Why Tiger JK Isn’t Racist, Shouldn’t Have Apologized, and How Psy Factors In
Last weekend, the Creator’s Project — an event that showcases art, culture, and technology — took place in Seoul, and all was not smooth sailing during Drunken Tiger JK‘s set when it came time for his performance. In his own words, compiled from his Twitter @DrunkenTigerJK,
Creators project event other night. I went crazy on all them white folks in the crowd, Cussing them out. During my set, these dudes kept telling me to horse dance , F rapping just dance. I had to cut all my song short. Without self control. I told them I ain’t here to make you laugh , not here to dance for you, then it triggered something really dark in me. My F*** you turned into F** everybody To F*** all the white people to F*** CNN To F *** Hollywood. To Fu** all yall who think Asians are here to make you laugh by dancing my asses off. F** Hollywood thinkin Asians are just a comic relief. Theres his ver“@hyunakimberly: @DrunkenTigerJK read it. the third paragraph. it’s from the white folks u cussed out. http://chincha.co.uk/2012/09/the-creators-project-2/ Then I Stopd my set and screamed for ten min. I think. I said I got paid to be here b*tch ass white boiiz, I ain’t gon dance for you. I call all them b*tches. Then I said bi*ch bad. What I mean by b*tches I mean y’all white boys who telling me to dance. I told them Asians are more than a mafucking comic relief you punk ass white boy. It is what it is and I can’t take back what I said at the other night at the creators project. I let them hackers get to me. And I am not proud of being racist towards white people. My sincerely apology goes out to all them good folks that put me on stage. All them good folks at vice mag who believed in me and respected me as a fam and a creator…And to all them white folks who had no idea I was callin y’all out. My sincere apologies to y’all good people. I coulda done without the racist rant towards white people. But except that I do stand by everything I said that night. Just cuz I don’t dance when i spit. Don’t mean I’m frontin. I salute my homie PSY success.But I don’t have to dance for you cuz I’m Asian. Regardless. I was being a hypocrite that night by callin out ‘all’ white people. Since I been a strong advocate against racism. And to all your bloggers and journalists who were offended by it. Here’s what really went down that night. I can’t justify it. But I need to let the whole truths out. Now you can judge me. Once again my sincere apology goes out to all them good peoples Peace
First, I bet that felt good to get out.
Second, as a blogger: I salute you, Tiger JK. I’m not offended at all. You don’t need to justify it. And I won’t judge you either.
What exactly went down is a little fuzzy, but according to multiple accounts, there were a couple of white concert goers near the front of the audience who were heckling Tiger JK in the middle of his performance, asking that he do the horse dance from Psy‘s “Gangnam Style,” instead of him doing his own songs, because you know, he’s not Psy. Tiger JK refused, and went into a “tirade,” which I guess left most of the audience confused as people didn’t know under what context Tiger JK got angry.
And here’s what’s sad: for every twenty-five articles written on Psy’s success, for every five Western media interviews Psy conducts, for every American show Psy performs “Gangnam Style” on, for every sixty trillion press conferences Psy will appear at, there will be exactly one unhappy outlier to interrupt the nice, rosy picture of Psy’s success, and Tiger JK’s little “incident” is it.
Tiger JK is known for talking very publicly about his experiences with race, the most well-known of which are discussions about his son Jordan and his wife Tasha Yoon Mi-rae, both of whom are biracial. His talks are grounded in how Korea’s progress as a country should be paralleled by a bigger and more involved understanding of race relations, especially as it comes into contact with much more diversity through the spread of Hallyu.
It’s because of JK’s well-known stand on racial tolerance that have given some people pause; they have been quick to point out that he is being hypocritical for being “racist” by generalizing white people.
Tiger JK probably behaved a little tactlessly for an artist with a big following. The Creator’s Project is a prestigious event; he is a very public figure. But make no mistake, Tiger’s rant was absolutely needed, he wasn’t being racist, and I don’t think he should have apologized for it.
People are uncomfortable with the fact that he lumped white people all into one group. But what those people are not understanding is that he — as an Asian American, as someone married to a Black Asian American — has had to deal with systematic racism that is propagated by whites. In a moment that he himself said “triggered something really dark in [him],” he reacted. Maybe he reacted badly, but you know what? He has a right to react badly in the face of blatant racism.
The burden of being on the receiving end of racism — whether obvious or invisible — is not something that is negated because he cursed out a couple of white hecklers and then went on to curse a group of people (“white boys”) and a system (Hollywood). These people and that system are at fault for creating an image and upholding racist beliefs that give those white hecklers the idea that they are entitled to demand the horse dance from Tiger JK. It is because of those white hecklers’ white privilege that they think they have the right to repeatedly interrupt JK’s set, that he stop what he’s doing to do the horse dance.
Tiger JK, who has nothing to do with Psy, who has nothing to do with “Gangnam Style,” who has nothing to do with anything related to this phenomenon, other than the sole fact that he is Asian like Psy is Asian. And in the minds of those hecklers, JK and Psy are probably interchangeable because of they are both Asian, and that is racist. They probably didn’t have any intention of acting like racists, but just the act of expecting certain things from JK because he is X like Psy is X, or conflating the two, is racist. People of color have to deal with these subtle acts of racism in disgusting frequency because the actions of people who happen to be their race are equalized as being the actions of entire races.
Tiger JK was also not being racist by cursing out “white folk.” Reverse racism does not exist. The definition of racism is prejudice plus power. If you do not have the power — granted to you systematically through various institutions normalized by your society — to purposefully oppress another race, you cannot be racist. You can be prejudiced and you can be discriminatory, but you cannot be racist*. In this case specifically, Tiger JK could not have been racist against white people. Tiger JK has no such power and while he may harbor negative feelings towards white people, he is not racist against them, and neither is his tirade. Ergo, if he’s not being racist, then he’s not being a hypocrite. He shouldn’t have to apologize for being angry against racism. Like I said before, what he did may have been tactless, but he was heckled, he was provoked. Where are the apologies from the white hecklers?
Tiger JK’s incident is symptomatic of the subtle racism that’s given rise to the “Gangnam” phenomenon in the West, and something Tiger JK was probably the first public figure in line to suffer from. There’s truly nothing comparable to what Psy’s experiencing right now. He’s a trailblazing record-breaker and I’ll go as far to say that I don’t think anything in K-pop will ever be as “successful” as Psy is right now, if our marker of K-pop “success” is “making it in the West” (which is problematic in its own way, but that’s another discussion for another day).
But the problem with Psy’s success is getting ugly. Psy is now a figurehead for Korea, for K-pop, and Western audiences are doing what they usually do with things that don’t look or feel like the norm: they’re assigning that image of Psy onto all people who look like him.
Asians have long been serving roles of comedic relief in Western productions, and this is exactly the stereotypical image of Asians that provided the proper circumstance for Psy to shoot into super stardom, even if temporary. Western audiences have long been conditioned to see Asian males as sexless, undesirable funnymen, and so when Psy comes along — someone who’s not trying to push for his sexual dominance, someone who fits exactly into the bill of the funnyman — it’s easy for him to be accepted into the mainstream. This is not to say that Psy’s song or his prowess as a performer are not worth their weight in gold, because “Gangnam Style” is an unbelievably great pop song and Psy is a master performer. But it’s also a reality that most of the Western audiences who have never heard of K-pop, who don’t understand Korean, who don’t know anything about Asian music don’t really care about what the song means, where “Gangnam” is, or what’s Psy’s back story is.
Nothing is clearer to me about Psy’s fulfillment of the Asian stereotype than his appearances on both Ellen Degeneres‘ show and Chelsea Handler‘s. Ellen brought Psy out to teach Britney Spears how to do the Gangnam horse dance, and even though it was probably unintentional and Ellen didn’t mean to be rude, Ellen didn’t even bother introducing Psy. She brought him out, and immediately jumped to ask him how to do the dance. God bless Psy for asking to be introduced first, because otherwise, he would’ve really been just a prop: a funny Asian man who dresses class and dances cheesy, showing white folk the right way to do a funny dance.
As for his appearance on Chelsey Lately, need I say more? Psy’s role in the skit is solely one of a dancing prop. He assists various members of the “Chelsea Lately” team in doing their remedial tasks by Gangnam-ing it up. The skit ends with him horsey-dancing while serving Chelsey Handler a glass of martini, and then ever classy Handler goes, “Now that’s an Asian I can date.” People are saying that this is just how Chelsea Handler is, and that Psy shouldn’t take offense. I don’t really care if this is what Chelsea’s sense of humor is, or whether or not people find it funny. It’s racist, plain and simple. Psy is being accepted because he fits into a normalized, racist view of Asians as service people, as sexless individuals.
Never mind the discussions on whether Psy’s success will last. The problem with “Gangnam Style” is that it picked up so much momentum so quickly that the entire phenomenon seems relatively harmless. In a moment when K-pop is obsessed with going global and making “it,” “Gangnam Style” seems like the pinnacle of that wish, which is a dangerous and harmful train of thought to engage in. People are quick to celebrate Psy’s success and quick to be proud of Koreans’ achievements. I’m not saying that this victory is unworthy of praise, nor should Koreans not be proud of what Psy has done, but it’s important to realize that this success is built upon very one-dimensional views of Psy and his work. It does more harm than good to disregard the critics who question whether or not this success is based on Psy fulfilling Asian stereotypes.
As much as I hope that the hecklers at Tiger JK’s performance were one-off annoyances, there are probably a lot more where they came from. Korean media and and the English-language K-pop blogosphere are focusing their energies onto the wrong thing by calling Tiger JK racist, commenting on how he went on an angry tirade, and pointing the conversation away from the guys who demanded the horse dance from him. They and their mindset are the problem. And though it’s not Psy’s fault, the reason why “Gangnam Style” is popular is also the problem.
But from all of this, hopefully, Tiger JK’s incident will lead to more discussions on all aspects of the “Gangnam” phenomenon — not just the rosy ones — and how Asian artists will integrate themselves into the Western mainstream without being propped up by the stereotypes that have followed us for years.
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* For a very comprehensive list of articles for further reading on racism, white privilege, this post is a good resource.
(Images via Drunken Camp, Giordano, Cosmopolitan)