Over the past few years, the chickens finally came home to roost for the Grammys as they were called out for being a racist and elitist organisation. So this year when K-pop super group BTS became the first Korean artists to be nominated for a Grammy, the organisation was put under a looking glass. Many fans were ecstatic that the group was finally gaining some of the recognition they deserve, however, the Grammy win did not go to BTS and this sparked another interesting conversation on social media as questions of anti-Asian racism started circulating. While many seem to believe that the Grammy loss causing internet chaos is an example of K-pop fans overreacting, I think it brings to light a far bigger issue to light — you don’t have to be a K-pop stan to see and understand the anti-Asian racism that is taking place. The band themselves are no strangers to anti-Asian racism, from radio presenters comparing them to global pandemics to now being snubbed by global award shows despite their record breaking repertoire. When the group became the first Korean boyband to perform on MTV unplugged, the performance was of course not without attacks unleashed towards it. One being when German radio host Matthias Matuschik made racist remarks about the them comparing BTS to COVID-19 and suggesting that like the virus, the group should be eradicated with the vaccine.
Apart from the issue of overtly discriminatory, misleading and dangerous associations made about BTS and COVID-19, the overarching issue with Matuschik’s comments is that they seem to reflect the same racialised, Yellow Peril rhetoric that has sparked a rise in the anti-Asian sentiment since the pandemic began. The Yellow Peril is a racist colour metaphor that represents Asian people as a danger to the western world. It informs a rhetoric of racism and xenophobia deeply rooted in histories of imperialism and frames Asian people as ‘the other’ — giving them characteristics of being “backwards”, “dirty” and “carrying disease”. The latter was alluded to by Sal Governale on The Howard Stern Show, who said on air about BTS “There’s no way those guys don’t have coronavirus,” and “I walked into the lobby and it was like Chinatown, out of control, there were so many Asian people” speaking to the racist monolithic view which reduces the continent of over 40 counties and territories into a stereotype. These acts of bigotry towards BTS are part of a larger framework that serve the dual purpose of seeking to minimise their cultural and creative impact on the music industry while simultaneously setting the groundwork for aggressive rhetoric and anti-Asian sentiment. A Sentiment both reflected and reinforced in former US president Donald Trump’s constant reference to COVID-19 as “the Chinese virus” and in the use of anti-Asian propaganda by far right political parties to support anti-immigration beliefs for a white supremacist agenda. Much like how Yellow Peril rhetoric was weaponised in the 1880’s by America to pass the Chinese exclusion Act. The in-real-life violence stirring and racist comments by radio hosts, politicians and institutions needs to be called out because it is causing an impact beyond the twitter-sphere.
The harmful rhetoric and therefore ideology, these comments spread is more than just a framework it is seeing for a global rise in violence against Asian people. Stop AAPI Hate received 3800 allegations of anti-Asian discrimination in the United States alone in 2020, a number which only takes into account the reported incidents but in reality, is probably much higher. This further serves to highlight that remarks like those made by Matuschik and Governale, should be condemned as dangerous, violent and racist. These kinds of “jokes” which are already troubling and which reinforce hierarchies of being human, send messages that encourage racist violence perpetuated against Asian people to continue to grow. Or is it that they create an overarching social context where existing racist ideologies can now be actioned though violence? Matuschik’s employer released a statement saying that Matuschik has a tendency to “express his opinion clearly, openly and unvarnished” and that it is a “hallmark”. However, racism is not an opinion and we should stop tolerating and trying to sanitise it as such. As for the Grammys, perhaps the group not winning the award was not a loss, but rather, what was important is the moment in which they showcased their ingenious artistry and creativity when they performed “Dynamite”. Well put by Forbes who state, “The Academy may properly acknowledge the K-pop group someday. But as BTS continue smashing records and the Grammys continue to lose relevance, who really needs who?”