Author | Sojeong Park (Research Fellow, Center for Hallyu Studies, Seoul National University Asia Center)
Date | October, 2023

Image from Youtuber 'Rachel Kim'

It's been more than a decade since Korean pop culture gained popularity beyond East Asia and around the world, giving rise to the phenomenon of transnational fandom. Fans in different cultural contexts have bonded over their love for certain stars across languages and borders, but they have also clashed over different interests. The controversy between "whitewashing" and "yellowashing" within the global K-pop fandom is an interesting example of this conflict.

The whitewashing and retouching of star images is a common aesthetic and media practice in Korean media. Photos taken by fans, including so-called "homma(an abbreviation of hompage master)," the operators of websites that continuously post photos of idols, are often filtered or retouched to create a transparent, whitened skin.

However, when these images are viewed by overseas fans, they can be disturbing and intrusive. In this context, some overseas fans have begun to criticize the photos distributed by domestic homemasters as "whitewashing". Originally, "whitewashing" was used to describe a situation where a white actor played a non-white character in a Hollywood movie. However, overseas K-pop fans have given it a new meaning by using the term to describe the practice of beautifying idol photos. The essence of the criticism lies in the belief that whitening denies "Asian authenticity" by internalizing white-centric or Western-centric standards of beauty.

About Bleaching

International fans claim that whitening is problematic on the level of political correctness, linking it to the "Black is Beautiful" movement and messages such as "Love Yourself. For example, one overseas fan criticized the inability of Koreans to accept identity as it is. Referring to a BTS album titled "Love Yourself," the fan argued that BTS promotes self-love, but Korean fans change their skin color to resemble another race. In addition, it is not uncommon for Korean media to report on idols expressing insecurities about their darker skin or making fun of members with darker complexions. Western fans have also reacted negatively to the practice of bleaching, criticizing the culture for its potential to perpetuate discrimination and hierarchy based on skin color.

In the midst of the whitewashing controversy, fans abroad have organized a movement to recalibrate photos that have been whitened or to archive photos that appear unaltered. A quick Google image search for "Kpop whitewashing" reveals numerous examples. There are also many people on Tumblr, an image-based social media platform, who use the words "restored," "recolored," "unwhitewashed," and "unbleached" in their account names and hashtags. They archive photos that they believe have not been altered by filters, lighting, etc., or that have been "restored" by recalibration to be closer to the original. Fans who support these accounts support the political correctness of these restorations and see them as an evolutionary step for fandom.

However, there is a problem with the way this is being done. Some of the restored photos are excessively darkened or have yellowish filters. This proves that there is an international idea of what is "natural" or "appropriate" skin color for Koreans or Asians. For international fans who are less likely to see K-pop idols in real life, their perception of these idols may be shaped by a stereotypical image associated with Asians that is deeply rooted in a history of Orientalism. Therefore, both domestic and international fans who react negatively to these restoration photos criticize them for promoting a "yellowing" or "blackwashing" effect. The attempt to pigeonhole Koreans into a certain appearance under the guise of authenticity is seen as a colonialist and racist attitude.

Different Racial Sensitivities

This controversy within the K-pop idol fandom goes beyond a mere fan conflict. It reveals the problems of racial and ethnic sensitivity within transnational fandoms in a globalized environment. For example, when a fan criticized the use of BTS's slogan in whitewashed photos, a backlash ensued. This response raised questions such as when international fans will realize that light skin has long been a standard of beauty in Korean culture and is not necessarily associated with whiteness. It also questioned whether such criticism came from a privileged Western perspective and reflected a lack of awareness of other cultures.

In this rebuttal, a different aspect of racial sensitivity comes into play than in the whitewashing claims. Critics of whitewashing argue that there is no such thing as a fixed racial color, that white skin is not exclusive to whites, and that the notion of "yellow skin" stems from the Orientalist concept of "othering. In doing so, they call for a critical look at race and the possibility of a new imagination. Furthermore, the cultural
K-pop's cultural hybridity contributes to this imagination. K-pop's global appeal is due to its hybrid aesthetic that crosses national, racial, and cultural boundaries. The genre's hybridization of black music, electronic pop, and more, as well as its stylistic use of colorful hues, has allowed for an aesthetic expansion beyond fixed identity categories to navigate boundaries. Fans of these hybrid forms and transformations are also experiencing a multifaceted acceptance of different cultures while developing a sensitivity to understanding one another.

In addition to whitewashing and yellowing, conflicts between the K-pop industry and global fandom, as well as within transnational fandom, have been a recurring theme. In 2017, the girl group MAMAMOO was criticized for parodying a Bruno Mars song while wearing blackface, and more recently, Indian fans expressed concern over a Blackpink music video featuring a Hindu deity. But if these conflicts can evolve from failed attempts at mutual understanding to a path of mutual respect rooted in the cultural sensitivity of the new generation, the potential of transnational fandom becomes clear.