K-pop fans at a “Random Dance Play” event at The Source OC in California, USA, in November 2019. Racism and hate in K-pop fandoms has become an increasingly large problem. Photo: Shutterstock
Tamar Herman
Tamar Herman

Racism and hate have no place in K-pop fandoms, but are rife. What can we do?

  • Violent threats, racism and misogyny have replaced dialogue in response to journalists and fans who raise legitimate criticism of K-pop acts
  • As long as social media platforms like Twitter act as enablers, we can do little but continue calling out negativity when we see it, even if it feels useless
Tamar Hermanin United States

Right now one of the most talked-about issues in English-language K-pop social media spaces is not the stars or the music, but rather the bad behaviour of some individuals using their fandom as excuses for racism and hate.

Several recent high-profile instances between journalists and fans stoked the flames, resulting in the harassment of three women culture writers and reporters: one Korean, one Korean-American and one Barbadian. Each, and anyone who publicly discussed the instances, faced aggressive, often violent, rhetoric accompanied by hateful, misogynistic and racist slurs following things they either wrote or said, prompting outrage from different groups of K-pop fans.

These three women are far from the first people to have faced targeted hate campaigns at the hands of pockets of fans who rally together not to spread love for their favourite stars, but to spread hate.

Racism and hate is rampant in online communities, and K-pop fan spaces, as positive as they can be, are no different. It’s nothing new for fan communities; a certain section of Star Wars fans, for example, has long spewed racism and hate at non-white and female stars who have appeared in the series, running some off their public social media accounts.

Fans cheer BTS at a performance in New York’s Central Park on May 15, 2019. Photo: AFP

To be clear, it’s not just journalists that suffer; other K-pop fans are also targeted. “14 BTS fans talk about the racism they’ve experienced within the fandom” read a Buzzfeed headline in May 2018. In July 2021, an article on the same site talked about how fans of Enhypen had come together to speak up against racism in their fandom, after a member of the group was accused of singing the N-word in the background of a video.

Both stories followed high-profile blow-ups, but anyone who engages frequently with K-pop fandom communities has likely seen similar behaviour, where individuals who criticise or question artists or their music receive responses that rapidly descend into negativity. Those who speak up in support, or even merely to discuss the situation, also come under fire.

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I want to make it clear that this is not an attack on either of the aforementioned artists or any specific fandom at large. The behaviour is commonplace across many groups of K-pop fans on social media, with larger fandoms typically seeing the most nastiness, with the toxicity scaled for size.

The hate has only gotten worse in recent years, in line with that seen in general across social media. What once felt like outlying instances, each individually worthy of a headline, has become a structured way to silence dissent. Violent threats, racism and misogyny have replaced dialogue in response to someone raising legitimate criticism of K-pop acts.

And yet, this widespread negativity comes amid stories of K-pop fan communities rallying in favour of charitable and social-justice causes, and fans regularly come to the defence of their favourite stars when it is them who are the victims of racism and hate. Fans, like people, are neither all bad nor all good.

Fans gather to get a glimpse of Momoland at KCON USA in Los Angeles on August 10, 2018. Photo: Reuters

In a space that has the opportunity to foster greatness, why is it that hate is so loud? How have people become so comfortable posting threats and slurs in response to something that has personally offended them? Is everything so fragile that a single voice raising questions or concerns, whether right or wrong, is cause for abuse and racism?

The problem is not just the individuals who spread hate loudly and proudly, but it’s also the social media platforms that enable it. The algorithm behind most, including Twitter, promotes engagement to keep users on their platforms, and negativity is sadly what thrives. Positive content typically gets less engagement. Users and platforms both take advantage of outrage-fuelled negativity garnering more attention, creating an environment where aggressively offensive discourse is the norm.

How can we handle this widespread toxicity when even condemning hate leads to more of the same, and silence achieves nothing? It’s so widespread it seems insurmountable at times. As Robert Jones Jr, the writer behind social justice media entity Son of Baldwin, wrote in his farewell post to being active on social media on June 19: “The tenor of social media has gotten increasingly hostile and malicious … And the audience seems to require increasingly higher levels of drama and conflict to be satiated; which I think encourages cruelty and viciousness (the more harsh and malicious the post, the more likes and shares).”

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While we can opt to protect ourselves by leaving social media platforms or conversations, and moving to new ones or private chats, I truly don’t know what’s to be done about this as long as social media platforms act as enablers. The only other thing we can do as individuals is to continue calling out racism and other forms of hate when we see it, even if it feels useless.

K-pop fan communities have a long, thriving relationship with social media, and walking away is something not everyone can do. Where do we, as K-pop fans who typically take immense joy in these communal spaces, go from here? I don’t know, but I hope we can find a more positive path forward.