Why do Koreans Take on Black Music?

Dear Korean,

When I listen to Korean radio stations I hear 90's R&B imitations, right down to the 'oohs' and 'aahs'. For a nation of people that look down on blacks, why adopt the music and dance?


There are certain dumb questions that get asked in high frequency, and this has been one of them.

First of all, let's make sure to state what the Korean has stated numerous times before:  racism in Korea against darker-skinned folks is real. If you are a darker-skinned foreigner in Korea, you will be treated differently from Koreans. That much is true.

What makes this question dumb is the inability to distinguish different shades of racism. No one -- certainly not the Korean, who has written many, many posts decrying racism -- disputes that racism is vile. Yet there plainly is a difference between the type of racism behind firing off a callous racist joke, and the same behind burning a cross on an African American's front yard. Many, however, slap the same "racism" label across the board and refuse to think much further. The result is a dumb question like this one.

This inability is not simply annoying. It damages and delegitimizes our ability to address racism effectively. Our response against racist actions must be graduated (that is, be put forth in various differing degrees) according to the depth and effect of the racism behind those actions. Failure to do so reduces the fight against racism to a butthurt, over-sensitive arm-waving. It turns the fight against racism into a joke.

Why do Koreans take on black music? Come on. United States in the 1950s was incomparably more racist than Korea today. There was an official policy of segregation for much of the country; most institutions for social mobility (e.g. colleges) were unavailable to African Americans; rape and lynching were common, and no one was ever convicted for those crimes. Yet Elvis Presley -- who expressly acknowledged the African American roots of his music -- was the greatest superstar of that decade. Gee, why did a white American like Elvis adopt black music and dance?

Allow the Korean to reiterate:  racism in Korea is real. A lot of Koreans genuinely believe that color of your skin is associated with the content of your character. Foreigners with darker skin are often treated poorly, especially if they are in a situation to pose a threat to Korea's racial majority. But that does not mean that a black person would be pelted with stones while walking down the streets of Seoul. That does not mean that Koreans have a categorical and unflinching stance of rejection toward everything African or African American. Koreans take black music and dance for the same reason anyone else did -- because they are beautiful and awesome.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.