Is Celebrity Advocacy Really Helpful?
Examining BTS’ Visit to the White House

Photo Credit: The White House/Adam Schultz

By Nusrath Naurin

On May 31, the world-famous K-Pop group Bangtan Sonyeondan (BTS) visited the White House to meet with President Biden to mark the end of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. The visit represented the Biden Administration’s ongoing efforts to raise awareness of the recent rise in violent crimes against Asian Americans around the country, particularly in cities such as New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

The band promoted a message of unity and inclusion and praised the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, a bipartisan bill passed by President Biden in 2021 that will establish state-run hate crime reporting hotlines and invest in community-based resources. In his remarks, the band’s leader RM thanked President Biden for providing an “opportunity to speak about these important causes and to remind ourselves of what we can do as artists.”

BTS is part of a growing number of high-profile celebrities, including Daniel Dae Kim, Olivia Munn, Elliot Page, and others who have spoken out about the rise in anti-Asian harassment and violence. According to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, crimes against Asian Americans have increased by more than 300% since the start of the pandemic and was further fueled by former President Donald Trump’s remarks about blaming China and East Asians for the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic to the United States. So how effective are high-profile voices and their efforts to build awareness in reducing anti-Asian hate and violence? Many in the Asian American community have weighed in on the benefits and importance of celebrities advocating for social causes, a recurring conversation as the role of celebrities in shaping social culture has continued to grow and evolve over the years.

Organizations often seek celebrity advocacy due to the large audiences they attract, which is ultimately important to the exposure and awareness of any social cause. The band’s appearance at the White House has been applauded by their fans, many of whom are Asian American and greatly appreciate the members for speaking up on this issue. Although BTS is a Korean pop group, their message of unity and inclusion is significant to Asian American and Asian immigrant communities who see a representation of themselves in the band.

For years, Asian Americans have not seen our communities positively represented in American popular culture, yet BTS has captured a global audience in a historic way. Following the 2021 Atlanta spa shooting that killed eight people, six of whom were of Asian descent, BTS released a statement denouncing the shooting and spoke on their own experience with racism. “We recall moments when we faced discrimination as Asians,” the statement said. “We have endured expletives without reason and were mocked for the way we look. We were even asked why Asians spoke in English.”

Therefore, the White House’s decision to invite the band to discuss anti-Asian hate crimes is completely understandable given the band’s advocacy for this issue and the representation they provide to Asian Americans and Asian immigrants across the country. Although BTS has a history of social activism, such as their $1 million donation to the Black Lives Matter Movement, it could be argued that the intention of this recent White House appearance was ultimately to increase President Biden’s connections with younger audiences.

BTS’ meeting has been beneficial in the sense that it promotes a dialogue of diversity and inclusion of the diverse Asian American communities across the country. However, real change occurs when awareness is coupled with structural changes and action. The same could be said about an organization that only focuses on awareness, but falls short on advocating for systemic changes. For that reason, it is imperative that when high-profile individuals get involved, they stay involved and go deeper with their advocacy.

There have been moments when celebrity advocacy has been effective, such as George Clooney and Angelina Jolie’s public support for victims of civil war during the Darfur conflict. In those instances, their efforts to increase media coverage were integrated with direct relationship-building and advocacy to try and change the living conditions of impacted people. In 2006, Clooney spoke to members of the UNSC to help mobilize political action against violence in the region, while Jolie served as a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador by speaking with Sudanese women who fled fighting in Darfur.

In addition to strongly condemning anti-Asian harassment and violence, an effective multi-pronged approach that celebrities can take is advocating for increased access to hate crime reporting resources and legislation that requires holistic education on Asian American history and the history of all communities of color. When coupled with structural and long-term solution building, celebrity advocacy can play a pivotal role in helping shift culture and dismantle decades-long racism. For instance, Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Chicago’s advocacy led to the passage of the Teaching Equitable Asian American Community History (TEAACH Act) which instituted that “every public elementary and high school student in Illinois learns about the contributions of Asian Americans to the economic, cultural, social, and political development of the United States.”

By supporting legislation such as the TEAACH Act, celebrity advocates are not only able to condemn anti-Asian violence, but also promote laws that will directly support the representation of Asian American culture and history. Implementing these changes will ultimately establish long-term solutions to combatting systemic racism, rather than short-term solutions that lack concrete action steps and commitment to change.

Nusrath Naurin is the Communications intern at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC.

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Advancing Justice – AAJC

Advancing Justice – AAJC

Fighting for civil rights for all and working to empower #AsianAmericans to participate in our democracy.