Monday, December 1, 2014

Black in Seoul: Love, Hate, and Objectification

Badass Yoga Nun hit the dance floor Saturday night. Every once in a while I need a good 2-4 hours of sweating on a dance floor to speed up my metabolic and metaphysical processes. In the wake of the Michael Brown trial in my solitary rage, I had been needing a physical outlet to vent—some pounding music and enough energy around me to support and inspire. I had not had an opportunity to dance in Korea, given the class and age segregation inherent in Confucianist Korea. Where is a 51 year-old yoga nun supposed to get her dance on? I’m told a lot of clubs not only have dress codes but also age caps—no one over 30!

Whatever….I decided to chance it at a queer-friendly party at a club in the foreigner district, Itaewon. Queer communities are more welcoming and less conservative as a rule, so I thought this might be the best setting to step out. On the other hand, I hadn’t been around White people in months and I immediately felt triggered. The armor I had been unconsciously shedding came back on, like the smoke that filled the basement bar.

Once inside, I had work to do. I stormed the dance floor like a banshee, unwilling to wait for the crowd to get drunk enough to dance. I was out there alone seemingly forever, old and unashamed, but eventually a few folks stepped up and sort of bounced mildly with drinks and cigarettes in hand.

Things got exciting when a spontaneous cipher began with a few gay Brown men voguing and a sister who joined them. Spectators whipped out their cameras and filmed the scene. I love ciphers for their unpredictability and the spirit of participatory democracy, but this one disturbed me after a while, because no one else was joining. It turned out to be a performance rather than a community dance-in. a racially charged exhibitionist/voyeur event.

In the wake of Michael Brown’s trial, a friend posted on Facebook, “If only white people loved Black people as much as they love Black culture.” To be Black in Korea is tough. In addition to a tradition of colorism and homogeneity among Koreans, there is an idolatry of White culture borne of an unhealthy relationship with the USA after more than a half century of occupation, and to Koreans, to be American means to be White. It seems Koreans have internalized some of the worst parts of White culture, based on mainstream media and a conservative military. And that equals both a fascination and a fear of Blackness.

Yet Black culture is highly sought out. African American hip-hop fills the airwaves here like it does all over the world, and I’ve connected with the African drumming and dance communities, as well as the Capoeira Angola community in Seoul. I’ve met artists from Burkina Faso, able to make a living here, performing and teaching, and hanging out with their Korean girlfriends. It all feels a little Josephine Baker-ish, and the long tradition of Black artists from Nina Simone to James Baldwin who left their homes to live where they could financially support themselves and live in a less overtly hostile environment.

On one hand, I love the universality of art and how it brings people together. On the other hand, I abhor exotification and cultural appropriation. This tension manifested on the dance floor, as the White and Asian crowd surrounded the Black dancers. Itaewon is also filled with Korean women in their microskirts hanging out with their White boyfriends. The interracial mingling goes beyond this trope, but this particular dynamic concerns me the most, because of the dominance of global whiteness and the fraught history of the USA in Korea. The walls of the Itaewon club flickered with videos of Black bodies—the less clothing the better, the air throbbed with Black voices, and now a cipher surrounding Black dancers.

Meanwhile, Michael Brown. And so many others whose names we may or may not learn, Brown and Black folks, victimized by systemic White supremacy.

What does it mean to love Black people, especially Black youth, especially Black male youth, and treasure them the way White culture treasures White youth? For those who claim to love Black people (“my best friend/boy or girl friend is ___”), how can you tell when you lapse into objectification, appropriation, and exotification of Black folks?

In America, we are Black or we are White. The extreme violence that surrounds us forces us to choose: we cannot be in-between. Society chooses for us, actually, and because Asians have been slaughtered in hate crimes just as African Americans have been, we are also Black. Think of Vincent Chin, Chai Vang, and just this month, Sao Lue Vang,

And yet, in Itaewon, are Koreans more White than Black? How does this manifest in how Koreans treat Blacks? How does this show up in how Koreans treat other Asians—the recent immigrants from Southeast Asia, their browner neighbors from sunnier countries?

May we Yellow and Brown folks embrace Blackness as a political, social, and cultural stance of solidarity. May we not idolize, idealize, exoticize, objectify, or exploit other people of color. May we love all our children and protect them from harm. May we link arms and stand together with fierce compassion. May we dance together on the sticky concrete dance floor in a basement bar in Seoul. May we shift the gaze from voyeur to participant. May we all take on the vulnerability and power of Michael Brown together.

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