South Korea has made global headlines this week after one of its most famous entertainers, Sam Okyere, made a post on social media about blackface.
Okyere, Ghanaian, faced backlash after he expressed outrage about a yearbook photo of local high school senior students parodying viral Ghanaian dancing pallbearers video. The photo showed five boys with their faces painted brown.
Okyere expressed in English, “Time and time again why won’t people get that blackface is very offensive and not funny at all,” Okyere had written in English. “There have been so many instances both on and off air where people paint their faces black here in Korean think it’s funny! It’s not and I am highly against it and highly disappointed. This has to stop in Korea! This ignorance cannot continue!”
Sam’s outrage was not met kindly by many Koreans. Some said he was “disparaging the Korean educational system, maliciously publicizing the issue by using an unrelated hashtag” and others called him a “two-faced racist” and told him to return to Africa.
South Korea and Blackface
This was not the first time South Korea has come under backlash for blackface in the public domain. In 2017, South Korean broadcaster, SBS was on the receiving end of social backlash after airing a series where the main character wore blackface. The broadcaster later issued an apology for the “inconvenience to the viewers” and removed the clip from online.
China and Blackface
In 2018, the Chinese government also received social backlash after the state-run CCTV broadcasted a skit, apparently intended to celebrate China’s relationship with African countries, which featured a Chinese woman dressed in blackface and wearing prosthetic buttocks impersonating an African woman at its Lunar New Year celebrations in China. Analysts reported that an estimated 700 million viewers tuned into the CCTV New Year’s Festival Gala.
In response, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Geng Shuang, claimed that any criticism of the skit was part of an effort to undermine China’s relationship with Africa. “China has always opposed any form of racial discrimination.” Any efforts to undermine the country’s ties with Africa would be a “doomed, futile effort,” , he said.
History of Blackface
While blackface’s history is American, it’s reach and use around the Western and Asia world continues, causing much pain for Black people, till this day. Blackface can be traced to minstrel shows in the mid to late nineteenth century. White actors routinely used black grease paint on their faces when depicting plantation slaves and free blacks on stage to mock African-Americans as inferior in every way. In fact, black actors sometimes wore blackface as well because white audiences didn’t want to see them on the stage without it.
The black caricatures from these minstrel shows such as Mammy, Uncle Tom, Buck, and Jezebel told a firm hold in the American imagination and carried over into other forms of entertainment, including the stereotypes of Black people as violent, poor, loud, and or uneducated.
The way forward
Today, blackface is deemed as universally unacceptable, although it continues to rear its head in many places throughout the world. The common refrain on blackface used in many Asian communities is that the negative connotation of blackface or the implied racism of blackface does not apply in Asia because the content does not have the same history of anti-black racism that the West does. Others also feign ignorance – saying that they do not know that Blackface is a problem.
But here’s the fact: not feeling racist when you’re wearing blackface does nothing to change how it affects those who see it. How a person or country feels in relation to blackface does not change its impact on everyone, especially black people, many of whom feel triggered, sad, or angry at seeing it. Blackface is not harmless and it’s not a joke.
And with today’s global community where news and events travel across borders quickly, feigning ignorance is no longer a solution. Governments across Asia must implement cultural competency programs in their schools and workplaces, especially entertainment, if we are to see continued improved relations between Africa and Asia.