Unpacking Biases Through K-Pop

Until a couple of months ago, if anyone suggested a K-pop song, I would have given a half-hearted “maybe I’ll give it a try”. This likely wouldn’t translate to any attempt to do so.

K-pop isn’t a new form of entertainment; local radio stations in the Philippines have been promoting songs of idol boy and girl groups for as long as I can remember, and K-pop music video trends go viral on the weekly. But for some reason, I never got around to liking them— in fact, I tried to stay as far away as I could. No one could pay me to dance to PSY’s “Gangnam Style” or convince me to pose with tiny finger hearts to look cute.

I never really saw my apathy as an issue. I was adamant about my stance and didn’t feel the need to immerse myself in the Korean wave that had seemingly swept away everyone’s hearts (except mine). I felt content listening to my playlist filled with Original Pinoy Music (OPM) or Western music. But as the pandemic worsened, the days at home turned into weeks, and then into months. I was starting to run out of content when I came across a Facebook post of Red Velvet’s live rendition of “Psycho” that was shared by one of my friends. I haven’t stopped listening to K-pop since.

Truthfully, I was embarrassed. How could I suddenly be so accepting of a music genre I used to purposely stay away from? I felt uncomfortable.

For the longest time, I prided myself for not being racist— or so I thought. I never said the n-word, appropriated different cultures, or mocked someone’s English. But these feelings of shame couldn’t be denied. Would I think and feel the same way if it was pop music sung in English, written by a western artist? That was when I realized the problem, one that I refused to acknowledge until recently.

For years, I had been masking a subtly racist and xenophobic mindset under the guise of “I don’t understand what they’re saying” and “It’s just not my vibe”. I may not have been visibly or consciously racist, but my aversion towards K-dramas and K-pop was racial discrimination.

It would be irresponsible of me to claim that this aversion was rooted in nothing more than my music preference.

Like most kids at my school, I grew up watching the likes of Hannah Montana, Big Time Rush, and One Direction. If I wanted to listen to R&B, I would put on Rihanna, Black Eyed Peas or Ne-Yo songs. The few students in my class who genuinely enjoyed listening to K-pop were seen as “weird”. Back then, it wasn’t “cool” to stan groups whose lyrics you couldn’t understand.

Whenever I saw K-pop idols perform on the TV screen, I would scoff and think to myself, “You can’t even tell them apart, how can I possibly enjoy the song?”. Not to mention that I saw them as “too feminine” for wearing makeup, undergoing plastic surgery, and lightweight builds.

I unconsciously subscribed to a harmful stereotype. Looking back, I now realize that this mindset is a reflection of the prejudices of the environment I grew up in which, unfortunately, still exist today.

I grew up in the Philippines, where Western export can be found (and is preferred) everywhere: from shoes like Nike, to gadgets like Apple, and naturally, music. In fact, unlike most of our neighboring countries who teach in their native tongues, our language of instruction is English. This meant growing up thinking that Western culture is superior, despite K-Pop music being just as accessible as Western music. Moreover, while this isn’t a prejudice that exists solely in the Philippines, I also grew up in a society that heavily emphasized macho culture--that boys don’t cry, and “real” men are never effeminate.

As I reflect on it now, I now realize that It was not enough that I didn’t say the n-word, appropriated another’s culture, or mocked someone’s English, because there are problematic actions I did not hold myself accountable for. I have always prided myself for being a feminist ever since I learned what the word meant, but contributed and propagated to the idea that men must act and look a certain way.

My experience has taught me two important things. First, to keep myself in check, but more importantly, that there are unconscious biases that I have to unlearn. Racism and feminism, as I now understand, are so much more than checklists of things I should and shouldn’t be doing. Even the smallest and subtlest of actions contribute largely to the systemic oppression of minorities. Second, these issues do not exist in a vacuum. My discrimination towards this certain culture is a result of both racist and sexist beliefs. Understanding these issues means unpacking several layers of bias, no matter how uncomfortable it gets.

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