concept is unfamiliar or even confusing and thus, I wish to explain the
historical concept of it and the contemporary take to it.

Blackface is called such as it
involves performers quite literally blackening their faces with makeup to
appear as if they were Black individuals. Already, we see why this is
disturbing: imagine if a non-Asian decided to “dress up and look
Asian”—something that is already generalizing and objectifying to the Asian
community. Similarly, this is why fashion and makeup tutorials of “How to look
[insert race here]” are all disturbing: these tutorials are implying there is an objective look to a community, and
that is simply false. Even if this is done towards a “dominant racial group”
(by dominant I am connoting “power”; in other words, they are the racially
privileged group such as Chinese in China or Whites in the U.S.), it is still
incredibly offensive. For example, in Korea, a “How to look Korean” video is as
messed up as, in the United States, a “How to look White” video—even if, yes,
it is understandable that these would be to poke fun at the racially privileged
groups.

But without digressing too far on
that, another issue with blackface is oftentimes how grotesque it is—and we
have to understand the historical context of blackface for this. In the United
States, blackface in the past was used by White performers who would perform as
Blacks in oftentimes degrading, exaggerated manners in a way that implied
Blacks were inferior to Whites. In other words, Whites would use blackface to
pretend to be Blacks in order to create a comical show. Again, this is all
quite disturbing and this history is something to bear in mind for MAMAMOO’s
controversy and hence why people are greatly upset. In contemporary times, no
one of any race should find these atrocious past acts acceptable given how many
societies are ethically progressing. (That said, the only contemporary use of
blackface is when Blacks themselves use it as a way of getting ownership back.
This in of itself is controversial, but the idea behind this to take away
blackface as a “For Whites to oppress Blacks” to a now “Blacks are taking back
the historical damage and turning blackface into an empowering tool.” Again, I
will not discuss this in much depth as I still have minimal knowledge on this
history and have no specific stances. For those interested in the idea of
“re-owning” oppressive acts, I recommend the story “The Goophered Grapevine” by
Charles Chesnutt as it does address this idea. Without spoiling too much, an
African American character seemingly uses Black stereotypes established by
Whites in an internalized sense, but in reality, one could argue he was using
these stereotypes to outwit and prevent Whites from buying his estate and thus
was taking oppressive acts and stereotypes and turning them into empowering
ones.)

English major nerdiness aside, I
hope this all provides context to what MAMAMOO did, and why blackface in a
historical sense is incredibly negative and why current uses of it—especially
if not by Blacks to “re-own” blackface—can be quite controversial as it carries
the roots of historical damage Whites have done towards Blacks in the United
States. (And again, given how sensitive this topic is, I highly emphasize historical damage—though obviously
current work is still needed in the United States for race. Point is, I wish to
emphasize the historical point as I do not wish readers who are White to feel
“responsible” per se; yes, Whites in the United States have racial privilege
and thus are responsible on this end and understanding their racial privilege,
but never should Whites be bashed specifically
for creating blackface when it is a historical piece. But, even my stance on
this is controversial though I argue it is the most humane and balanced view
versus the extreme ends that claim “Whites should take no responsibility at all
for the past” and “Whites are entirely responsible and need to pay for the
past.” Again, there is a responsibility of racial privilege in current times,
but it should not extend all the way to the past.)

Let us now discuss MAMAMOO in
specific and see how we, as fans of the ladies (or even K-Pop in general),
continue on from this incident.

_______________________________________________________

Analysis:
Since I already addressed the
“racism binary” and why there are issues with it, I wish to hone in on the
concept of “unintentional racism” as I argue this is the case with MAMAMOO. I
strongly doubt MAMAMOO and RBW Entertainment were intending to mock a specific
community; rather, it is likely they were trying to very much get into their
performance and truly immerse themselves via appearance as they were covering American
pop artist Bruno Mars’s music video. While I have not seen the actual footage
yet, knowing the ladies I bet their performance was very much simply covering
the song in perhaps an upbeat, fun manner. Was race the complete reason with
why they were using blackface? Not necessarily as, again, they were most likely
focused on the music and not attempting to mock a community at all. But, this does not mean they are free
from responsibility; they had good intentions but still ended up using blackface—a highly derogatory, negative act.
So what do we make of this?

For one, fans need to stop using the
racism binary with now automatically equating MAMAMOO as “racist” and evil
women. If anything, this might be the worst idea given that MAMAMOO, from
admittedly my biased perspective as a fan, is one of the more aware K-Pop
groups of their international fans. Furthermore, the ladies and their label
company tend to be more “open”—and more so if we bear in mind many Asian
countries are still “conservative.” For example, MAMAMOO very much desires to
release songs that empower women (and hence the extremely high ratio that
favors female to male fans for MAMAMOO) and with having a song that explores
the idea of gender as a performance—the iconic “Um Oh Ah Yeah” music video—I
find it quite disappointing that fans are turning away from MAMAMOO with ideas
of “they have only been racist this whole time” and such. Now this is not to
excuse their actions, but indeed, we need to realize that a quick label of
“MAMAMOO is racist” gets no one anywhere—and this applies for everything
besides just MAMAMOO.

(On a personal note, I hate the
terms of “liberal” and “conservative” that I have to connote here and more so
if it ties into politics which I never will discuss on this blog; I find these
terms absolutely silly as seldom are people in one category. For example, while
I consider myself socially ethical as
my social views are based ethics and not so much politics or whatever else, I
am easily still labeled as “liberal” in this regard. However, I find that this
one label is insufficient as I know for sure I have and do strongly abide to
specific “conservative” beliefs. For example, I am highly against “hookup culture”—the idea of essentially casual
sexual intercourse—as I have my own beliefs about sex that are, obviously,
“conservative.” And to my surprise, sharing this personal view of mine was
utterly shocking and somewhat appalling to a class and this was when I
discovered there are so many issues with these labels. So, on one hand I am
“liberal” and yet “conservative” on the other and this simple example is why I
dislike those binary labels.)

And so, while fans need to stop
bashing MAMAMOO with labeling them as racist, we still need to understand that
their usage of blackface is still inappropriate. Fans who are offended and
upset are right to feel this way, and that is because even if MAMAMOO was
unintentional with this racist-based act, it still is racist. Thankfully, MAMAMOO and RBW Entertainment have
acknowledged this and are educating themselves on why blackface is
inappropriate—the very fact that they have done this acknowledgement is a
testament to that fact that they do care (and equally openly mentioning that
they wish to include fans of all race, gender, sexuality, and so forth). Also
to bear in mind is that with South Korea being a rather homogenous society,
blackface is perhaps a foreign concept to them—no pun intended on “foreign.” Thus,
the social and racial implications were perhaps something MAMAMOO and their company
were completely unaware of. But as said, they are not to be excused and this is
also something I urge fans to be aware of. While fans should not go to the
extreme of bashing MAMAMOO as racist, neither should fans let this incident
disappear or minimize their use of blackface as something forgettable.

_______________________________________________________

Conclusion:
Where does this all take us now? For
one, this incident reminds us all that racism still needs to be addressed in a
sociological sense—that the racism binary is false and needs to go away if
further progress is to be made. Racism is not an “either” situation as said,
and until that binary goes away, it will be difficult to ever deal with racism
in an upfront manner. After all, what do we glean from discussions that merely
go “MAMAMOO is racist, go away” or “MAMAMOO is not racist and are perfect; you
all are overreacting”? Nothing. To quite literally quote my sociology
professor, “Racism is like smog; we can’t find who is responsible but we all
are responsible for cleaning it up.” This is incredibly true for not just
MAMAMOO’s situation, but for discussions of racism everywhere. Instead of using
racism as a labeling game, fans and MAMAMOO need to instead directly address
racism as a concept. This means addressing implicit biases, acknowledging mistakes,
and ultimately striving to become a more open, compassionate, ethical, better
human being.

All in all, what MAMAMOO did was
incredibly wrong and was racist, but fans need to understand they never
intended to be malicious and racist. Nevertheless, acknowledging of their unintentionally
racism has to occur, and furthermore, the need to understand why blackface is racist is crucial. What
is most amazing to me, though, is the fact that MAMAMOO and RBW Entertainment
have done so: They have acknowledged their use of blackface is racist and
offensive, and they are educating themselves on why blackface is wrong and on
how to prevent future incidents like these from occurring. This growth not as
MAMAMOO but simply as four women trying to do better for others is what needs
to be cherished most. Although I oftentimes hold MAMAMOO as an example of how
all artists should be, I personally find that their acknowledgement and strive
towards improvement with their racist blunder to further prove that point. This is how one addresses racism and
makes progress—not by denying that it was not racist, not caring, or doing
whatever they can to assure others “I am not racist.” Instead, acknowledging their
mistake and then working to educate themselves so that they are more socially aware
and inclusive is what needs to occur.

As for fans, the same should occur
but in regards to removing the racism binary: fans need to understand and
educate themselves on the racism binary, on why MAMAMOO and RBW Entertainment
thought blackface was fine (in other words, understanding South Korea’s
situation with being a homogenous society), and ultimately, fans need to
realize how to be respectful yet still
assertive
with openly calling out their beloved idols. To the fans—both Korean
and international—who did not hesitate to critique MAMAMOO’s actions but did so
in a respectful, calm manner, huge credit to them.

While I hope these incidents become
far and few in the future of K-Pop, I also hope growth occurs for everyone.
Remember: racism is smog; let us stop playing the blaming and labeling binary game,
and let us instead all work together—regardless of our own race—towards a
future where race can be discussed in
a respectful, open manner. Then, perhaps, in the future racism in of itself
will disappear—or at least, discussions can occur and growth will be encouraged
and that no one will be automatically bashed as “racist and evil.”

_______________________________________________________

Given how controversial this topic
is, I assume this post will not render entirely well with everyone. With
MAMAMOO’s situation, as said, how one feels will ultimately be their decision—though
I urge that it is based in critical thinking. Certainly the racism binary needs
to be challenged, but even that can be controversial as some do strongly
believe that one is either entirely non-racist or one is entirely racist. No
matter one’s stances, I simply assert the idea that we need to all be open and
respectful of our various views. Through discussion and maturity will actual
progress be made. For me, I remain a fan of MAMAMOO and to me despite this
incident, they are still my role models—in fact, perhaps even more so as how
they are handling the situation with acknowledging their mistakes and striving
for improvement is truly admirable (even if what they did was not so). However,
even if one is no longer a fan, this is understandable and needs to be
respected.

All in all, I hope this post
provides some deeper insight to the situation especially in a sociological lens
and for those who find this post relevant for its discussion, I do encourage
sharing this around. Ultimately, readers will have to decide on what they think
though in a respectful, thoughtful manner.

Regarding upcoming reviews, BTS’ “Spring
Day” will be out in a few more days, and afterwards TWICE’s  “Knock Knock” will have a relatively thorough
review. After that I have a request for HIGH4’s “Love Line,” and from there we
will see where the remaining posts take us.