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Blackface, Korean Media, and the Context of the American Vaudeville Show

Apparently, there has been an explosion online regarding an incident in which Korean performers donned  blackface for a performance over the Lunar New Year:

Yeah. And this isn’t all that rare in Korean media.

In fact, Matt over at Gusts of Popular Feeling hits the highlights with an excellent and carefully-researched history of Three Decades of Blackface in Korea, though it’s not an exhaustive history — he doesn’t get into every example. Just the big ones, and especially those in programs (as opposed to in advertisements). Like, for example, the all-Korean production of Roots here. Yeah, seriously. Go give it a look, and I’ll wait here. While you’re at it, some useful thoughts over at Roboseyo.

As Rob mentions, there has been an apology issued by MBC. It’s the standard non-apology for situations like this, pleading “misunderstanding” and “this was for Koreans, not foreigners, so you don’t understand the context…”  but not really acknowledging that this kind of performance is demeaning to black people.

(Why is it always a case of misunderstanding or miscommunication? We’re sorry that your misunderstanding caused you to take offense! Ah, yes, because Koreans Can Do No Wrong, Especially When Criticized By Outsiders Who Obviously Cannot Comprehend Korea is a rhetorical strategy that never fails.)

That context we supposedly “don’t get,” by the way, is that the blackface skit was a reference to a Korean blackface cartoon. Which as you can imagine, hasn’t really alleviated much of the disgust among expats writing about it: so it’s the propagation of an older racist caricature from older media, and that’s supposed to change our opinion how?

Westerners have tended to argue, implicitly, that the Korean understanding of blackface is not very nuanced, and at least institutionally speaking, MBC’s apology demonstrates this to be true.   But I’m going to take a step back and say the Western bloggers also don’t have a very nuanced understanding of blackface; not in the Korean context, and not even in their own Western cultural tradition.

Before I explain why I think so, though, I want to first point out that I’m not condoning blackface or defending its use in Korean entertainment. I abhor it and what it represents, and I’ve regularly made it a part of my Popular Culture course in order to help young Koreans to understand why it is understood to be so offensive out there in the rest of the world, as well as because it opens up a lot of questions about depiction, about stereotype and caricature. Over the years, I’ve seen students get filled with anger, or sympathy, while watching Bamboozled — usually at the scene where Tommy Davidson and Savion Glover’s characters are transforming themselves into their blackface characters (Mantan and Sleep’n’Eat) and stare into the mirror in horror, self-reproach, rage in one’s eyes and sorrowful resignation in the other’s. I’ve seen students become passionate about the issue. So yes, talking about it is important.

Once again, this post absolutely is not a defense of blackface. But I think the kneejerk reaction we have to it today results in a kind of amnesia about the original social context of blackface and the handling of race in 19th century American popular culture, and how it might (usefully) be compared to the context in which racial caricature (of blacks, but also of others) goes on in quite constantly Korean entertainment media today. And that’s unfortunate, because I think there are parallels; I think missing the parallels makes us miss opportunities to engage in the process, to elbow our collective way to something saner that Westerners howling, “RACISTS! THAT SHIT AIN’T FUNNY!” and Koreans howling back, “NO WE’RE NOT! YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND! THIS IS JUST FUNNY TO US!”

I’ve been slowly, patchily reading up on blackface minstrelsy in American culture over the last couple of years, and I have to say that most of the commentary in Korea I’ve run across is missing out on an important part of the context in the American history of blackface (and its European predecessor) that would help to shed light on the practice in Korea.

Now, Korea doesn’t have a history of enslaving black people. Korea doesn’t have Jim Crow laws that target black people. White people are as likely (if not more likely, given how new the experience is to most of them) to complain about racism in Korea as blacks here.

So obviously blackface doesn’t carry the same resonance in Korea as it would in America, where there is a long history of blackface in entertainment, but also where that entertainment links directly to a history of enslavement, violent subjugation, deracination, forcible abduction, and the rest of African-Americans’ painful history. After all, blackface shows began growing popular soon after the end of slavery — especially in the North, especially depicting a nostalgic vision of the Southern past (often to Northerners). And as Strausbaugh notes, actually digging into the lyrics and performances, you find a bizarre mix of very offensive, anti-black racism, and moments of surprisingly sympathetic rhetoric. You find images of blacks being mocked for aspiring to the wealth and status of whites, but also images of blacks (performed by whites or blacks in blackface) speaking out against the indignities they had to live with.

But to say that  Korea is not 19th century America isn’t to say there isn’t racism towards blacks here. While there are a lot of Koreans who don’t think that way, there’s plenty who hate black people here, especially among the old but not exclusively among them. I’ve heard the Korean equivalent to the N-word among young people as well as old, and I’ve seen plenty of young (college-aged) Koreans make fun of blacks (often by making monkey sounds or making monkey gestures); when they did so, it was obvious they expected nobody to find it offensive, and indeed my own reaction usually shocked them.

Indeed, even the term “sikeomeonseu” mentioned by Matt over at Gusts of Popular Feeling (in the post linked above) has a clear negative connotation, not just from the latter half of the chant used by Lee Bong-su between 1986 and 1987:

Lee would dance on stage in a rasta wig in black face and shout to the music, “시커먼스, 시커먼스. 망했다, 망했어” (the latter meaning ‘ruined’ or ‘doomed’).

When I mentioned this to Miss Jiwaku, she immediately asked whether I know about the negative connotation to color-adjectives that begin with 시, implying filthiness, nastiness, or some other sort of objectionable status. I didn’t, and she gave me a few exmaples: when young women used to dye their hair red (or also, when red lipstick was new in Korea — or, sometimes, even now) older people would disapprovingly mutter about it, and the color terminology they would use was 시뻘건; meanwhile, 시퍼런 (for blue) is sometimes used for a nasty bruise (as here), or to describe the nasty hue of a ghost. (And when one Korean entertainer donned “blueface” to play the role of a Na’vi from Avatar, the color used to describe him was none other than 시퍼런.) This makes the term “시커먼스” take on a somewhat more ominous tone than I first realized, somewhere a little further along the spectrum towards what street folk sometimes called the blackface minstrel performance: “the n[-word] show.”

I don’t know how much of one and how much of the other audiences picked up on, but I will say this: sometimes when I watch Korean TV, with its melodramatic tendencies, its formulaic and marriage/family-focused plotlines (which to me feel straight out of 19th century literature of the sort I tend to avoid) and its primarily slapstick comedy, I find myself thinking that the consumers of popular culture in Korean audiences today and Western audiences of the 1870s and 1880s probably have a lot in common.

Not only that: it’s also important to remember that back when blackface was at its peak — when “Jim Crow” still referred to a vaudeville character — there were all kinds of other “race-face” being used, not just blackface. John Strausbaugh wrote of this at length in Black Like You: Blackface, Whiteface, Insult & Imitation in American Popular Culture, exploring the various stereotypes that were used for each race mocked on the stage:

It’s important to remember that on the vaudeville stage these blackfaced “Ethiopians” rubbed elbows with various other brands of broadly played ethnic stereotypes and impersonations, for equally low laughs–the brawling Irish, wheedling Jews, oily Italians, thick-headed Germans, inscrutable Chinamen, gullible country rubes and so on. Maybe we should call these greenface, jewface, pastaface, potatoface, yellowface and rubeface. “The Irish characters are drunk, belligerent, and dumb (dumb was the term commonly used in comedy–it meant stupid or unintelligent, but it also meant culturally naive, ‘green’ or bewildered, ‘unhip’ as well). The Italians are happy rascals, promiscuous, profligate–and dumb; the Germans, usually called ‘Dutch’ in vaudeville from the same corruption of Deutsch which gave us the Pennsylvania Dutch, are lazy, stodgily conservative, and of course, also dumb. Blacks are lazy, dishonest, promiscuous, profligate, irresponsible and–guess what–dumb. Jews are ‘canny’… that is, they are smart in the sense of too clever, manipulative, dishonest–but they are also portrayed, perhaps surprisingly, as dumb, especially as lacking in ‘street smarts,’ and potential suckers. Jewish men in particular are also particularly weak, cowardly, the victims of bullies (including Jewish women)…. Blacks are associated with an insatiable desire for watermelon, chicken, or pork chops; Italian immigrants are associated with crime and huge families; ‘Dutchmen’ with sauerkraut and beer, and so forth.” (131-132)

Strausbaugh argues that the world prior to the rise of identity politics was one where it was understood that mockery of difference would happen — but that mockery went two ways, for every pair of differences — and that it was also understood that, at the time —  when “the melting pot was on high boil” (and the term melting pot was coined in 1908, in fact) — it was expected one gave as good as one got; it was not unusual for people to gawk at those different from themselves, expressing an open, unabashed curiosity. Sometimes the tensions that arose between different groups were worked out in the streets; sometimes, they were, Strausbaugh suggests, worked out on the stage.

Vaudeville was, then, Strausbaugh explains,

a space where [members of different groups] could come together and stare at one another. In a primitive and limited way, vaudeville was as “multicultural” and “diverse” as any university campus is today. I’m not being facetious. Universities today routinely champion the notion that simply by being on a “diverse” campus, where you may encounter fellow students who do not come from the same tribe as you, your worldview will be enriched and you will become a better, more “sensitive” person. Easily affordable entertainment for the masses, vaudeville brought members of disparate tribes together both in the audience and on the stage. Audiences of workers and immigrants and families, of various descents and heritages, watched images of themselves and others on stage, sometimes in knockabout comic caricature, sometimes singing a familiar ballad or air from the Old Country (maybe your Old Country, maybe someone else’s), sometimes overemoting in a tearjerking vignette. They laughed at themselves and at one another, bawledover one anothers’ tragedies, went out humming scraps of one another’s music. It didn’t mean that they all loved one another, but it bred a certain familiarity, a starting point for tolerance.

For everyone except Black people. Black performers were sharing the stage with all those others, but that’s about all they were allowed to share. Offstage, no matter how elegantly they dressed and danced onstage, they were still [considered] niggers. They couldn’t stay in the same hotels as their colleagues. They couldn’t go to a restaurant with them after the show for a mug of beer and a plate of chops. In general, if there were Black people in the vaudeville audience, they were segregated to the balcony–called “nigger heaven by White theater managers. For newly arrived immigrants, mixing it up in vaudeville theaters was one part of the profess of becoming assimilated and recognized as White, melting into the American pot. Blacks were still outcasts and beyond the pale, pun intended.  A society of disparate member groups often seeks cohesion by organizing against an Other; it defines who belongs and is included by clearly specifying who does not belong and is excluded. America had designated Blacks as the Other long before the new great wave of immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century, and so they remained until they forced their way in through the civil rights movement. (pg. 132-33)

That last paragraph is extremely important: while there is room to make arguments about how racialized mockery in the vaudeville context may have involved more respect and sympathy than we tend to imagine, more complexity and respect and so on, the social norms tended to be much more brutal for black Americans than for anyone else in the system — in part as a result of everyone else collectively ganging up on the blacks.

There are some other things probably worth critiquing in Strausbaugh’s argument, and criticisms we should bear in mind — such as his assumption that the stereotypes enacted on vaudeville stages didn’t prolong racism and distrust of different ethnicities, rather than speeding the growth of tolerance — but there are also interesting things to consider when we compare this to the practice of racial parody in Korean media today.

The first is that there absolutely are other “faces” in Korean media. One, of course the first to come to my mind, is whiteface. I’m not talking of the plastic-surgery Europeanization of Korean celebrities, but rather of the depiction of whites on lowest-common-denominator Korean TV. We’ve all seen the emasculated, childlike white male on Korean television, especially in those EFL TV shows: giant thick-rimmed glasses, suspenders and a bowtie, childlike expressions, jumping and bouncing around. It’s akin to the way blacks were often expected to perform only if they performed caricatures of black people. My sense is that on Korean (entertainment) TV programs, the only white man allowed is a caricatured one. I could be wrong, or behind the times, though.

(And yes, there are Korean performers who are dressed up this way and who are expected to act this way too; this doesn’t mean that the parody of whites isn’t racist; I suspect it fits in as something comparable to “rubeface” in American vaudeville shows.)

Then there’s the racial-sexual complexities involved in depicting foreign women: anyone who paid any attention at all (however little–I paid barely any at all) to Misuda back when it was being discussed knows that there were racial stereotypes aplenty mobilized on the show, but also, oddly, there was a strong effort to get non-Korean women to present themselves in ways that somehow, eerily, “Koreanized” them. (Which is also to say, infantilized, since women are often highly infantilized in Korean media.) Sometimes the women got to speak out, but on the show, I remember a lot of scripted stuff where they were clearly acting out Korean male fantasies.

Arabs have been mocked in Korean TV too, most notoriously the Star King variety show’s mockery of Arabs and Muslims last year. Cartoons often show Arabic and Persian people in ways that suggest violence — machine guns, for example. This is to audiences where many viewers actually spent time in the Middle East, working, back in the 1970s and 1980s, too. (But as in Austen’s Mansfield Park, what happens in Egypt stays in Egypt, I guess.)

And then there’s Southeast Asians. I don’t know if there are many getting into TV, but they have been turning up more and more often in films. One example that comes to mind is 방바? 방가!, a film that overall was very sympathetic, but which featured two Koreans playing Southeastasianface: one, explicitly (the star, a Korean who pretends to be Nepali so he can get a job), and one simply by the fact that a Korean woman was hired to play a Vietnamese character. (Could they not find a Vietnamese actress for the role? If so, how hard did they try? I hear they have actors down in Vietnam, after all, and it’s not like plane far would have cost that much.)

Sympathetic as 방바? 방가! was — and as I mention at the linked post, like some of those vaudeville acts Strausbaugh mentions, it was far and away more sympathetic than I expected — the film clearly and directly paints a picture not only where sympathy for Southeast Asians in Korea stems from their underdog status, from their being “poor” and “downtrodden.” It’s the same pattern you see in Korea with pretty much every other outsider: you’re pitied for things that have nothing to do with the real problems you face in Korean society.

(When people sympathize with me, they’re usually thinking of how alone they imagine I feel here, or how hard it is to be somewhere where your mother isn’t providing you with home-cooked side dishes on a regular basis — not people calling any woman beside me a “foreigners’ whore” or a “crazy bitch,” or being attacked in subway stations by random assholes, or having my contract illegally changed midway through, or going unpaid by an employer, as many white hakwon teachers seem to experience. When they imagine racism against blacks in Korea, they think of rude old men muttering bad words into the wind, not assaults on the subway or in the streets or a constant barrage of being told to “go home” or the way leadership in this society thinks of black people almost all the way to the top, or how insulting and dehumanizing the depiction of blacks is in the media here. When those Koreans who are at all sympathetic imagine the problems of Southeast Asians, they think of hard work and low pay, not fear of summary arrest or violence at the hands of employers or unthinkably dangerous working conditions.)

And so it goes. At dinner not long ago, a young Korean woman — who seemed, in general, quite average, though I don’t know very well — suddenly said something I’ve heard so often it’s a commonplace here: “Chinese are dirty.” Miss Jiwaku and I did our best not to tell her off, since she was the guest of a good friend of ours, but the girl said it twice, with great surety. One of Miss Jiwaku’s responses was the funniest: “Well, Koreans are dirty too!” she said (and bear in mind, she’s Korean), “Whenever I go to a public bathroom, I’m the only one washing my hands!” (And all I could do is nod my head, because frankly it describes my [shocked] experience too.)

My point is, there’s an atmosphere of generalized racism, and of mockery towards all races, that exists in Korea today; most people vaguely know about it, though it still gets reported as if it’s news. Not only that, but this is something Korea has in common with America, just… at an extreme time lag. Racial caricature still exists in America today, but it’s been effectively politicized there; that’s not yet really the case in Korea. There are plenty of Koreans, of course, who are just as sick of this stuff as the ranting expats; however, most of them quietly frown and move on to other things. As I’ve pointed out, there’s a nonconfrontational streak a mile wide in the hearts of most nice people I’ve met here, which doesn’t help in terms of getting a debate about racism going in Korean society: the racists spew crap, and those who know it’s crap mostly stay quiet. Not that I don’t get why: as I’ve said, Miss Jiwaku has had pretty uniformly disappointing experiences when she’s spoken up, either being yelled at or mocked by racist acquaintances or “friends” or, in the case of the nicer-but-still-ignorant individuals, blank looks and nods, along with a sort of, “Oh, really?”

The things Miss Jiwaku tells me she’s overheard are very discouraging. A woman looking at herself in the mirror and saying, unhappily, things that can be translated as, “I look like a dirty Southeast Asian today.”  Or, when saying, “How about Chinese food,” to a former classmate during a meeting of school peers, hearing, “Nah, I don’t feel like Chink food…” (followed, at other suggestions, by, “I don’t wanna eat n[-word] food” or “I don’t wanna eat dirty Southeast Asians’ food” and so on). Where bigots I’ve met in North America know they need to keep that kind of garbage under wraps unless they know everyone in the group feels the same way, in Korea this kind of stuff gets said with depressing regularity, and the people saying it don’t seem to sense (or care) that it might be seen as offensive, let alone seen as  reflecting badly on them… because the people who are offended almost never stand up and say, in person, at the time, “That’s offensive!” Or the woman who stopped a friend of a friend of mine on the street to lecture her about her own disapproval of interracial marriage (as if anyone has to care about some random old woman’s attitude…).

Maybe Korea still just yet hasn’t hit that melting pot thing (or has just hit it, more likely) that happened in America at the turn of the 20th century; maybe the point is that in terms of thinking about racist caricature in Korean media, we would do better if we looked further back — back to 1890, perhaps, or 1880, or maybe even farther back. It may be that Korea (including its various groups of assimilating foreigners) haven’t yet settled upon a single group to treat as its collective Other. Korean society is still too busy talking about Others, and expats are not assimilating so much, so they tend to simply accept Other status —  especially when the alternative is doing whiteface, blackface, or Otherface clown shows on Korean TV.

I think the singular difference between blackface in Korean contexts, versus blackface in the American (or European) context is that in Korea, it’s not clear whether blacks occupy a special negative place in the Korean mind — yet, or still. While it’s easy for the Western North American to assume so, since the mockery used on blacks is so often copied straight from our own historically racist entertainment, where blacks did occupy that specially excluded/hated status — and while it is offensive to most black people, and deserving of criticism — the Korean use of blackface isn’t necessarily a sign that blacks are the Most Hated Others in Korean thought. I think this assumption might be lurking behind the loudness the Western response to incidents of blackface (as opposed to the much quieter and gentler expat response to the mockery of Arabs in Korean media).

That doesn’t mean blackface isn’t offensive. It’s ironic that it’s Japan and Korea — along with a few other East Asian societies, I’ve heard — are still using this in entertainment, but also the first to line up for a whine-and-bitch-fest at the first sight of any negative depiction of their dominant racial groups in foreign media. Think about the complaining that happened in Korea over the character Jin in Lost, or the Koreans who were doing human trafficking in Crash. (And that’s despite the fact that there is a significant human trafficking problem in America involving Koreans. They’re not the only ones, and obviously not all Koreans there do it, but Korean human trafficking in the States is a problem.) I’m fine with discussing the question of racism in that media… but it’s hard to take a nuanced discussion like that seriously when blackface minstrel performances are considered acceptable enough to be part of holiday family programming on major Korean networks.

Still, I sincerely doubt that blacks are likely to end up occupying the excluded Other status in Korean society: if I had to bet, I’d say that over time, it’s likelier that it’s Southeast Asians (and Koreans of mixed race with Southeast Asian heritage) who are going to bear the brunt of the 3rd class citizen status here. They’re the likeliest to get mocked, because they’re going to be the most common group here, because of Korea’s fetishistic obsession with its “pure racial bloodline,” because of the poverty in which many of these individuals are likely to have grown up amid (seeing as they’re primarily born to couples made up of rural men and their mail-order brides), and because they’re the ones whose anger at exclusion is most likely to inform experiences of regular Koreans on an increasing basis in the next fifty years.

I could be wrong: in Shakespeare’s day, the races most denigrated were those most absent from English life: the Jew (a group who had been exiled from England) and the Moor (who were rare as could be). But from what I’ve seen, attitudes towards white Westerners have gotten more extreme, not less so, over the last ten years; in Korea, it seems, familiarity with Others seems to breed, among a certain part of society, increasingly extreme contempt. Those people also seem to be far from rare in media here. But if we’re betting on who ends up being most excluded — and most mocked in the media — by mid-century, my money’s on the Southeast Asians and those mixed-race offspring of Southeast-Asian/rural Korean couples.

What this means in practical terms is… well, I’m not sure exactly, but a starting point would be critiquing all the other “faces” we see in Korean media, not just the ones that happen to offend us personally (ie. blackface and white face). When we see Arabface, or Chinkface, or Japface, or SoutheastAsianface, we should be speaking up about those, too: they’re all part of the same system — and even Jeollaface and Jejuface are part of that system. As well, we could reflect on whether the use of those “faces” might be part of a process we ourselves went through. It’d be nice if Korea went through it with more dignity than we did, but one thing I’ve noticed over the past decade is that Korean society doesn’t seem to want to learn from other societies’ mistakes when it comes to this kind of thing.

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