Real and Fake Racism in K-pop

Girls' Generation, Girls & Peace Concept
Girls’ Generation, Girls & Peace Concept

All charges of racism in K-pop are not equal. The reaction to the Girls’ Generation (SNSD) win at the YouTube Music Awards is pretty blatantly racist, while the reaction to the news of an American remake of Boys Over Flowers is not easily characterized as racism.

First, let’s get our terms straight. Just talking about race does not constitute racism. Ashley Doane writes that racial discourse is “the collective text and talk of society with respect to issues of race,” where individuals can “reinforce or transform ideologies” (257). In other words, racial talk does not equal racism. Racism emerges when individuals express or infer racial superiority or inferiority, or reinforce negative stereotypes.

Reactions to K-pop supergroup SNSD’s win at the YouTube Music Awards are racist because these statements imply inferiority based on ethnicity. Popdust reports that “the losing fandoms didn’t take too kindly to seeing their faves being beaten by an Asian act, and took to Twitter to vent their frustrations with a string of disgusting racist tweets.”  Many Tweets express the kind of superiority inherent in racist statements.   For example, @lloydvatoo tweeted: “why is girls generation in america if they cant speak a word of English lolllooololl”  @TwerksOnJustin tweeted: “How did Justin lose over some Japenese (sic) chick no one knows.”  In addition to nationalistic sentiments, these tweets also imply that SNSD should not have won because they do not speak English or are Asian.  Other tweets posted on the Tumblr Sanctuary are also sexist because they reflect negativity based on gender.  @NotAndrewDavis referred to Tiffany as “This lil Asian girl.”  @babymermaids tweeted:  “How did those irrelevant Asian girls win?” @slothmantha and @smilingkidrauhl both brought out the B-word to express their displeasure at the SNSD win. These comments suggest that individuals are not happy with the SNSD win because they are Asian and female, and they view both as negative.

However, they also reflect an ignorance of the place of SNSD globally. The group is well-known in East Asia, so comments about not knowing about them only reflects one’s lack of engagement with the rest of the world.  Moreover, K-pop fans know about “the power of Nine.”  SONES, fans of SNSD, are one of the largest and most well-organized K-pop fandoms.  As Jeff Yang explains:  “Nominees for the YTMAs were selected solely by algorithm, based on likes, shares, views and other metrics of ‘fan engagement,’ and, according to YouTube, winners were chosen based on how many fresh shares the nominated videos got in the month-long runup to the actual event.” SONES did what they, and other fandoms, always do: mobilize the base. Because K-pop fans are also quite savvy in using the Internet, it should surprise no one that they put those skills to work.

On the other hand, the charge of racism thrown at individuals who did not want to see an American remake of Hana Yori Dango (Boys Over Flowers) is misplaced.  In the face of a negative response,  producers of the venture described their critics as, among other things, racist.  According to a post on the producers’ Tumblr:  “The amount of racist comments, venom, and negativity aimed at our cast, crew and production staff has been harmful and hurtful for no reason and most of it has no basis that was grounded in fact.”  Without seeing the kinds of comments the producers received, it’s hard to determine their tone. However, the producers’ statement lumps all forms of critique together with racism and hateful comments. All critique is not racist.


Many fans objected to changing these fundamental elements of the story. All three television versions of the Japanese manga (Japanese, Taiwanese, Korean) take place within Asia, and the dynamics of the plot depend on Asian cultural values, including the dynamics within Asian families, the dynamics between classes in countries in Asia and the centrality of education and school in some Asian countries.

Moreover, the original Asian cast was changed.  American fans of Asian popular culture have seen many Asian productions “whitewashed” and stripped of their original Asian context.  Such changes replicate business-as-usual for American adaptations of Asian popular culture that erase the Asian context to cater to American sensibilities.  In relation to the remake of the anime classic AkiraAngry Asian Man notes, “Warner Brothers still seems hell-bent on making this live-action Akira adaptation thing happen, despite the fact that every fan of the original manga and movie seems to think it’s an awful idea. . . . [Juame] Collet-Serra was going full-steam ahead with his whitewashed adaptation of the beloved Japanese classic, before production was stalled in early 2012. This version was going to star a mostly-white cast and transplanted the story’s post-apocalyptic Japanese setting to “New Manhattan.” Angry Asian Man says similar things about the trailer for the remake of Oldboy:  “I’ve read interviews claiming that this draws more heavily from the manga source material than Park’s films, but based on this trailer, it looks like they’ve straight-up remade the movie minus the Asians.”

When fans critique the American remake of Boys Over Flowers, they do so with this tendency in mind and draw attention to the erroneous logic that Americans will only accept entertainment devoid of Asians and Asian culture.  In the comments section of “21 Questions About the American Boys Over Flowers Remake Answered,” love4hope4evar wrote:  “The K-drama is so beautiful that it makes people interested, then the asian CULTURE is what permanently hooks people into it.”  To favor the Asian original context over a watered-down remake is not racist because it does not imply racial superiority or reinforce negative stereotypes. If anything, calls to retain the original context of the drama opens up opportunities for more cultural exchange.

Let’s reserve racism for incidents where it truly appropriate. Because if everything is racist, then nothing is racist.

Images: Girls’ Generation (1), Boys Over Flowers (2)


Acton, Dan.  “American Boys Over Flowers Adaptation Changes Title and Responds to ‘Racist Comments.'” DramaFever. 1 Oct 2013. Web. 5 Nov. 2013.

Angry Asian Man. “Dammit. The Whitewashed Akira Remake Is Back On.” Angry Asian Man. 5 Aug 2013. Web. 5 Nov. 2013.

—–.  “The New Oldboy Looks Like the Old Oldboy..With Fewer Asians.” Angry Asian Man. 10 July 2013. Web. 5 Nov. 2013.

Doane, Ashley. “What Is Racism? Racial Discourse and Racial Politics.” Critical Sociology 32.2-3 (2006): 255-274.

Patterson, Jacques.”Girls’ Generation Wins Big At YouTube Music Awards, Racist Tweets From Losing Fandoms Follow.” PopDust. 3 Nov 2013. Web. 5 Nov. 2013.

Yang, Jeff. “Why Girls’ Generation and K-pop Won Big at the YouTube Music Awards.” The Wall Street Journal. 4 Nov. 2013. Web. 5 Nov. 2013.

10 thoughts on “Real and Fake Racism in K-pop

  1. Racism in K-Pop? No, because there’s no substance in K-Pop. K-Pop is just dance music without any kind of statement about the human condition. But racism in Korean society? There’s plenty of that, starting with the Korean media.

    1. Thanks for your comment. While people differ on the topic, K-pop itself is quite interesting because of its global spread and its incredibly diverse fanbase. However, there is quite a lot of substance in K-pop that one finds in promotional singles as well as deeper cuts on albums. Music does not always have to speak to the human condition. People have different reasons for making and enjoying music. All societies have their share of racism, and just because racism exists in a society does not mean that it justifies aiming racism towards members of that society.

    2. No substance in Kpop? I couldn’t disagree more. There are MANY songs sung by Kpop groups and individual singers that speak to the same human conditions as Americans and Europeans; love, hate, loneliness, betrayal, etc.. These situations are not exclusive to any particular culture or language. I don’t speak Korean so I depend on those willing to offer their time and talents to translate. I especially appreciate YouTube for enabling me to extend my musical interest beyond the typical Top 40 brands like Mylie Cyrus and Justin Bieber. Thank you YT and thank you Kpop for your wonderful entertainment.

  2. So are all reactions to the SNSD win racist? I think you should qualify that with “the dregs of twitter and youtube reactions to the SNSD win are racist”. You cited Jeff Yang, who accurately pointed out what was, in effect, ballot stuffing by a rabid fanbase- criticizing that sort of behavior isn’t racist, is it?

    I also want to question your approach to whitewashing. While I agree that talented Asian actors aren’t cast enough in American/Western media, I think trying to transfer the construct of “Asian” to countries like Korea, Japan, and Taiwan has several weaknesses. When, for example, Korea adapts a Japanese novel or manga, they typically transfer the setting of the story and nationality of the characters AND actors to Korea. This isn’t because of some widely accepted pan-Asian identity (the kind that has developed in America), either- they do it for similar reasons as Hollywood rewriting scripts in English and casting actors popular in the West: they want their audience to feel familiar with a product meant for consumption. Do we hold Hollywood to an entirely different standard because less than 5% of America is of Asian ethnicity? Again, some higher degree of Asian representation in Western media would be desirable, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect every Hollywood adaptation of Asian source material to be more ‘authentic’ than intra-Asian adaptations.

    1. Thanks for your comment.

      I never said that all reactions to the SNSD were racist, just the racist ones were racist. If you look at the tweets closely, there were not criticizing ballot stuffing; the comments specifically targeted ethnicity and gender.

      I am not arguing for a pan-Asian identity…I’m pointing to a pattern identified whereby certain storylines, storylines that appear in already popular and well-received Asian films, and altered in the same way, to appeal to what some believe is the largest common cultural denominator in the United States. It might be eye-opening to look at the instances where storylines from Asian cultural production are NOT ripped from their original cultural context in this way. My point is it that it rarely happens; what we get far more often is this replacement of cast and cultural context

      1. Well, you said that “The reaction to the Girls’ Generation (SNSD) win at the YouTube Music Awards is pretty blatantly racist”- when you use the singular form, you’re generalizing the reaction. It just struck me as odd when you went on to cite Jeff Yang, who discussed the vote stuffing issue at some length. It’s quite similar to Western befuddlement when Rain started tearing up the TIME most important people rankings. But anyways, yes you are correct that those particular tweets are racist as hell, and thank you for making that clarification.

        As for the movies, my point was that adaptations within Asia also transplant and alter stories to appeal to their own largest cultural denominator. Boys over Flowers, Old Boy, Helpless, among many other Japan->Korea adaptations, do not include Japanese characters or locations in order to suit local majority tastes, and also make some revisions to the plot of the source material, and its conceivable that some of these plot changes are to suit local tastes. If I recall correctly, this is even true of localizations of children’s media like Detective Conan and Shin-chan. This is relevant because while there are certainly broad-reaching cultural themes that permeate East Asia, East Asian cultures still differ from one another and, importantly, East Asian societies generally see themselves as being quite distinct from their neighbors, both culturally and racially/ethnically (much more so than Canada and America, or arguably even America and Mexico, see themselves as being starkly different). Then when you start to consider Asian adaptations of Western storylines… well, I don’t think anyone would say Ran is a crass Japonification of King Lear, but it certainly puts the story in an extremely Japanese locale. I guess my point is that Hollywood’s issues with representations of Asian-Americans (see movies like 21 that are guilty of serious whitewashing- the source material featured predominantly Asian-American characters) are not necessarily applicable to imports from East Asia where the constructs of race and the context for borrowing/adapting are quite different.

        But you’ve piqued my curiosity about storylines from Asian productions are handled more authentically… do you have any particular recommendations?

      2. My point with Boys Over Flowers in relation to the American remake is that it radically changes the story in ways that fans do not like, and the producers of the project characterize that response as racist. I can’t speak to the appeal of the Taiwanese and Japanese versions, but many fans specifically like the Korean version because of the way it weaves Korean family dynamics, education and class tensions into the story, as well as the fact that it features Korean actors. They don’t like that it’s been stripped from the American remake, and their critique has been labeled racist, when in fact that critique actually reflects a desire to see more difference. East Asian cultures are distinct, but they have also historically been subject to exposure to other East Asian cultures, ie. Japanese occupation of Korea, Korea’s “semi-colonial” relationship with China, etc. The cultural space between the Asian cultures and the American cultures is far larger.

        In terms of films, I’m questioning impulse to appeal to the largest common denominator when the largest common denominator doesn’t have tolerance for seeing something other than itself, when the largest common denominator is assumed not to include people of color or people who can watch other people of color. Yes, there are Asian remakes of Western films, but that is not the same as an American remake of an Asian film. The United States isn’t just another country in the mix, it is a culture that exerts great influence and normative power. Because of its cultural influence, an American remake is not a neutral enterprise, especially when it takes out the Asian culture, be it Japanese, Taiwanese or Korean. Some would call it hegemonic.

        The American remake does not feature Asian actors in those main roles, and that is significant, as it follows the tendency in American entertainment. In the post, I talked about the tendency for Hollywood to whitewash Asian films (not just Asian films, they are equal opportunity with it), but Hollywood still does not cast Asian or Asian American actors in lead roles in its own films or television with any frequency. And more than one American film executive has voiced that the reason for this is because they do not think American audiences gravitate to anything “foreign.” Funny, as American films are popular wherever they go. This person made an interesting list of Asian films remade as American films, and it’s interesting how few if any of them retain Asian actors/locals/settings. I think the motives behind making any remake is fascinating and complex because there are some things that no one would think to make a remake of, while other things seem to be fair game. There are many people who don’t even know that The Departed is a remake of Infernal Affairs, and the location of the original is integral to the meaning of the original. The remake loses that.

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