A little more perspective on Korea’s most recent blackface incident
I know it’s tired by now. The blackface incedent has been talked about to death by this point, mostly by people who are not black themselves. I didn’t really have much to say about it though. It’s not because I don’t care, it’s more because other bloggers have basically said practically everything I want to say. But in a previous post I heavily criticized the sheer amount of condemnation for Korea or Koreans emanating from the K-blogosphere over the issue. I must reiterate again, that I don’t in any way approve of what happened. I think that it was and is wrong to make fun of other races of people, and ignorance is not enough of an excuse, especially when this is not the first time it happened, and there was a high profile backlash the last few times it happened.
So if this is your view, then why were you so critical of other bloggers and their judgement of Korean society based on this incident?
I said what I said because I learned about the incident from a Korean who hasn’t spent a long time overseas, who was outraged over it. I said that you can’t make a blanket generalization of the whole society based on one incident alone, without proper context. Saying that Korea is a racist country because this kind of thing is tolerated isn’t really fair, nor is it particularly constructive.
Take a look at that guy in the picture. He’s a pretty famous guy. (John Lennon for those who are too young to recognize him, though honestly that would be hard for me to believe).
WTF does John Lennon have anything to do with this?
Is John Lennon a racist?
You heard me…. Is John Lennon a racist?
You’re kidding me right? The guy who wrote the song Imagine? The guy who wrote Give Peace a Chance? Basically one of the most influential figures of the 1960’s and the civil rights movement? The self-proclaimed feminist? The man hated by “the man?” You have got to be kidding! No way! John Lennon was not a racist! He was the personification of peace, tolerance, and brotherhood of man! Did you ever listen to his music? Come on Euge, what the F are you talking about?
Woah woah! Slow down! I agree, John Lennon was not a racist, and stood for the end of racism and peace and love between all men and women.
What’s your point then?
I’ll get to my point after the jump.
Okay now watch this video. If you don’t want to sit through the beginning, skip to 3:38
Okay. Now that you watched that video…
John Lennon, the personification of social activism and liberal thought did the following:
1. Admitted that he makes Pearl Harbor jokes with his wife.
2. Mocked Japanese accented English.
3. Mocked a traditional Japanese form of art, Kabuki, thereby mocking Japan’s culture.
4. Mocked the Japanese language with what I would equate with “Ching Chong”.
5. Used a racial slur, “Nip.”
[Edit: The Hip Nip was what Pat Morita (Mr. Miyagi from those Karate Kid Films) was calling himself as a stand up comedian back then. But Lennon didn’t say THE Hip Nip at first. He said only the hip Nips would get his Kabuki mockery…]
You can clearly see, that EVEN JOHN LENNON while SITTING NEXT TO HIS JAPANESE BORN WIFE said and did some of the most offensive things towards Japanese people I have EVER seen in my life. This would ABSOLUTELY not fly today, and if John Lennon had said these things today his career would suffer immensely.
But his wife is Japanese and she thought it was funny…
No, I’m sorry, I can’t let anyone continue down that train of thought. First.. the fact that his wife is Japanese does not give him the right to say things offensive to Japanese. Even if Yoko was fine with it, validation by one member of another group does not mean the rest of the group will also welcome it. This line of defense sounds vaguely familiar, like the people who do some of the most racist stuff ever, then claim to not be racist because they have friends of another race. Weak sauce defense!
I don’t really know why Yoko Ono let that kind of stuff fly, but anytime any of my non-Korean ex-girlfriends did anything even remotely similar to what John did, it was kind of a deal breaker. (Thankfully it didn’t happen that often, but there was one girl who used to call me her little half-Asian boy… Yeah I didn’t really appreciate that, and yes it did contribute to my decision to break up with her.) I have not followed Yoko Ono’s career, statements, or activism in depth, but I don’t understand why she sits there and takes it, or worse, encourages it. All I can say is that perhaps there is just a sliver of truth to the fact that it was a different time.
Yes, it was a different time back then and…
Yes, at THAT time in history, the civil rights movement was centered around blacks and women. People somehow didn’t realize that Asians, Latinos, Homosexuals, and any other type of minority ALSO deserved respect and civil rights. This was a time when it was still accepted to call people Oriental, where every representation of Asian men and women on TV and in the movies was based on stereotypes, and children in kindergarten classes were reading the story of a “Chinese” boy with a really long name who almost died because his brother could not remember how to say it as he was running around trying to find help. Teachers were being PAID to basically teach kids to be racist to Asians back then, but you’d be hung if you even said the word “nigger” merely to discuss the word itself. Clearly, at that time, the voice crying out for the civil rights of Asians hadn’t been considered or simply became muddled amongst the more audible cries for justice from NOW and the Black Panthers (and their associated groups.) So.. John Lennon gets a pass. He gets to claim ignorance because it was a different time..
So John Lennon, the personification of the civil rights movement, clearly NOT a racist is doing stuff that clearly IS offensive, and could be seen as racist…. but he gets a pass because…. it was a different time. Also, I think we can ALL agree that it was not his intention to be racist towards Japanese people. He may not have even seen it as racist.
So John Lennon is allowed to be deliberately offensive in post 1960’s USA…
1. Is post 1960’s USA more progressive or less progressive than 2010’s Korea?
Most of the bloggers who complain will agree that the USA was further along than Korea is now, as far as civil rights are concerned.
Is John Lennon on the progressive side or was he one of those who favored the status quo and wanted to resist change?
Obviously he wanted change.
3. Korea hasn’t had anything that is even a candle next to the nuclear explosion that was the 1960’s civil rights movement in the US.
4. The people in blackface in Korea are also not activists that personify the movement for peace and tolerance in society.
So if we are going to allow John Lennon to still be the personification of social change, then you have to give Korea (the country) a break… if not totally exonerate the comedians themselves. Why? Because John Lennon is he personification of social change! He should know better. The comedians are not the personification of social change, and have probably not been involved in social issues surrounding racial minorities.
My point, I guess, is that we can judge Korea through the moral lens that we have acquired outside of Korea, but that comparison doesn’t mean anything until Korea has had some time to play catch up. Furthermore, if one of the most outspoken activists for change can be super offensive, and still not be considered a racist, in fact, to be considered exactly the opposite…
Then maybe we should try to understand that the Korean comedians who wore blackface were not deliberately trying to be racist. To understand that does not mean we approve of what they did. In fact, the understanding might lead to more dialogue on the subject, which may stop these kinds of things from happening again.
(edit: it’s now 3 years later, and I realize this entire blog post falls apart if you would have answered the question differently. Some might say… Yes, John Lennon is racist.. afterall he wrote a song called “Woman is the Nigger of the World.” But I think we can agree that John Lennon may not be aware of his own racism, and definitely stood for social change. The time he lived in allowed for him to still be the voice of liberalism even as he was unaware of his own racism… and that’s my point… that Korea hasn’t yet developed a sense of right and wrong when it comes to discussions about race.)