By Stephanie Parker, co-host of The Kpopcast
On a recently published episode of the #Kpopchat hosted on Twitter spaces https://soundcloud.com/kpopcastshow/when-k-pop-fandom-harms-communities-of-color , I shared a part of my life story I don’t talk about very much on The Kpopcast. I would like to share some of it in more detail here in the newsletter. The episode was about how K-pop fandom harms communities of color, especially black people. I will not name the participants here, in case they would prefer to remain private/non-searchable.
The conversation warmed up right away, with black K-pop podcasters and fans detailing the racist harm they have endured, ultimately honing in on racism from other black K-pop fans as a particular source of anger, confusion, and pain. These fans either remain silent in the presence of racist harassment happening, or actively defend K-pop idols who have done harm; which is “disappointing,” according to one #Kpopchat panelist, because it makes it hard to tell who we can trust in these unsafe online spaces.
One podcaster on the call earnestly asked, “how can you be so lost, that you go against your own self? If you are black and anti-black, then where are you black?” I felt a mix of sensations rise up in my body: my heart dropped into my stomach — fear; heat gathered around my jaw — embarrassment. My inner child, who struggled with feeling black enough to fit in, was called up by these questions.
Little Stephanie, around 10 years old, used to beg her parents to buy the velour Juicy tracksuits and AF1s that she thought would help her be accepted by the cool black kids. She practiced dancing to hip-hop music videos in front of the mirror for days on end, hoping to execute the moves so perfectly that no one could tease her anymore for “acting and talking white“. I especially enjoyed hip-hop music and dance; I felt like a badass and a star rapping in perfect rhythm and performing my practiced hip swirls in a dance battle circle to a chorus of middle school applause.
But this strategy of intense homestudy and imitation of “popular black culture“ didn’t take me very far. At home, I was taught and absorbed the idea that my family is “the right kind of black people,” who speak “proper English,” dress modestly, and follow all authority. The wrong kind of black people, by comparison, “speak ebonics,” wear revealing fashion, misbehave in class, and should generally not be associated with. Take a moment to pause here, and notice what feelings or memories come up for you when I describe these two “types” of people. Do you remember receiving similar messages growing up, about the type of people your family are (Black or otherwise)?
My parents instilled this philosophy in me because they wanted me to be safe, In a world where Black people are hunted and killed daily for the slightest infraction or nothing at all. Every time I and my family behaved in ways that sought white validation, we were rewarded with the grades, promotions, relative comfort, and safety. There are very real benefits that cannot be overstated. This is a catch-22 that every black person Has to navigate in some way.
The clash between the values I picked up at home, which can be called “Black respectability politics,” and my desires to be accepted by the popular black kids group, full of, of course, “the wrong kind of black people,” could not be resolved. I found myself reflexively correcting my black classmates’ grammar and guilting them about not completing homework. One day, a member of the group told me not to join their lunch table anymore: “you’re just a follower, and nobody likes having you around.”
I was devastated. I had been trying so hard to belong, and it all came out to nothing. In the end, the kids had seen through me, they saw that I wasn’t really one of them. That’s when I decided I just wouldn’t even bother with the black community anymore. After all, they were rude to me, they were scary, and they didn’t “hold the same values” of education, following the rules, and becoming respectable and successful like I did (or so I thought). I started referring to myself as mixed or biracial instead of black (to clarify, this is not necessarily the same reason that other people call themselves mixed/biracial). When a black kid in class got in trouble, I identified with the teacher, and shook my head in disappointment at the kids behavior; if a Black man got arrested or even killed in the news, I detached emotionally from the event and told myself “he should’ve followed the rules.” These were all ways to rationalize what had happened to me, to shield my vulnerable heart from the pain of feeling rejected earlier in life.
The day after I exited the black kids group, I remember carrying my lunch tray around the yard with nowhere to go. Totally isolated, I looked around that all of the different groups, basically separated by race at their own tables. When I reached the group of Korean students, some of their faces lit up in recognition; they remembered me from class and welcomed me to join them. Over the following days, I remember sampling home-cooked kimbap and kimchi (mind-blowingly delicious!), Learning the names of attractive Korean, Japanese, and Taiwanese pop idols whose cut out photos were pasted onto my new friends notebooks and binders, and sharing earbuds through which I got my first taste of k-pop. K-Pop was literally music to my ears; it sounded like the videos I loved to dance to as a child, but without the painful connection to black people I wanted to forget. If I danced or sang along to these songs, my new friends would automatically be impressed and would feel appreciative that I took time to learn, because I wasn’t Korean.
I was over the moon, so excited to belong to a group, To feel like I could relax and not be anxious, and to be introduced to this exciting new culture. I went home and researched as much online about Asian culture as I could; downloading music videos and dramas, Reading Wikipedia articles and history books, and of course, studying both Japanese and Korean language, so I would have phrases and gestures to show my classmates. I 100% ACED one of those online quizzes, “you’re a real Asian if you know these 100 things.” I had Oppas and Unnis galore. Every now and then, a Korean friend would say, “I don’t even see you as black, you’re basically Asian on the inside” or, better yet “you’re more Korean than me!” And this would just make. my. day. Little Stephanie, my inner child had finally made it!
“How can you be so lost, that you go against your own self? If you are black and anti-black, then where are you black?”
This is how a black child can become so lost and they go against their own self; how someone can be black and anti-black at the same time. It’s my story of how I personally benefited from seeking validation in the Asian K-pop community, and and later became someone who dismissed Black K-pop fans bringing up racism as “haters” and “too angry.”
Eventually, I learned the hard way that anti-blackness always leads to isolation in the end, and I may share how those lessons showed up for me in a future edition of the newsletter. I share this current story of my inner child in hopes that it can spark recognition in some other k-pop fans, Who may have had similar experiences. The #Kpopchat asked our panel how fandom harms communities of color. In my case, k-pop fandom added fuel to the fire of my internalized shame.