Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Why do Koreans Take on Black Music?

Dear Korean,

When I listen to Korean radio stations I hear 90's R&B imitations, right down to the 'oohs' and 'aahs'. For a nation of people that look down on blacks, why adopt the music and dance?

Andrea


There are certain dumb questions that get asked in high frequency, and this has been one of them.

First of all, let's make sure to state what the Korean has stated numerous times before:  racism in Korea against darker-skinned folks is real. If you are a darker-skinned foreigner in Korea, you will be treated differently from Koreans. That much is true.

What makes this question dumb is the inability to distinguish different shades of racism. No one -- certainly not the Korean, who has written many, many posts decrying racism -- disputes that racism is vile. Yet there plainly is a difference between the type of racism behind firing off a callous racist joke, and the same behind burning a cross on an African American's front yard. Many, however, slap the same "racism" label across the board and refuse to think much further. The result is a dumb question like this one.

This inability is not simply annoying. It damages and delegitimizes our ability to address racism effectively. Our response against racist actions must be graduated (that is, be put forth in various differing degrees) according to the depth and effect of the racism behind those actions. Failure to do so reduces the fight against racism to a butthurt, over-sensitive arm-waving. It turns the fight against racism into a joke.

Why do Koreans take on black music? Come on. United States in the 1950s was incomparably more racist than Korea today. There was an official policy of segregation for much of the country; most institutions for social mobility (e.g. colleges) were unavailable to African Americans; rape and lynching were common, and no one was ever convicted for those crimes. Yet Elvis Presley -- who expressly acknowledged the African American roots of his music -- was the greatest superstar of that decade. Gee, why did a white American like Elvis adopt black music and dance?

Allow the Korean to reiterate:  racism in Korea is real. A lot of Koreans genuinely believe that color of your skin is associated with the content of your character. Foreigners with darker skin are often treated poorly, especially if they are in a situation to pose a threat to Korea's racial majority. But that does not mean that a black person would be pelted with stones while walking down the streets of Seoul. That does not mean that Koreans have a categorical and unflinching stance of rejection toward everything African or African American. Koreans take black music and dance for the same reason anyone else did -- because they are beautiful and awesome.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

38 comments:

  1. When I lived in Saudi Arabia, the lite skin Arabs were racist toward the dark skin Arabs. It was the same in Kenya. I watched lite skin Kenyans beat dark skin Kenyans. I watched Mexicans being racist to Puerto Ricans.

    I concluded from observations in my world travels, that lite skin people are racist toward dark skin people.

    I do agree with the Korean that it is a dumb question. I know why my mom hate African Americans. She has been robed by them many times.

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    1. Well I think you are wrong about Kenya. There is no racism in Kenya, it is only the tribe issue.

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  2. Dear Korean, I like most of your posts which are informative, balanced too but this one different e.g."If you are a darker-skinned foreigner in Korea, you will be treated differently from Koreans." and what about dark skinned Korean!! plus,"A lot of Koreans genuinely believe that color of your skin is associated with the content of your character." - isn't this rather too far stupid, just like the Q here ? If we believe this belief then we should not hate Hitler also for his strange belief !! What is your opinion.

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    1. I think you have missed the entire point of this post. To compare Koreans to a mass murderer like Hitler is careless. While racism exists in Korea (as it does everywhere in the world), I think you'd be hard pressed to find a single Korean who would actually wish violence and harm on somebody based on skin color or race. Like TK said, there are different degrees of prejudice and saying something like "I would never marry someone darker than me" is very different from saying "All people darker than me ought to be killed."

      Racism is an extremely complex issue. To be able to talk about it constructively, one must avoid making sweeping claims/implications that create more misconceptions and animosity. Nobody likes to be insulted, and to equate prejudice with the kind of hate that Hitler possessed is essentially a means to shutting down the conversation.

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  3. Thanks for the in-depth answer to this rather juvenile question and for pointing out that there are indeed different degrees of racism that need to be treated differently to

    @Thomas: Your mother might have a "reason," but most don't other than social conditioning. We're not born racist.
    @Envy: Yes, I've seen my Korean students shamelessly use "n" or "black" to refer to their "darker skinned" classmates. Still doesn't compare to their treatment of actual black people or migrants from the Phillipines, etc. And the Korean is simply stating the truth, not supporting this type of attitude. This is a culture where appearance is everything.

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    1. Social conditioning is mostly created by observations. Many Koreans in my area have a good reason being racist toward Africa Americans. One main reason is getting robbed by them. And the LA riots made their hatred deeper.

      But Korea is not the only Northern Asian country that is racist toward dark skin people. In Taiwan and Japan they are mean to dark skin people and to the folks from South Asia. They see those folks as servants or day labors.

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    2. That's not a good reason at all. Some black guys robbed me so now I hate all black people? Come on...

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    3. Haha I have to agree with Goulip because if a white person robbed them i'm pretty sure it'd make a difference! Black person robs me: I hate them all! Burn them! White person robs me: I guess i'll just have to get some new stuff, this sucks but not all white people are like the one who robbed me so whenever I see one i'll just ogle over the fact their a foreigner and have nice hair rather than glare and call them crackers (this is what they'd do to a black person but you know switching around some words XD)

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  4. I don't think it's that dumb of a question. What you say about White America stealing extensively from African-American culture in the 1950s is true, but America is a nation that has a large black minority population, so it's unsurprising that black culture has had a big impact there.

    What is remarkable about Korea's "affinity" (if I may call it that) for black music and culture is that I don't see any similar phenomenon in neighboring countries like Japan and China. I don't think it's wrong to say that black music and dance seems to have an unusually strong appeal to Koreans (as opposed to other Asians), nor is it stupid to wonder what the cause of this affinity might be.

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    1. Jazz music is REALLY popular in Japan though and that's a "Black music" if ever there was one. Jazz is definitely more popular in Japan than it is in the US.

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  5. Somebody actually asked me how could Will Smith be so popular in Korea, since everybody knows Koreans hate dark-skinned folks. This had me wondering if this person was just an idiot, or if she was a victim of all the anti-Korean malice on certain websites I need not name. Mostly it made me sad.

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    1. An African American told me this. Will Smith acts white and that is why many white people accept him.

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    2. It's not that Will Smith acts "white" that makes him so popular, it's because he only makes movies where Caucasian people are the majority of the cast and he is usually the only African American lead actor, except maybe if he has a love interest who will be usually African American herself or perhaps hispanic. If Will Smith were to do movies with a predominantly African American cast then he wouldn't have been as popular as he is today. Fresh Prince was only popular because the cast didn't exactly act like the African American stereotype and they were a rich upper class family. It was more "safe" than other African American sitcoms that are out there today.

      People watch what they relate to and because the majority of the people in the US are Caucasian, Caucasians will relate more to other Caucasian people than they do to African Americans. That's why it's so easy for people to accept Will Smith. He is different but not too different so they feel they can't relate to his movies at all.

      And to answer the person who asked the question to the Korean: People will steal music as long as it's good, regardless of ethnicity, gender and religion.

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  6. It's not a dumb question. I just think you're the wrong person to ask. There are black bloggers that had bad experiences because they were black. Why is it dumb to expect that South Koreans wouldn't like black culture, if actual black people feel looked down on in South Korea?

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  7. "...if some actual black people sometimes feel looked down on in South Korea by some Koreans".

    There, fixed it for ya.

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    1. This is way late but...don't marginalize racism. That's racist.

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  8. Thomas, then according to that guy's reasoning, Will Smith must also act Korean when the whites aren't looking.

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  9. Music is universal and there is a style of music for everyone. Now every style of music is not for everybody, but isn't it great that we can choose the style we like and have the freedom to listen to it? In some parts of the world, people don't have this option.

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  10. I noticed Koreans prefer white skin, but when I first came here my skin was sooooooo dark, tanned from the strong Croatian sunshine. Now I'm very pale, as I have been living in Korea for almost two years. But I never really encountered difficulties because of my once dark skin back then. And when I met my Korean boy too, my skin was very very dark.

    As for the music, a huge percentage of modern pop and rock comes right from the traditional African music, so you will probably be listening and enjoying stuff without even knowing where it came from.

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  11. hello:) I'm Korean! I do disagree what you said. It is fact that we have racial discrimination. Since we were young, we've always seen some mediae which says black people do bad things. I think it is same in other countries. So we have a bias against black people without realizing it. But I am sure that these days we don't have such a racism any more. Because we can meet many nice black people very easily. For instance, Michael Jordan, Oprah Winfrey, Barack Hussein Obama and so on. Even we respect them, we read some books about their life. What is more my favorite actor is Will Smith! Anyway what I want to say is that even though we have racism, it's not because of skin color. It can be because of history or subjective experience or GDP maybe?!! It just reflects personal taste. Same as I like black people but I don't like theirs music!

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  12. It was not a dumb question. There aren't a lot of dumb questions that can be asked. There are a) people who need a larger perspective on the world and b) people who have impatience with the task of expanding other people's perspectives.

    The success of Elvis Presley is proof of racism at that time America. Colonel Tom Parker was looking for a white boy who could sing like a black man, and he knew if he found him he could make a million dollars. He probably made a lot more. The color bar continued in American music until the day that Michael Jackson recorded "Billie Jean."

    Korea is still in the space between Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson. Who knows how long that will last ... ? We will wait and see.

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  13. I also think it's an interesting question, and even challenging from a sociological perspective. In my country, people often discriminate on the darker ones (does it sound any familiar?) but at the clubs it's all about cumbia, salsa, reggae, African-Peruvian music, and all sort of genres that have nothing to do with most clubbers reality. The fact that you enjoy certain genre does not necessarily mean you share such social/ethnic group's identity. And, of course, it doesn't mean you accept or appreciate these particular ethnic group. As people say here -sadly- 'You dance with their music but you don't let your daughter marry one of them.'

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  14. I almost didn't want to bother, because I'm obviously in the minority here. But truthfully I don't believe in different degrees of racism. I do believe different people express it differently. I don't think the people who lynched and raped African Americans were more racist than the ones who didn't. They were simply more violent people, period, and African Americans were an acceptable target for their aggression and violent behavior.

    The Nazi's proved that a casual prejudice can easily lead people to commit or stand by while it's being committed, genocide. Not everyone who was antisemetic was in the SS or the Gestapo, many were just regular citizens.

    Basically that kind of thinking is dehumanizing for the people that it targets in all it's forms. Whether you act negatively on it or not. I think this a fallacy of thinking that leads racism to flourish.

    People think well I don't like black people, but at least I'm not in the KKK.

    It's still the same racism. Some people express it overtly, a small minority of people, other people just hide it and express it casually.

    Koreans are racist towards dark skin but they may just not express it violently or even very overtly. Don't many northeast asian countries have entire social codes that thrive on subtext anyway?

    And most genocides are political. Leaders twist personal and societal prejudices to fit a political agenda. In the US, lynchings were about maintaining the social order which was heavily dependent upon black people being at bottom of society and "knowing their place". In Germany also, many Jews property was immediately seized by jealous neighbors. One of the reasons why Switzerland had to pay many Holocaust victims families reparations for knowingly processing money and wealth that they knew had to be stolen. Most people at the time hated the Jews for their supposed wealth. And as soon as they were hauled off to concentration camps that's the first thing that German people seized.

    Even in Bosnia, those genocides were conducted with the purpose of clearing the Muslim segment of the population off the land they occupied. This is the "banality of evil" that people discuss when they talk to the perpetrators of genocide how shockingly "normal" their demeanor and attitude is and how they explain their actions and their usual lack of guilt.

    Usually, by the time a genocide is underway, the target of it has been dehumanized to the point that they can be easily killed.

    But the first step is racism.

    It would being interesting to know what purpose "dark skin prejudice" serves in Korean society. I know much of it has to do with the fact that dark skin is historically associated with poverty and manual labor. Whereas fair skin is associated with being indoors and being wealthy enough not to work or have to spend much time outdoors. I always assumed in many countries this was the case even today, societies changing very little over time.

    Is this the case in Korea? Or is racism just being hoisted onto Korean society from America through media. Or is it a combination of both?

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    1. Your comment is the only one that makes sense to me on this site. Different degrees of racism??? Racism is racism no matter how you choose to express it. It's all the same. The rest of the bloggers are just in denial.

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  15. The thing I don't get is...given Korea's experience with the Japanese during WWII, and indeed most of the Asian countries you
    would think that as a society they'd be less susceptible to this kind of thinking.

    But I guess that whole "minorities sticking together thing" just does not work in reality although it works well in theory.

    When I see PoC being prejudiced against one another I just think..."Why? Aren't we basically in the same position?"

    Not a like "can't we all just get along" but, "Hey if we work together we can accomplish a lot since we're basically being threatened by the same thing." But...alas.

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  16. You know what I think the question is foul, because 1) It generalized all Koreans as racist and ignorant and 2) because the author assume that even the racist people in Korea like "black" music or whatever.

    But I believe saying that there is a degree in racism is just wrong. How do you explain to someone who is being hated on, and treated like trash because of the color of their skin that there is a difference between nice racist and mean racist? There is no such thing as right or wrong racism. In my book, no matter in which manner it is done the belittling of another human being, reducing him to a status less than that of a human, done nicely or not are one and the same. Does it matter if you're killing me with a smile on your face or with a mean look? At the end of the day, I'm still dead. Racism didn't get together with Korean people and make 3rd degree racism. As a person who is been harassed because of my skin color how do I know that one day you won't just decide to act on you blatant racism and commit a serious crime like killing me? Before Hitler there was hatred, prejudices and racism, then Hitler channeled it towards the Holocaust. It takes one crazy for things to get ugly. You may take something as a harmless joke but I may perceive it as something totally different. Not only we should be the victim of someone else's racist acts (small or otherwise), but we should also be the victims that are considerate enough not to distinguish what degree of racism it is? This is total bs. When feelings get hurt, feelings get hurt.

    Another point. It was clear that the majority of if not all Elvis's songs were stolen. Yes he acknowledged that they had black "roots" (asshole could not even bring himself to say that he stole them), but that did not keep him from using the black artists and make money off of them. What is acknowledgement when the artist died poor, and his family lived in starvation. Acknowledgement don't pay the bills or feed children. All Elvis's children are set for life

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    1. WRONG! Please stop perpetuating a lie about Elvis and his treatment of blacks! Otis Blackwell's daughter says he was well-compensated for his music with Elvis. It was Col. Parker who put Elvis' name on the songs in order to grab writing royalties.

      Additionally, the EP estate was nearly broke when he died. Priscilla created the financial empire it is today. He also had 1 child. I'm black and am sick & tired of the lies. JET magazine addressed this issue in the 1960s!!! Get it right!

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  17. You yourself said: "racism in Korea against darker-skinned folks is real. If you are a darker-skinned foreigner in Korea, you will be treated differently from Koreans. That much is true." "Allow the Korean to reiterate: racism in Korea is real. A lot of Koreans genuinely believe that color of your skin is associated with the content of your character. Foreigners with darker skin are often treated poorly".

    I do not understand why you felt the need to randomly insert the U.S. when the topic at hand is dealing with Korea...not the United States. Discrimination is discrimination period. The young lady's question was not stupid by any means. I myself have seen this question repeatedly and have been wondering the same. Surely if Koreans (most, not all) frown upon darker skin and believe the color of one's skin is associated with the content of one's character, than you can understand why someone such as Andrea would be puzzled as to why Koreans would want anything to do with African American culture/art/entertainment etc. It's almost somewhat... of a contradiction. If I expressed a disdain towards, hmm, let's say Russians, but I loved and showed an interest in Russian culture/art/entertainment etc, is that not confusing?

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    1. Bruin, if you put some thought into it you could probably name countless examples of this "contradiction" everywhere. I think the point TK is making is that people take shit they like no matter what their view of the originators.

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    2. I appreciate your comment. However this discussion is in address to a specific topic, and I would rather us stay on point than to branch off and excuse everything by saying there are "contradictions everywhere." Again, this is address a SPECIFIC topic. There's no need to branch off. TK just simply walked around the issue; assuming that he has no real answer or argument of defense and he knows it. Considering that that TK is Asian of Korean descent, I would think one would understand how irritating it must be to have one's culture constantly appropriated and exploited.

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    3. My discussion of U.S. racism is anything but "random," as you put it. I would recommend reading the post again, and giving some thought about why I discussed the racism in U.S., and its relation to American music.

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  18. I think more people in our world need to take responsibility for the fact that Black people (who are in actuality usually some variant of the color brown, but are lazily and ignorantly called black to purposely associate them with a color that symbolizes evil and other negative things) are a scapegoated group. It started during slavery (or even before I suppose) and continues today. Too many people act like sheep and follow the group instead of thinking for themselves. No one is born a bigot! It's learned! Willingly! And I've always wondered if black people are so inferior and others are so superior. Why does that superiority not come to the forefront when these "superior" others are dealing with this alleged "inferior'' group. Tsk, Tsk. How contradictory! How ignorant also! Cowards act this way and imo sociopaths. But what do I know? I'm human too and have my issues. But I do know that scapegoating isn't one of them. And ultimately God (Jesus) will judge us all one day. And I don't know about you but I don't want him to ask me what I did to uplift my fellow man when he was being bullied.

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    1. This was the best comment I've read all morning. I have sat up for ours pondering and calculating the reason behind why dark skin is so feverishly hated by all cultures and not just the Koreans. However this answer was the most accurate, conclusive and TRUTHFUL statement yet. Racism is Racism. Period. Hatred us Hatred. To look down on an individual BORN with dark skin and automatically ASSUME their character to be negative is just as WRONG and hate filled as a KKK member looking down on dark people and assuming they are less than simply because of SKIN. At the end if the day when you cut someone of any race we ALL bleed RED. We're ALL human and no amount of: Class, Wealth, Status, Fame nor Upbringing(farmer or executive) should merit the means for human beings to hate and discriminate against other human beings.

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  19. Sad :( i wanted to study there, but i cant deal with all of that. The Korean Culture is something i love to study and i want to learn more about, its just sad that i wouldn't be able to do that up close. I am a light skinned black female but my skin is probably still too dark for their liking :/ oh well (starts to cry a little)

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    1. I feel your pain! I am dark-skinned, so it is an issue that I have to deal with when traveling. Sometimes it IS a matter of personal safety.

      HOWEVER!! Don't let that stop you. Use the Internet to locate other black expatriates who can help you do what you want to do.

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    2. As a Korean, I can definitely say that if you're in Seoul or any large city and you're studying Korean culture and really love it, you'll be greeted warmly by most people. I'd actually recommend studying mostly in smaller cities because they tend to be less racist and more open to people in general, away from the superficiality of the capital. Like any country, showing effort to speak Korean and learn about Korea will earn you respect, not hate

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