The Korea Herald


[Grace Kao] American racism against Stray Kids

By Korea Herald

Published : May 14, 2024 - 05:31

    • Link copied

As a K-pop fan, I was delighted that Stray Kids were attending the Met Gala on May 6, 2024. K-pop fans generally and Stays (the name of Stray Kids’ fandom) specifically celebrated the increasing inclusion of K-pop. Perhaps the US media now took K-pop seriously and would treat its artists respectfully.

We were wrong.

A few members of the paparazzi’s treatment of Stray Kids was shameful and racist, and embarrassed me as a fellow American. However, none of it was surprising and all of it was reminiscent of America’s history of racist treatment of Asian Americans.

I watched the behind-the-scenes footage shot by someone standing behind the photographers first posted on X and later to YouTube. Many K-pop fans have commented on this viral video. Below, I’ve transcribed what I could hear. It is loud in the room, and everyone is shouting. These lines are spoken by the photographers, but it was difficult to hear all of them. They are mostly shouting at the group members, but some commentary takes place amongst the photographers. My comments are in parentheses.

“How many are there? Guys, can you step back?”

“Guys, you need to be on the same level.”

“You all look crooked.”

“Get close. Move back, move back.”

“Can everybody face us? They’re diagonal.”

“Annyeonghaseyo” (mockingly).

“That guy is like 20,000 feet back.”

“We need them straight.”

“Gamsahamnida. Parallel, parallel.”

“Get closer, get closer. Can you guys get closer together?”

“It is what it is.”

“Gamsahamnida” (in a mocking tone)

“I’ll just take a headshot of each of you. How about that?”

“How about a cool pose?”

(Someone yelling at the photographers)

“Alright, tone it down. Tone it down, girls (giggles as “girls” is considered derogatory).”

“What the f--- is that? Jesus!”

“I’ve never seen so many unemotional faces in my life.”

“Like robots.”

“Yeah, right?”

“Aw, the reveal. Aww, now we gotta do it again.”

“Maybe now it would be better this time.”

“Now let’s do it with feelings!”

“(They’re not? going to) dance now. They’re going to start performing.”

“Turn this way … woah, I can get you at least.”

“Guys, you’re blocking people, you gotta be on the same level.”

“Straight ahead guys, straight ahead.”

“Everybody jump!”

“How do you say “right” in Korean?”

“Hey guys! As you were, as you were.”

“(Looking? (unintelligible]) for two K-pop fans… they’ll be searching for days, haha.”

I commend Stray Kids for their professionalism. As seasoned idols, they know how to pose for photographers. They also never lost their cool, but I can only imagine how angry they must have felt.

The comments by the photographers reveal many of the stereotypes of Asians and Asian Americans in the US (and elsewhere). First, they assumed that none of the members spoke English and mocked them for that reason. Bang Chan and Felix are Korean Australians and are native speakers. Han previously lived in Malaysia and speaks English. Seungmin resided in the US and also speaks English. In the US, most of us with Asian faces have had the experience of meeting people who are surprised we speak English, despite the fact that Asian immigrants have been in the US since at least the 1840s. We are seen as “forever foreign,” as Mia Tuan writes. The random Korean words shouted at them mocked them for their foreignness.

Early in US history, Asians (and Chinese in particular) were characterized as the “yellow peril,” -- hordes of Chinese would overtake the US, bringing disease, crime, and opium to the US. Chinese women were seen as prostitutes. In fact, the first law that restricted US immigration by national origin was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Just prior to this, The Page Act limited the migration of Chinese women. Dennis Kearney, chair of California’s Workingmen Party called Chinese immigrants a “race of cheap working slaves” and famously proclaimed that “The Chinese Must Go!” Articles supporting Chinese exclusion called them the “celestial horde,” “yellow peril,” or even “yellow hordes.”

Today, western journalists often confuse famous Asian Americans for each other. For example, in 2019, actor and comedian Rodney Chieng called out People magazine for misidentifying Asian actors in a photo. He tweeted, “Jae W Suh is not in this photo. I'm not Randall Park. And that's Tan Kheng Hua not Michelle Yeoh.” Of course, some media outlets have trouble telling K-pop groups from one another, much more the members within a single group. Even articles about BTS sometimes used different boy groups in the photo.

Asian Americans are known in the US as the “model minority.” We are supposed to be smart and studious. Men in particular are seen as geeky, nerdy, and good at math and science. Asians are seen as not creative, which is also a common stereotype of K-pop idols. Asians are also stereotyped as being cold and unemotional. In the same vein, these photographers called them “robotic” and said they “had never seen so many emotionless faces in their lives.”

Finally, the video also included a bit of misogyny -- when the (primarily male) photographers misbehaved, they were told by a man to “tone it down, girls,” followed by laughter.

Jeff Benjamin of Billboard wrote an excellent article about this incident. He was very generous to the photographers and called for “greater cultural sensitivity and inclusivity in entertainment.” While I wholeheartedly agree, I don’t think the content of the statements appeared out of nowhere -- rather, they echo the tropes used in a long history of discrimination and racism against Asians in the US.

So, while I am disappointed and sorry that this happened, I’m not surprised by the derogatory language used against them. Quoting the lyrics of Stray Kids’ song “S-Class,” I think they are “best of the best.” Fighting!

Grace Kao

Grace Kao is IBM professor of sociology and professor of ethnicity, race and migration at Yale University. The views expressed here are the writer's own. -- Ed.