Et tu, Chen?
It seems like we can’t go a day in the k-pop fandom without one of our faves doing something hugely problematic–particularly when it comes to casual racism. Latest on the bias-list chopping block is Kim Jongdae (stage name Chen) from uber-popular boy group EXO, who enraged stans this weekend by making a joke referencing Kunta Kinte (the iconic protagonist of the landmark 1977 American miniseries ROOTS, which famously highlighted the plight of Africans enslaved in antebellum America).
The incident occurred on a V-Live broadcast with his fellow EXO-CBX sub-unit members, when Baekhyun decided to make Chen over with dark, over-lined lipstick look. Seeing his makeup, Chen laughingly said: “isn’t this Kunta Kinte?”
Here’s where matters get muddled within the fandom: apparently, the English subtitles for the livestream translated him as asking “Aren’t my lips too plump?” Leading some stans to try to defend him against the backlash. But even if you believe that (which you prob should not, since the Korean subtitles clearly include the reference), not even a second later in the broadcast Chen goes on to compare himself to Michol, a popular Korean cartoon character widely regarded as blackface.
As reported by Koreaboo, “Kunta Kinte” is a term often used in Korea to make fun of people with fuller lips.
There was an episode of a Korean makeover show with a contestant who was called “Kunta Kinte girl” because of her larger lips; last year, Korean rapper Hwangbo posted an Instagram with a caption discussing her insecurities about her lips growing up, when kids would call her “Kunta Kinte lips.”
As Koreaboo points out, “to refer to a person with thick, dark lips as ‘Kunta Kinte’ is not only a racist remark, but also undermines the character’s symbolic and cultural significance.”
Asian pop culture and the k-pop industry specifically is often accused of either appropriating black culture–getting dreadlocks, “talking black,” etc– or mocking black people–like Mamamoo’s straight-up blackface cover of Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk.” Members of EXO themselves (as well as other bands, including my own faves BTS) have come under fire for colorism after making jokes about other members’ darker skin tones–because while Korean society may be racially homogenous, pale skin has been idolized as a beauty standard for centuries.
At the end of the day, though, it’s 2018. While South Korea may be a nation without the spectre of slavery or racial segregation in its past, the world is much smaller than it once was. If you’re knowledgeable enough about American culture to know who Kunta Kinte is, you sure as hell know enough to understand why it’s not cool to make jokes like this about him. When you have a global fanbase, you need to weigh the global implications of your actions.
It’s not just international fans who are upset; Korean fans are also criticizing the idol and urging the group as a whole to improve. While unfortunately many stans will be willing to write this whole thing off with an “oppa didn’t mean it,” if he doesn’t want to get written off by the rest of us, Chen better get to reflecting & apologizing–and fast. As of this writing, no one from EXO or their agency has commented on the incident.