blackface on Asian media
Collage: VICE / Image: CCTV's YouTube channel
Culture

We Need To Talk About Asia’s Blackface Problem

The use of blackface remains common in many Asian countries across variety shows, TV dramas, advertisements, and social media.
May 25, 2021, 4:14am
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On May 25th a reckoning with systemic racism was reignited. It's still here — and so are we.

On any given weekend, law student Francesca Famatiga spends quality time with her family watching their favorite TV shows. This includes Your Face Sounds Familiar Kids, a hit singing competition in the Philippines where local celebrity performers impersonate pop stars. They don’t just need to sound like the singers they are copying; they also need to look like them. But while watching the show one night in 2018, Famatiga noticed something disturbing.  

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On stage were three boys dressed as Mariah Carey and members of Boyz II Men, belting out the song “One Sweet Day.” One boy was in a long blonde wig and a ball gown, and the other two wore white suits and fake facial hair—both had visibly darkened their skin with makeup. The celebrity judges clapped and laughed in amusement throughout the performance.

“Wow,” Famatiga’s father exclaimed. “They look exactly like Boyz II Men!”

But Famatiga, then in college, was shocked to see blackface so casually depicted on national TV. This isn’t right, she thought, while observing her family’s reaction. That’s when she got the idea to conduct research on the show for her undergraduate thesis in broadcast communication. 

“They were really entertained and gratified by it. They didn’t think something was wrong,” Famatiga told VICE. “On the other hand, it was really jarring for me. I didn’t understand why they didn’t see it as disturbing.”

But her family’s reaction reflected the way many Filipinos felt. A video of the performance uploaded on YouTube has raked in over 7 million views and thousands of comments, mostly positive. Attempts to discuss the broader context or criticize the performance were shut down. 

“These boys were just trying to look like the original singers. No need to apologize,” one YouTube commenter said. Another claimed that imposing critical views of blackface on Filipinos was a form of “cultural colonialism” and that Filipinos are the ones who deserve an apology, from people forcing their values on them. 

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The show did not respond to a request for comment for this article. 

While the use of blackface has been increasingly called out in the United States and other Western countries, it’s still common in Asia, where it is featured on variety shows, TV dramas, advertisements, and social media. 

Through her thesis research, Famatiga found that Filipinos have varying opinions and levels of awareness about it.

“Many of the respondents think that blackface is an essential element of the show, it’s what brings in the ‘X factor,’ the stage presence, apart from the singing and dancing,” she said. “The makeup is what completes the impersonation, they think. If it’s a Black person, then they think black makeup is essential. If it’s a white person, then they will be in white makeup.”

But there seems to be a generational divide. Younger Filipinos tend to see blackface as problematic, while older generations think it’s OK. Limited discussion on the issue is a factor too.

“Most Filipinos aren’t really educated on blackface, and we can’t blame them because I think we’re so impoverished as a country, they focus first on basic necessity. We’re not really informed about Black history, and we need to do something about it,” Famatiga said.

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Popularized in 19th century minstrel shows in America, blackface was used by white actors in comedic performances that mimicked enslaved people and reinforced deeply held racist stereotypes, according to the National Museum of African American History & Culture.

Sociologist Ash Presto, who teaches at the University of the Philippines, hopes Filipinos will soon realize that accepting blackface contributes to the legacy of white supremacy and discrimination.

“Many Filipinos see blackface only as a costume,” Presto told VICE. “Unfortunately, they are not aware that this characterization steps on centuries of Black discrimination and essentializes people solely based on their skin color.”

“Many Filipinos see blackface only as a costume.”

Presto added: “Many Filipinos, too, do not [yet] see that this oppression comes from white supremacy that they themselves are also victims of, as shown in the continued hate crimes against Asians in the U.S.” 

It’s a similar situation in other parts of Asia. 

In Thailand, a video went viral on social media last year showing Thai soldiers dancing in blackface and with what appeared to be spears as they parodied the viral Ghanian dancing pallbearers, who became a popular social media meme during the pandemic. Those watching the soldiers broke into loud cheers, awed by their dance moves. Online, however, the reaction was very different. James Buchanan, a researcher of Thai politics, said that Thai Twitter users “found it very distasteful and shameful.” But it did not receive the same amount of attention in mainstream media, according to Buchanan.

More recently, China made international headlines in February when local performers donned blackface during the 2021 Spring Festival Gala, a special Lunar New Year program by state-owned broadcaster CCTV, reportedly watched by 1.2 billion people around the world. Performers who darkened their skin entertained the audience in a segment called “African Song and Dance.”

Responding to widespread criticism afterwards, China’s foreign ministry said that the inclusion of foreign cultural elements in the show was a sign of respect and that it shouldn’t be seen as a diplomatic issue. 

“If anyone wants to seize on the CCTV Spring Festival Gala programme to make a fuss, or even sow discord in relations between China and African countries, they obviously have ulterior motives,” the ministry told Reuters

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Keisha Brown, a professor and researcher of modern Chinese history at Tennessee State University, told VICE that it wasn’t the first time China has faced backlash for cultural appropriation. In fact, it’s not even the first time the Spring Festival Gala was called out for blackface.

“Why is the scene OK even in 2021, after what happened in 2020, after a huge exposure of how Black people are treated, particularly in Guangzhou?” Brown said.

Last year, scenes of African migrants sleeping on the streets in the southern city of  Guangzhou spread on social media after they were kicked out by their landlords over suspicions of having COVID-19. 

While some defended the intent of the Spring Festival Gala performance, Brown said the Chinese government should have known better. 

“I think intention is part of the equation, but I also think that information is the other part,” she said. “Now in 2020, 2021, you have information, you have access, [and] are actively engaging in countries... [where] the majority population is focused on the Black diaspora.”

“I think intention is part of the equation, but I also think that information is the other part… Now in 2020, 2021, you have information, you have access.”

But even just speaking out against blackface can sometimes become a national issue.

South Korea-based Ghanian television personality Sam Okyere was forced to apologize after he expressed disappointment over the continued use of blackface in the country. Similar to the video that went viral in Thailand, he was reacting to photos of high school students imitating the Ghanaian pallbearers. The South Korean students were dressed in black suits, their faces darkened, while posing with a cardboard coffin. 

“I feel regret and sadness to see something like this in 2020. This is not funny! From the stance of Black people, this is very insulting. Please don’t do this! I can understand you’re trying to imitate a different culture, but is there a need to paint your face black?” Okyere said in a now-deleted post. “This has to stop in Korea!!! This ignorance cannot continue!!!!!” he added. 

After posting that, Okyere was targeted by people defending the students and received insults online. The backlash pushed him to apologize.  

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“I had no intention to humiliate the students. I had gone too far in expressing my opinion, and I apologize for using their picture without their consent,” he said in an Instagram post. “I have received lots of love for a long time in South Korea, and I believe I was indiscreet this time. I apologize again. I will become a more educated person.”

Gil-Soo Han, a sociologist and professor of media studies at Monash University, said the controversy highlights the ignorance of some South Koreans on the issue of race, one that is perpetuated partly by their mostly ethnically homogenous society and strong nationalism.

“It is that kind of social climate where a lot of people think that [blackface] does not really matter and it is more about ignorance,” he told VICE. “[Some Koreans think] what’s the matter? We can do whatever we want.” 

A survey conducted in 2019 showed that seven out of 10 foreign residents in South Korea believe that racism exists in the country. Respondents reported that they’re discriminated against because of their Korean language skills and because they are not Korean. 

Problematic depictions of race even extends to K-pop, which has long been criticized for cultural appropriation, racist impersonations, and straight-up blackface. Girl group MAMAMOO was under fire in 2017 when they performed Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk” in blackface

“The success of K-pop and K-drama made the mistakes stand out,” Han said. “No one can escape the netizen policing activity.”

Because of this, the growing South Korean entertainment industry has had to adapt to its increasingly global audience.

“That sort of misbehaving, that sort of discriminatory behavior is part of the media, and I am sure [they were] a lot more frequent in the past. Today, K-pop and K-drama have a lot more global audience and I think, in general, they have learned a lot of lessons and they are learning fast,” Han said.

The challenge now is to educate Koreans on this changing culture.

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“The impact of the media is so strong, and Koreans are learning very fast,” he said. “Koreans probably don’t know a lot about blackface, but they are learning fast that blackface is a problem.”

“Koreans probably don’t know a lot about blackface, but they are learning fast that blackface is a problem.”

Just as pop culture can help perpetuate negative stereotypes, it can also foster more-inclusive values. In the Philippines, there’s a long way to go to educate Filipinos on the dangers of blackface, but Famatiga is optimistic that more responsible and culturally sensitive portrayals of people of color in the media will help.

“We need to educate ourselves even outside the classroom. Even though it doesn’t concern Filipinos, I think it’s important for us to be involved. They’re human. We don’t want humans to be treated any other way except to treat them as humans,” Famatiga said. 

Follow Anthony Esguerra on Twitter.