The 13th Korea Times Music Festival took place in Los Angeles this weekend, with a star-studded line-up. EXID was one of the groups invited to perform, and arrived at LAX to not only a legion of fans, but to a TMZ camera as well:
The commentary from the TMZ crew on the “crazy K-pop invasion” isn’t much, but it includes a mocking imitation of Junghwa‘s spoken English, which an Asian American staff member implies isn’t as bad as it could be.
The video has been slammed by fans for the racist comments made, with criticism directed at both the White and Asian staff member(s). In addition, f(x)‘s Amber took to Twitter to call out TMZ:
I was gunna stay quiet but i cant. Seriously, @tmz not cool man. All Americans face palm at your rude and childish actions.
— Amber J. Liu (@llama_ajol) May 3, 2015
What are your thoughts on this incident? Have you ever experienced something like this yourself? And what do you think of the claims of internalised racism levelled at the Asian American staffer?
Andy: First, let’s just go ahead and say that TMZ are lower life-forms. While you generally don’t expect much from them, they definitely went too far in this situation. Using the mocking accent, then asking an Asian American staffer where she was born was some nonsense bull crap. I’m surprised they didn’t do the small-eyes move or say “ching-chang-chong.”
Have I had my English mocked? Yes, but since I’m generally accepted into the majority, it didn’t come from a racist position. More like: “Girl, your Southern dialect/accent is even stranger than my own Southern accent.” What’s considered “proper English” is still a mystery to me, so for people to judge the English skills of others — especially those who amount to tourists from a country where English isn’t an official or second language — is ethnocentric and racist.
It’s bad enough being judged for having an accent/dialect while having half your American lineage date back to the 1700s (and the other half dating back much further), but to do that to someone with limited exposure to the language is simply horrible. You wouldn’t like people to mock your poor Italian skills while visiting Italy, would you? So why be a hypocrite and do it to someone in the same position? Do people not realize how hard it is to learn another language, especially English? Even more so when English has sounds not present in your native tongue?
As for the internalized racism, I can see the argument. I’ve seen instances where minorities will alter their speech pattern, appearance, and what they’ll tolerate just to assimilate and seem less “black/Asian/whatever.” Does anybody remember that movie Undercover Brother? Ignoring whether the movie was good or bad, it showed how far some minorities will go just to separate themselves and acclimate to White Western society. They don’t want to be like “those people” and want to be part of the majority. Which means they’ll join in on the racist banter — which is what the Asian American staffer seemed to do.
Lo: First, TMZ is why I’m embarrassed to be an American. Their behavior was disgusting, ignorant, and proud of both. They are all going to the special hell.
Second, I don’t think mockery over language is about race as much as it’s about culture. 60 years ago, my grandmother immigrated to the US as a war bride after World War II, and she had a thick accent. She made the food of her people for her children and celebrated her native holidays. Yet, she nor her children faced discrimination because she’s French. Her accent was the mark of an elegant, artistic, classy people. Her simple country cooking was seen in high-end restaurants. By contrast, whenever I speak to her family in France, it’s met with amazement that an American could have such a good accent, and mild ribbing over my complete inability to understand spoken French. After all, I’m just an American, you can’t expect too much.
My grandmother got a pass because the US admires her native culture. Same thing with British, Spanish, or Italian accents– we find them elegant and sexy. But people from South Korea, or Ukraine, or Brazil are met with much greater pressure to assimilate perfectly because the general opinion is that American culture is superior. Failure to blend, like with EXID on TMZ, is perfectly acceptable to mock as they’re already beneath us. So, I don’t think the TMZ cast was being racist and mocking EXID for being Asian. They were being culture snobs and mocking them for not being American, which is both better and worse in one go.
Camiele: I’d have to disagree on one point about this, Lo. This is most certainly about “race.” The discrimination and bigotry Asians have faced in this States dates back as far as the mid-19th century and only continued with their portrayals in the media (think Mickey Rooney‘s Charlie Chan portrayal in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the “Fu Manchu” characterization of Chinese men, and the shy, sexually submissive lotus flower characterization of East Asian women). Asians in general have always been fodder for White American bigotry, and TMZ, the steaming coagulation of pond scum that it is, has done nothing more than play on that bigotry.
Amy: It’s impossible to ignore how race plays into this incident. Cultural superiority exists, but the cultures that America celebrates hail mostly from countries in Europe with a Caucasian majority — it’s the non-white countries whose cultures get written off as inferior. Italy has beautiful people and pasta but all of Africa is comprised of starving children and Asia eats dogs, etc. Cultural superiority and racism are way too closely intertwined to be able to call this issue one but not the other.
Camiele: It’d be redundant to say I’m absolutely disgusted with TMZ’s behavior. In the same league of filth as Perez Hilton — whose claim to fame is making fun of famous people like the grumbling troll in the corner at the school dance he is — TMZ not only knows nothing about journalism (I laugh putting the two terms in the same discussion), they have absolutely no respect for anyone they’re too talentless to be.
While Amber expressed her disgust, as most of us here have, it’s not as if this isn’t a pervading attitude in the States. Asians (from all parts of Asia) continue to be ridiculed for their accents, cultures, skin color, and lack of absolute proficiency in a language that isn’t their first, second, or sometimes third. This idea that American English (and at times British or French English) is the marker of not only intelligence but level of respect to be afforded plays into this horrendous display of humanity.
The internalized racism could be argued as nothing more than a survival tactic. We see it in many ethnic communities in America — an abdication of one’s culture and language for the sake of fitting in to the social “majority” or “norm.” When you’re continuously told that your culture/ethnicity is a lower form of humanity, you begin to accept it as truth and turn against yourself, wanting to try to purge that part of you from yourself in order to fit this ideal and avoid being treated like trash.
I’ve had to deal with being told that I “talk White” or that someone lily white and completely unethnic tells me they’re more Black than I am–because Black people apparently are all from the Projects, aren’t intelligent, and don’t speak their form of “perfect English.” I dealt with it from elementary to all through high school. So you can understand why shit like this enrages me.
Amy: My parents immigrated to America as college students and are basically fluent now in English, and nothing pisses me off more than when native English speakers treat their words with less respect or even blatant disregard just because it sounds a little different or comes out a little slower. TMZ mocking Junghwa’s English like that is so incredibly damaging, because laughing at her accent only discourages her and others like her from practicing English in the future.
As for claims of internalized racism, I can see it. I’ve said similarly deprecating things before, and looking back much of it was an attempt to dismiss my own racial identity to be accepted. Doesn’t mean the staffer’s comments were okay, but it’s possible they’re coming from a different place than her coworkers’.
Laverne: Internalized racism is such a tricky subject that I almost don’t feel comfortable speculating on this when I don’t know the Asian staffer personally. Sure, it could be internalized racism that led her to dismiss the mocking of the reporter. But it could also be that, in the grand scheme of things, she really didn’t see it as a big deal. Sometimes you have to know when to pick your battles and making that choice does not necessarily indicate internalized racism.
What I think is the more pressing issue is the widespread acceptability of mocking Asian accents. In the US, it’s almost acceptable to mock Asian accents whether it’s an East Asian accent or South Asian accent or whatever. It’s really a symptom of a larger problem — the inconspicuous marginalization of Asian Americans.
Mark: If we’re talking about whether or not it’s OK for Asians to utilize and reproduce the stereotypical Asian accent, it’s sort of similar to the rules regarding the N-word. It’s OK if Asians use the accent with other Asians who are also fluent in English. In that situation, it’s understood that the accent is being used satirically. It’s a way for Asian-Americans to acknowledge the institutional racism they live in and to mock it by pointing out how ridiculous it is to their group of peers.
In the context of the TMZ staffer, it’s not OK because the people involved in which she was performing to weren’t necessarily seeing it as satire or as her mocking the accent but rather as her reinforcing it and thereby lending her non-Asian peers the cultural currency to get away with using it as well.
Hania: I don’t think any of us were really surprised to hear this from TMZ, unfortunately. I’ve been worried about the reception of the “crazy K-pop invasion” in America for a while now, and this just goes to the potential disrespect that idols may face when entering the American market. EXID’s agency have released a statement stating that they will confront TMZ about this incident, so it will be interesting to see how far this goes.
I find the reaction of the Asian-American staff member disheartening. Like Laverne mentioned, it is complicated to speculate on whether or not someone is harbouring internalised racism, so we can’t pass harsh judgements on that staff member. What is true, however, is that many people from minority groups try to present themselves as a ‘good’ minority in order to be accepted by the mainstream, thereby trying to distance themselves from the ‘bad’ minority who do not integrate.
I can see why the Asian-American staff member may not have wanted to escalate the situation, in order to establish herself as a true Asian-American in front of her white colleagues. However, I know that many POCs like myself would ardently stand up for someone else who is mocked for their English-speaking abilities, so in this way, it is disheartening not to see some sort of solidarity in this situation.
It’s also important to note, however, that the other TMZ staff all cringed when the ‘reporter’ in question imitated Junghwa’s accent. When she tried to justify herself and said that she would’ve mocked British accents as well, the rest of the team dismissed her. This hopefully goes to show that such blatant racism is generally disavowed by the rest of the staff, giving us a little bit of hope for their future reporting of K-pop.
In regards to why some K-pop idols are happy to align themselves with EYK but not TMZ, I think Simon and Martina get away with a lot more because they give the impression that they critically engage in K-pop. TMZ, on the other hand, have behaved rudely towards someone who is a guest in their country, and also display no broader interest in K-pop. This makes their comments seem like an uneducated and shallow attack. I am not trying to say that one is less or more offensive than the other, but this may be explain why there has been a much harsher backlash against TMZ than EYK, from the fans as well as from within the industry (seen through Amber’s tweet and Yedang Entertainment’s statement.)
Gaya: I am completely with you, Laverne, on the picking battles thing, though it is not always easy to know which ones to pick. I’ve had all kinds of reactions to racism — from screaming “RACISTS” after a couple talking about how horrible Indian names were, to gaping at a five year-old spitting on the car I was in while yelling “ching chong!”, to meekly saying “thank you” when told that my English was “really good” — and there isn’t a single instance that I could refer to and say “I showed them!”
It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t kind of situation, and I think it would be better to focus on and fix the kind of environments that lead to these reactons than on the reactions themselves. Because, the fact is, people on the receiving end of these kinds of bigoted comments aren’t able to honestly express how they feel about them, and that is a bigger problem than what combination of words constitutes a perfect, nay, acceptable response.
Taecyeon, Roy Kim and Park Joon-hyung have also commented on social media, so there is definitely this feeling of a K-pop-vs-TMZ kind of battle building up here. But, we could also consider the hypocrisy of the K-pop industry complaining about someone making fun of an idol’s English skills when we see non-Korean idols mocked and criticised for their Korean, among other things.
However, I believe the industry has a right to defend itself from bigotry like this; and, it also has a responsibility to not be bigoted to others as well. And if this incident can lead to more self-awareness and prevention of bigoted actions — of not just Koreans, but everyone paying attention to this matter –, then something good will have have come out of this whole mess.
And I also want to say that while I’m not going to argue against the derision levelled at TMZ, it’s really important to remember that even the most respected organisations have done, are doing, and will do bigoted things. I definitely don’t want us all to only associate racism with the low-brow, because the high-brow does it just as much and we should be critical of it all.
Camiele: You’re absolutely right, Gaya. One could argue the high brow effectively set the standard by which their lesser accredited peers get up to. A sort of, “Hey if the rich dudes can do it, we can do it too.” Considering the privilege and access to resources more powerful forms of media (and the public in general) have, they have ways and means to subvert both attention and repercussion, while a sleaze rag like TMZ is less likely to be able to avoid the blast from people who aren’t disgusting human beings. After all, their producers had the power to cut that scene altogether, and no one would’ve been the wiser. They chose to air it, meaning they knew it would get laughs, because as many of us have stated, it’s historical fact American and British media have used mockery of all Asian cultures as entertainment.
Gaya: You can add Australian media to that list, too, Camiele. And you’re absolutely right about TMZ choosing to run the story they way they did. I know TMZ Live is, well, live, but the way that story was planned and prepared — they treated the entire thing like some sort of spectacle at the zoo — should have rung alarm bells somewhere.
Willis: There was a recent viral video of a man shouting at a children’s recital “English only, USA” after a Spanish translator started speaking. It seems like a significant example because these sorts of negative attitudes towards certain foreign languages and accents, which have spurred from historically oppressive media and imagery, are a disparaging reality usually felt more on a subtle level.
These attitudes take on a different shape when a race of people are reinforced as unable to properly speak American English and cast as outsiders. It is as if to say: you don’t speak English to an ‘acceptable’ level, so you don’t have a right to be here. Even when I was attending KMF, I heard some people in the crowd talking loudly about how the presenters or artists should speak English…as if these Korean artists at a Korean music festival shouldn’t be allowed to speak their own language?
As an identifying marker of the majority in the US, speaking American English affords power and is rewarded; and with that, it is inherently implied that those that are able to match the accent and language are more valuable than those that aren’t. The staffer implicitly expresses that EXID aren’t worthy of the reception they got at the airport as she derides Junghwa’s English.
Like Hania, I noted that the staff of TMZ seemed tentative when their coworker was mocking Junghwa because they realized the microagression displayed there is akin to racism. I also cringed when the Asian-American staffer gave the green light on the situation — as if the portrayal didn’t cross the line unless the staffer had added in “thank you, thank you.” Even if I disagree with the Asian-American staffer’s sentiment, she shouldn’t have to bear the pressure of determining what is hurtful to all Asiam peoples.
Of course, to top it all off, someone else on the staff would question where the Asian-American staffer was born because she certainly doesn’t seem to be a natural born American. It’s absurd! It just shows the train of thought that goes along with the mockery of language and accents. Even when you are born in the US and are able to speak good old American English, the effect of associating Asian (or other minority) bodies with a foreign identity lingers.
While internalized racism may or may not have occurred in this situation, when you continually question someone’s nationality because of their race and continually put them through these hurdles of proving their identity, there is a burden on the minority person to deal with fitting in or giving into the herd mentality — whether that entails not being so sensitive to hurtful cultural depictions or in speaking ‘proper’ American English.
Johnelle: When it comes to racist acts like this by Western media I always think twice about even making a big deal out of the issue. On one hand by bringing attention to TMZ’s actions in making fun of one of EXID’s members it’s just giving TMZ more internet traffic and recognition from irate international EXID and K-pop fans, which is like a bonus for them and they don’t seem to be suffering much from the negative responses. On the other hand, to not make a big deal out of it would be saying that what they did was okay, which it wasn’t, and that people of color should just laugh off such racist remarks.
In Hawaii after the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom and the ensuing annexation and admission of Hawaii to the United States of America, the disheartened and disenfranchised Hawaiian people encouraged their children to become “American” to better adapt at surviving in their new country.
This entailed sending them to schools where their beautiful poetic Hawaiian names were not allowed and they were instead given names like “Elsie,” “Mary,” or “Claire” and they were only taught to speak English, not Hawaiian and were punished if they did speak Hawaiian at school. Because of this a whole generation of Hawaiians, including my own grandparents and parents, did not learn their own language and the Hawaiian language almost became extinct. Although this is an extreme example, I bring this up to emphasize the fact that you should never let anyone make you ashamed of who you are and where you’re from, because that just gives them power over you.
As for the Asian reporter who thought that what the other reporter did was ‘acceptable,’ I’m not happy that she thought that it was ‘acceptable,’ but I’m not going to give her much shade for it because she probably lived her whole life not being ‘American’ enough because she’s Asian, and not being ‘Asian’ enough for being born and raised in the US. Which was only further exacerbated by the other reporter that asked her ‘what country she was born in.’ And really, if you’re not a Native American, what right do you have to ask someone that because that means you, or your ancestors, also came from another country.
(Instagram, KMF Official Website, Naver, Twitter, YouTube. Images via: Yedang Enterainment, TMZ, Universal Pictures, Paramount Pictures, Akiii Classic, Hawaiian Kingdom. Miley Cyrus image: credit to owner)