EXP Edition and Race: An Open Disagreement with VICE

(The following views are mine and mine alone as a Korean American who has lived in Korea and has regularly taken lengthy visits back to the country. The following is a response to the VICE piece featuring the group EXP Edition.

Before I delve into my own opinions, I’d like to mention that I very much respect the fact that both VICE and EXP (to some extent) tried to be considerate of all opinions involved. I also do not think that EXP deserved hate or death threats.)

If you haven’t heard of EXP Edition by now, the short version is that it’s essentially a $30,000 Kickstarter-funded group of four white males (one half-Japanese) attempting to be taken seriously as Korean pop idols. EXP started out as Columbia student Bora Kim’s thesis experiment, and she hoped to create a “dialogue of cultural appropriation.”

Without having high hopes, sometime last year I decided to give them a shot by clicking on their music video to the track “Feel Like This.”

The Korean was so awful that I couldn’t even form an opinion on their vocals. I’m not trying to be mean, but it honestly felt like every distasteful joke or comment I’d ever received for my ethnicity had somehow been solidified and compressed into one 3:42 video.

I’ll admit, I forgot about this group after watching that, and it wasn’t until Lee Adams of VICE went to Seoul to do an investigative piece on EXP that I remembered who they were. While Adams might have been surprised at some of the reactions from the people involved, nothing in the VICE piece surprised me; nothing from the depicted responses of the Koreans, the interviews with the EXP members, the opinions of the international fans, or the conclusion drawn by VICE itself.

If anything, the piece affirmed my viewpoints on the matter, and I believe that the criticism expressed towards EXP has remained valid in many ways.

EXP, Kim, and VICE all seem to have an incomplete picture of the racial climate in both Korea (the K-pop industry in particular) and America. In VICE’s piece, both Kim and EXP came across as entirely unprepared for both succeeding in their chosen genre and for the backlash that would have been inevitable to anyone familiar with the reality of both relevant countries.

Though I’m sure that this wasn’t their intention, the entire experiment came across as an incredibly tone-deaf, insensitive, and distasteful display of white privilege. I’m going to reiterate that I don’t believe that EXP deserved hate or death threats, but their lack of preparation and the shock that they expressed from the hate really just came across as them being unfamiliar with the industry, unfamiliar with very relevant tensions, or honestly somehow thinking (even subconsciously) that they would be excused from this because of their race.

The fact that EXP has even gotten as far as it has is very much an example of how white privilege works. Can you imagine how much less support they likely would have gotten if they’d been entirely black, Latino, Middle Eastern, or any other person of color? Sure, you might try to argue that they’re not successful, and that they’re still trying to build their fandom. But raising $30,000 via Kickstarter, singing on music shows, and getting the amount of press that they’ve received is so much more than what the majority of K-pop idol hopefuls will even come close to achieving.

It’s comes across as tasteless when you consider that EXP has essentially encroached upon an already cramped space. Even though it’s incredibly difficult for a native Korean in Korea to become an idol, it’s still much easier for a Korean and an Asian American to succeed in K-pop than it is for an Asian American to succeed in the American pop scene. K-pop is perhaps the most major avenue out of already scarce few options for both Asians and Asian Americans to have even the slimmest chance at a singing and dancing career.

Despite their desire to change people’s perceptions of them, I’m not sure if EXP can really succeed at shaking off their image as a bunch of ignorant white Americans who believe that they can succeed in a marginalized people’s industry without proper research or preparation.

How many Asian non-classical musicians in America can you personally name? Off the top of my head, I myself can only really think of Far East Movement (though I don’t think they’ve been active in a long time), and Steve Aoki (who specializes in EDM). I didn’t even know that Bruno Mars was half-Filipino until a couple days ago since his ethnicity isn’t really brought up.

The point is, there’s a reason why so many Asian American hopefuls go to Asia and audition there in an attempt to pursue their dreams in the performing arts, and there’s a reason why so many non-Koreans from other parts of Asia desperately fight for a spot in K-pop. And even though EXP could have gone for a musical career in America, they chose to throw their weight in pretty much the only option that a marginalized group of people has.

For a thesis project where the very conception claimed to be about starting a conversation regarding race and culture, the members don’t seem to have given very much thought to the sensitive issues that they provoked (based on their reactions in the VICE piece). In the video, Kim admitted of her inexperience in entertainment management, and it’s very much visible. It’s most prominent in how she’s oversimplified the criticism as “ownership,” and of how little she seems to have prepared both herself and the EXP members for the backlash. Ordinary K-pop idols get incredible amounts of (undeserved) hate and death threats for even the slightest of potential offenses, let alone a group of privileged men blundering unaware through an entire minefield of unfortunate implications.

When I speak of privilege, I regard it as a set of unearned, unasked for, and usually unseen benefits allotted to people in dominant social backgrounds. And when I, and a lot of minorities, talk about white privilege in America, we are not hating on white people nor are we saying that white people aren’t capable of suffering. We are merely commenting on how white (or white-passing) people in this country are likely to not understand certain hardships due to the fact that modern-day American culture has built itself around catering to them.

As Ta-Nehisi Coates put it, “When you’re white in [America], you’re taught that everything belongs to you. You think you have a right to everything. … You’re conditioned this way. It’s not because your hair is a texture or your skin is light. It’s the fact that the laws and the culture tell you this. You have a right to go where you want to go, do what you want to do, be however — and people just got to accommodate themselves to you.”

It’s even a level of privilege when you consider how EXP appears to have handled the criticism from the international K-pop fans. So many K-pop performers would have been made to issue an apology to soothe down rage at this scale, whether they were in the wrong or not. The fact that EXP doesn’t appear to feel the need to do so or even understand the opposing point of view the way that VICE has tried to is pretty indicative in itself. Sure, in the video they expressed some consideration. But to me it honestly came across as unintentionally superficial, something they felt that they were supposed to say for the camera rather than genuinely introspective thought.

And yeah, some Koreans might shrug at the wrath expressed by some of the international K-pop fans. Some might find it hard to relate to the lengthy historical context of white people and their relationship with other cultures. You might even be one of them.

But if you know anything about Korean history, can you imagine how much hate and how many death threats Koreans would have sent EXP if they’d been a bunch of Japanese kids from Japan who tried to pull something similar? I don’t mean the current Japanese K-pop idols or trainees. I mean a bunch of native Japanese kids attempting to find another way into K-pop by bypassing the current system, being improperly trained in performing arts, and singing Korean with very heavy Japanese accents. Especially if they were unaware and ignorant of all the implications and the terrible history between both countries, and then expressed shock at the near-inevitable fury?

It’s in my belief that Korea would have ripped them apart. And it’s in my belief that many of the international K-pop fans are experiencing a similar sort of rage and distaste. In my opinion, the historical context is actually pretty relevant here.

Speaking of Korea, you might admire EXP for choosing to become a minority in a foreign country. You might say that the Koreans in Korea are alright with their linguistic ability, and that the Koreans in general seem fine with them.

However, a typical white American immigrating to Korea will almost never experience the same level of brutality a typical Asian would when immigrating to America. White privilege is very much true in both countries. I’m not saying that there aren’t any downsides to being white in Korea, and I’m not talking about Koreans of mixed-race. But when you’re white in Korea, for the most part there is so much that you can get with away with.

If you’re white and you can garble even a few sentences of bad Korean, it’s relatively easier for you to get modeling gigs or slots on television compared to Asians and other minorities. I’ve personally seen plenty of white people in ads on the Korean subway, but I have never seen a non-Asian person of color featured. This can get especially egregious in dramas when the acting of most of the white extras (with maybe a couple exceptions) can be incredibly jarring and oftentimes the worst part of the episodes.

It’s cute when a white person in Korea tries to speak Korean and attempts to learn about Korean culture. It’s considered a punchline when an Asian person in America cannot speak perfect, fluent English and is not completely assimilated into American customs.

And obviously not every Korean is like this, but it’s an unfortunate fact that a lot of Koreans fetishize white people. Ask any Korean who expresses a willingness to date a foreigner, and almost all of them will likely describe their ideal type as someone white, maybe someone blonde and blue-eyed for good measure. For some Koreans, dating a white person or even being around white people is an added element of social status, and a lot of the white people I knew in Korea commented on it: either to happily milk it to their advantage, or to express distaste at only truly being valued for their appearance (and sometimes their citizenship).

Like I said, that’s not everyone; some Koreans are violently against the idea of dating foreigners, and I do know Koreans in great, healthy interracial relationships that are actually based on loving a person’s character. But the fetishization nursed by many others is too common of a phenomenon to ignore when you consider the attitude a lot of Koreans have towards EXP.

I should probably make it clear that EXP’s race is not the sole factor in my own distaste. To some extent, I do not believe that white people or non-Koreans in general should be entirely excluded from becoming K-pop idols. I myself am a fan of Black Pink’s Lisa (Thai) and Seventeen’s Vernon (half-white) because of their solid preparation and their talent.

Though her career was very short-lived, one of the first white K-pop idols actually did come to pass in Sofia Ramazanova, and while I had some misgivings towards her for most of the reasons that I’ve listed prior, I still accepted her as a K-pop idol because she’d been adequately trained at an agency and had gone through the process like every other idol in Korea.

Regarding EXP’s Korean skills, as I said earlier their Korean was so bad that it diverted from their vocals. If I forget for a second that they’re trying to be a K-pop group, I wouldn’t have had an issue with them singing in Korean if they’d been stronger in the language. Honestly, I find it just as distracting when this happens with ethnically Korean performers who attempt to use the language in professional endeavors, but still aren’t comfortable enough to sing or act without their accents being egregiously noticeable. EXP really should have waited until they were competent in the tongue before trying to start careers that would hinge so much around their level of fluency.

Had EXP performed at the same caliber expected from typical K-pop idols at the very get-go, my reaction might have been different. In some ways, I respect that any individual is attempting to find a new way into the viciously difficult industry. But going about a different path towards that goal is hard to take seriously when the resulting quality doesn’t even come close to matching up with that of the existing system. I personally seriously doubt that any major K-pop label would have let EXP debut given where their skills were.

As for VICE, I’m honestly not sure if Adams really understands the reality of race in Korea. It’s ironic that VICE went to Korea to justify cultural appropriation when the country and the K-pop industry itself has consistently been such a terrible offender. Kim was quoted in the VICE piece as saying that “Korea has a totally different relationship with cultural appropriation”… and that’s just one way of putting it.

There have been so many cases of the Korean entertainment industry appropriating cultures or just being flat-out insensitive to other people groups; it’s to the extent that I’m honestly having trouble deciding which examples to focus on. A gigantic flaw in the K-pop industry is the massive lack of education and sensitivity regarding other races and cultures, and I’ve lost track of how many times fans have either looked the other way or tried to justify an idol’s lack of apology or growth due to the talent and likability of a celebrity.

As I’ve elaborated on in my other article, Asians in Asia for the most part don’t understand the concept of cultural appropriation or what it means to be a minority. In my opinion, VICE’s conclusion (an honest attempt) was yet another example of how shortsighted American media can be when failing to understand how and why the experiences of Asians in Asia and Asians in America are entirely different, especially in regards to race and culture.

In their EXP piece, VICE centered their video on posing questions that boiled down to querying on who should define cultural appropriation. In my opinion, the people who get to define what appropriation is and what racism is are the people who are actually affected by it and truly understand the damage behind both concepts. In the context of Kim’s experiment, that would probably be the international fans.

I don’t always agree with the international fandom, but in this case I don’t think that the criticism of the non-Asian fans needed to be written off to the extent that it did. In my opinion, I shouldn’t have to be black to express outrage when a non-black person uses the n-word. I shouldn’t have to be Muslim to find terrorist jokes disgusting. If anything, I’ve personally been touched that non-Asian fans, especially the white ones, have chosen to say something when my experience as an Asian in America has mostly involved fighting racism and aggression alone.

This is certainly not the response that EXP wants to hear, and at this point I wouldn’t be surprised if they’ve long since tuned out anything that wasn’t glowing support. But Bora Kim’s main objective with this project was to “start a conversation,” and the defining component of any conversation is truly hearing what the other side has to say. In this case, I’m not sure that they’ve properly done that.

And more importantly, I don’t think that they were ever really interested.

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