My name is Olalekan and I am a Nigerian-Canadian who is teaching English in Seoul, South Korea. As I have explained to many of my friends back home, living in South Korea as an African man is comparable to living in Western society before the civil rights movement came to be.
Those who believe that South Korea is developed in terms of race relations after watching the recent World Cup or the 1988 Olympics are in fact sorely mistaken. The level of intolerance towards those who are not Korean is extremely high. I believe it is my duty to inform the masses of the recent racist act s being promoted in the Entertainment industry by a group of people that believe it is ok as long as their society is homogenous.The Bubble Sisters (signed to Universal Music Korea) are the newest Korean pop sensation. It is a group of four Korean girls in their mid-twenties who have a surprising amount of vocal talent when compared to their other pop counterparts. All this may seem harmless to you but please read on.
When the girls perform their music they are in blackface with plastic lips to exaggerate the features of an African person. There bodies are completely covered black to match their faces, in the same fashion of "Amos & Andy", as they wear pajamas. One of the members even has rollers in her hair.
Whether a direct result of this media ploy or not the group has managed to sell more records than its competition. Besides the blatant mockery of African people by this group, what I find really troublesome is that the group, the media, nor the governmental censorship board has a problem with what the Bubble Sisters are doing. The censorship board in Korea is notorious for being extremely conservative and has been known to ban songs citing sexually charged lyrics. When the review board was asked about why Park Ji-Yoon’s (famous Korean pop singer) new single, "Can you do it?" they were quoted as saying, "Some of the lyrics described sexual activity … if you hear the song, you can imagine the act of intercourse.’When confronted about the issue of their act being racist, Nanda the lead singer of the Bubble Sisters, responded, "We want to undermine the typical Korean band, who -are pretty but don’t have any talent, and open doors to musically talented people who, if they don’t fit into this compartment, are usually forced underground." She also went on to state, "We love black music." In their video the four girls jump around and intentionally distort their faces. "We just thought it was fun to play around with the image, we didn’t mean to link ugliness to being black," said Nanda.
In my disgust at the Bubble Sisters gimmick I decided to question others about the situation to gauge whether I was overreacting. I first started with my students who in all honesty believed I was getting too upset over what they deemed a minor situation. I soon discovered as I questioned more Koreans about the Bubble Sisters that the consensus was the same. "It’s not racist and the group didn’t know they were being racist because Korea is a country that is homogenous and not exposed to foreigners," was the general response I got. This argument seems to be accepted with ease in South Korea by both Koreans and foreigners alike. I believe it to be an excuse to maintain and perpetuate racism.
In proving this argument to be invalid I start off by citing Hollywood movies. In most Hollywood movies a Korean is portrayed as the corner-store owner who speaks little to no English and hassles anyone who is not Korean. When South Koreans see this portrayal of their people they are very quick to state how racist and insensitive Hollywood is being towards Koreans, yet when they see an African person being portrayed as the drug-dealing thug, this concept is easily accepted as truth. When asked why they accept this portrayal of the African person and not that of the Korean person, most of the Koreans I interviewed shrugged their shoulders and said, "I don’t know." When the James Bond movie "Die Another Day" was being released worldwide, the issue in South Korea was how global society could accept a movie that was racist in its portrayal of the North Korean military. Protests and boycotts were held outside movie theaters that carried the movie, and in front of the American embassy in Seoul.When foreigners expressed their anger over the Bubble Sisters’ blackface antics, the groups marketing director Rob Seo sarcastically responded, "To the one percent of people who were offended by this, we’re really sorry." To me if the people who were involved in promoting this image to the masses were truly sorry, television stations would have pulled the group’s video and changed the album cover, which portrays the girls painted black. But no such steps have been taken. In this case actions would truly speak louder than sarcastic words!
Beyond the Bubble Sisters there are other reasons why I do not accept the "homogenous society" argument for South Koreans’ apparent ignorance of racism. If a society argues it is simply oblivious to the racial sensitivities of other cultures and therefore not to blame, I ask why do the Koreans have a derogatory word for an African person that most Korean-Canadians and Korean-Americans equate to "Nigger?" This word is "Gum-Doong-Ee", and I found out its meaning after being tired of hearing it so often when Koreans see me on the subway.What is not realized by the majority of South Koreans is that allowing groups like the Bubble Sisters to perpetuate racism ultimately affects their own society on various levels. First, the Korean youth is affected, being a group that has the greatest exposure to the Bubble Sisters’ form of entertainment. Young children are so very innocent in the dealings of what is right and what is wrong, that when they watch the Bubble Sisters’ portrayal of African people they will believe that this behavior is acceptable in all societies. And if by chance these young children travel to a multicultural country such as Canada or the United States and mimic what they learned by watching the Bubble Sisters, they may find themselves in a dangerous situation as a result of offending an African person.
A student of mine told me of a stressful ordeal which he experienced at a nightclub in Toronto, Canada when his friend who he was visiting introduced him to her African friend. He greeted his friend’s companion by saying, "What’s up Ni**a," at which point his friend’s companion was prepared to knock him senseless. Luckily for my student, his friend was able to explain to her companion that this was his first time overseas and he did not know what he was saying. When I asked my student where he got the ridiculous idea to greet an African person in that manner, he replied that he had watched a Korean program where a Korean pop actor was explaining the way African people act in other countries.
Another instance where this perpetuation of racism will effect the Korean society is simply on a global level, in a world where we must deal with a growing population of various people. It is important that we are properly educated on how to be racially sensitive to those of differing backgrounds if are goal is live in harmony. My plea is that you help me bring awareness to those people in positions of power that can create change where the issue of the Bubble Sisters is concerned. I believe that if we inform the Hip Hop and R&B community in Western society that is revered in South Korea, we will be able to force the music and television stations that have been promoting the Bubble Sisters thus far to shut them down. Xzibit performed here a week ago and I do not think he would have done so had he known about the Bubble Sisters. We must get artists such as Nas, Jay-Z, Eminem, 50 Cent, Mary J. Blige, and so on to have their representatives in South Korea contact the local entertainment moguls and insist that they do not want their videos or music to be played on the same programs or stations as those from the Bubble Sisters.
If we can force the South Korean entertainment industry to decide between our great foreign imports and the Bubble Sisters, I am confident that the Bubble Sisters will be terminated. I want to thank you for taking the time to read this article and I implore you to fight racism on all fronts in every society, and not just when it directly affect you or your own people.
Finally, it is important that I state that I do not believe all South Koreans are racist – it would be foolish for me to do so, especially when I have met and befriended many. Instead this article is directed at those who are willing to make excuses and avoid the issue when it is brought to them.