K-pop activism makes headlines but Black fans' experience is more complex

They’ve been pushing the movement from within, but the complicated reality for Black fans is continually ignored in fandoms littered with racism and problematic faves.

by Stitch
30 June 2020, 7:00am

At the start of the year, it’s doubtful that anyone’s 2020 bingo card included a tweet from New York representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez thanking “K-pop allies” for snatching up tickets to Trump’s under-attended campaign rally in Tulsa. It probably didn’t have spots for Thor Ragnarok actor Tessa Thompson or late night talk show host John Oliver saying, respectively, that K-pop fans and Jungkook from BTS could “get it” either.

In the past two weeks, K-pop fans have been in the news more than at any point across the past two years. For the most part, it’s all been connected -- positively or negatively -- to what’s being seen as a newfound, and truly unexpected, spark of social activism.

Fans flooded racist hashtags in an attempt to render them useless. They spammed the iWatch Dallas police app with fancams to protect protestors during the recent anti-racism marches. And who could forget their spearheading of fundraising drives through donation matches? After BTS donated $1 million to Black Lives Matter, the accompanying #MatchAMillion project by the fanbase’s dedicated charity organisation, One In An Army, achieved its goal in a day.

But as those actually in K-pop fandoms know, this lot aren’t newcomers to the art of mobilising mass audiences. In fact, they’re pros at it. They come together to ensure their favourite groups top charts and break YouTube records via “streaming parties”, sure, but also when it comes to raising awareness of social issues and important causes. K-pop fandoms regularly raise funds for charities; they donate to those providing aid following natural disasters and humanitarian crises; they plant (and donate) trees; and have, in the past, given literally tons of food to those in need.

So the charitable nature of K-pop fans isn’t at all surprising. But when you consider the causes that fans around the world are supporting and donating to (BLM-related) or what so much of the surrounding media coverage continues to look like (shock, playing effective activism down as “trolling” or “pranks” by teenage girls), that’s where the surprise lies. Glance at the news reports surrounding the involvement of K-pop fans in protests against anti-Blackness and police brutality following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others, and two issues stand out: the way in which the efforts of Black fans are being overlooked, and what’s not being said about the historical issues that K-pop and fandom as a whole have with Blackness.

Let’s start by talking about how little of this coverage even acknowledges that there are Black K-pop fans in the first place. Naturally, the primary people in any fandom spearheading or participating in movements that revolve around Black people are likely to be Black themselves, fighting for something that matters to them directly.

The image of the typical American K-pop fan in the media is, well, not as diverse as it could be. Across the coverage seen in recent weeks, the photos of fans and the voices largely chosen to discuss the activism of K-pop fandoms have pushed the unstated belief that the only fans involved are either Asian American or white, and on top of that, that they’re all teenagers.

Those selected to speak for this movement don’t represent Black fans like Sheem, a 20-year-old ARMY (BTS fan) from Wisconsin who has followed BTS for three years and whose activism wasn’t sparked by her fandom, but was enhanced by it. “Even without my ties to this community, I think I would be fighting just as hard online and offline,” she explains. “But as the majority of the people I follow were involved with the movement, I was able to get a lot of information on Twitter that I may have had to search for if I wasn't surrounded by a community that cared so much about activism.”

For Sheem and other Black fans in the K-pop fandom spaces, their activism is fuelled by their existence as Black people. They were already aware of their Blackness long before BTS, Jay Park, CL or any other idol posted a message of equality with the BLM hashtag tacked onto it. They have had no choice but to be aware of it, because anti-Blackness is everywhere. Including in fandoms.

Which brings us to the second issue: ignoring the existence of Black fans and their complex experiences within K-pop communities. While coverage frames these spaces as a kind of post-racial pop paradise primed for progressive politics, the truth -- for Black fans at least -- is that occupying them can be complicated. “It’s difficult to watch the press praise a group of fans who typically do not support Black fans when it comes to racial critiques regarding a group or artist’s anti-Black behaviour,” says B, a Maryland fan in her thirties whose ult (or main) group is BTS. In addition to using her platform to amplify resources and organisations in need, B also tweeted at BTS, BigHit Entertainment’s chairman and founder Bang Si-Hyuk, and many other associated accounts, urging the group to “open your purse” and make a statement of solidarity.

As welcoming as groups within the different K-pop fandoms can be, they’re ultimately just made up of people, and sometimes people can be terrible. This can take the form of dismissing Black fans’ concerns about idols’ misappropriation when it comes to hip-hop concepts -- like former 2PM rapper Jay Park, a repeat offender when it comes to cultural appropriation -- or labelling Black fans as haters or “antis” for having critical thoughts. Some even experienced an initial pushback from others in their fandoms at the very suggestion that idols use their platforms to speak up.

One fan, Adrianne -- who follows multiple groups including BTS, Red Velvet and EXO -- talked about how being a part of her primary fandom has been frustrating at best. “ARMY is usually a mixed bag,” she says. “Despite BTS expressing appreciation for Black art forms, apologising when they've offended and promoting a message of love and acceptance, some ARMY are openly racist when Black ARMY bring up anything that even slightly critiques the group.”

This kind of behaviour in K-pop fandom spaces isn’t locked to a single region or to a particular artists’ fandom. When Winner member Jinu came under fire for wearing a “dreadlock” wig and appearing to mock Black people earlier this year, for example, die-hard fans proceeded to insult Black fans who, quite rightly, took issue with his problematic behaviour, accusing them of being upset “for clout”. Then, when NCT 127’s Taeil was shown wearing a Lynyrd Skynyrd tee with a Confederate flag on it in the concept photos for their latest release, some fans made it their mission to “clear the searches” and shout down Black fans expressing frustration. Some seem intent on drowning out critical comments on artists’ social media when they’re doing something wrong -- as they did on Instagram live when rapper Yun B was discussing his right to play Biggie Smalls in a musical version of the Tupac biopic, All Eyez On Me.

K-pop fandoms have not always been places where Black fans are able to be themselves, to share their thoughts and feelings on Blackness (or how their idol favourites perform Blackness) and be respected for it. The issues that Black fans in any K-pop fandom have brought up -- be it unapologetic blackface as a Halloween costume (as with Yesung from Super Junior); cultural misappropriation from at least a dozen idols donning cornrows or locs; and even artists dropping the N-word in both covers of songs and their own original music -- have all been met with some level of backlash from die-hard fans who aren’t Black. “Black fans are met with a lot of dogpiling, name calling (the N-word and other racial slurs) and even death threats when they point out racism,” says B. “And if a fandom is going to support the BLM movement, they need to support Black fans experiencing racism outside of these protests.”

Thankfully, the way in which many fans aren’t just participating in activism, but listening to and reaching out to Black fans as they educate themselves, is something that provides hope for the future. This focus on being better and in supporting a cause that directly opposes anti-Blackness is something that has felt far removed from K-pop fandoms in recent times. If this kind of energy remains, along with the new consideration of Black members of fandom, it seems possible that the momentum of the wider Black Lives Matter movement will be echoed in the coming together of fans. It could be established as a long-lasting change to the fandom.

As Ashley Griffin, a K-pop fan since 2012, who is in her 30s and runs the Album A Day podcast points out: “When these fans support the movement from a sincere space of solidarity and genuine interest in seeing and making the world a better place, we'll be able to see less cultural misappropriation, harassment, racism and prejudice.”

There is always hope. However, if coverage continues to frame K-pop fandom as a teenage girl-run utopia where everyone just gets along, where anti-racism is a fact of fandom, it makes it harder for Black fans who’ve been in these spaces for years to feel as though they’re being seen and heard. And when the progressive politics and fan activism directly relates back to them, that’s a problem that needs to be fixed.