The Joy & Rage of Being Black In Fandom Right Now

It’s three in the afternoon when 17-year-old Kay picks up the phone to talk with me, and she sounds a little groggy. “I just woke up from a nap,” she apologizes. “I had a nightmare last night for the first time in a while.” Kay is prone to sleep paralysis and is on medication to help her get through the night, but lately, she has been overwhelmed by thoughts about the current political unrest, and a persistent fear that the protests won’t have any effect on those in power. “I feel like a lot of protesters and activists are going to lose their lives, their livelihood, their time and effort... everything is gonna be in vain.” 
It isn’t only Kay’s dreams that are plagued with worry: A member of several fandoms, Kay has found that some of the online spaces she frequents are rife with anti-Blackness. On Reddit and Discord, where she discusses the first-person shooter game Team Fortress 2, other users are “actively against the Black Lives Matter movement and violently hostile towards people who bring it up,” she says. When confronted by evidence of police brutality, “they’ll say ‘This is stupid, the cop did that for a reason, he shouldn't have been resisting,’ and throw around a bunch of slurs, whether they're trolling or not.” Kay has seen similar behaviour on 4chan, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and Tumblr. “It's so sickening to me. I see why Black [women] don't want to be in those communities.” Still, Kay stays. “I really want to be in a community with people who enjoy the things I do. But it's that much harder when those people don't like you, or don't like the things that are for you.”

There's that excuse of ‘so-and-so is not from this country, so they don't know about certain issues,’ but this is proving that, in fact, they do. The whole world is hearing Black cries right now. The entire world is awake.

The murder of George Floyd on May 25 has moved millions around the world to take to the streets to protest the systemic racism woven into the social fabric of America and other countries. That unrest began online, where video of Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police officers and a petition calling for their firing were widely circulated, including in fan communities that usually struggle to have serious conversations about race. For many Black fans, that has brought on a new reckoning with the racism and lack of accountability in those spaces. To learn more, Refinery29 spoke to Black American fans about their experiences over the past month. 

Zina loves the Marvel and DC franchises, but when she began to write critically about their fandoms in 2012, she found that “whenever I would say ‘this thing is anti-Black’ — like how Black female characters are treated or how the Marvel fandom literally went, ‘Oh, what if we made Wakanda a vacation spot for all the white characters?’ — I was accused of being a bully and ‘segregating’ the fandom. It was messed up.” She also loves Star Wars and documented a lengthy campaign of racist and defamatory harassment waged on John Boyega (an outspoken advocate of the Black Lives Matter movement) earlier this year by fans of the romantic relationship between characters Rey and Kylo Ren. 
Zina has watched those same people tweet #BlackLivesMatter, #JusticeforGeorgeFloyd, and #JusticeforBreonnaTaylor. She lets out a small laugh when talking about the hypocrisy of it all. Tweeting something like that is an easy way to look engaged in fighting racial injustice, she says, but “if I write an article about your fandom being anti-Black and your response is ‘f*ck that b*tch I don't like her,’ you don't think that Black lives matter, you don't think that Black opinions matter, and you don't care about anti-Blackness.”
This open hostility drove Zina away from Marvel, DC, and Star Wars, and toward K-pop, where she encountered the same problems. But, Zina decided to stay anyway. “There are two sides of being a Black K-pop fan,” she says. “One side is the great joy in community. The other side is rage.”
Over the past month, K-pop fans have been widely praised for their communal activism. The fandom has helped take down police apps, flooded racist hashtags with fancams, and donated more than USD $1 million to the Black Lives Matter Movement. Accounts with hundreds of thousands of followers shared information, urged others to sign petitions, and encouraged the fandom at-large to refrain from trending hashtags that would compete for space with #BlackLivesMatter. 
This past weekend, K-pop fans were lauded for reserving thousands of seats at a Trump rally in Oklahoma, purposely boosting the expected turnout for an event they never intended to attend. Mainstream media outlets were breathless in their coverage, marvelling at how K-pop fans could come together for this show of “political activism.” In reality, “many Black [K-pop] stans have to be involved in activism to fight for their own lives,” says K-pop fan Ellie, and the media’s recent interest in the fandom congratulates them for “bare minimum solidarity. These days I see more media coverage on K-pop fans than the actual protesters on the front lines dying and being shot with projectiles,” she says. Plus, “one cannot paint this fandom as being activist without also discussing the rampant anti-Blackness in it.”
Ellie, Aerial, Brianna, Jordan, and Kia all identify as “multis,” a K-pop stan term for fans invested in multiple groups. They spoke to Refinery29 over video chat about the highs and lows of the past few weeks, first touching on the joy Zina had also mentioned. “The amount of awareness K-pop stans are bringing [to Black Lives Matter] is a beautiful thing,” says Ellie. “They have this power in numbers that is really unlike anything else.”
Then Brianna, whose voice is rough from protesting the night before, touches on the rage. “Being a Black K-pop fan in a lot of ways mirrors Black reality. In the Black community, people explain it away or make excuses [for] day-to-day issues like the murder of George Floyd and police brutality. It's not too different from what happens in K-pop when a member of a group says the N-word or culturally appropriates. The reaction is always the same — it’s to dismiss, justify, and invalidate. And we're at a point where we're absolutely tired of it. We're tired of it with police issues. We're tired of it in K-pop.”
In general, Black K-pop fans are put in a double bind when it comes to speaking up about racial issues. “People say ‘educate the artists, don't do this publicly [on Twitter],’” says Zina, but “when you email [the artist] they don't respond. And when you go on WeVerse to be like, ‘Hey, can we talk about this? Can you do better?’ other fans downvote and report your posts.” WeVerse, an app developed by BTS’s parent company Big Hit Entertainment, is supposed to foster direct communication between fans and groups BTS, TXT, Seventeen, and GFriend. “There are over five million users on BTS’s WeVerse. So the amount of people tweeting at any given point about Black issues is dozens of people, not hundreds of thousands. And that's still too much for the fandom,” Zina notes.
Kia explains what happened when she and other fans posted simple explanations about George Floyd’s murder and a link to a carrd with more information to BTS’s WeVerse. Other fans, especially, they say, Korean ones, “were calling us the N-word. And they kept those comments up but they were [reporting] as many Black Lives Matter posts as possible. It made my blood boil.” On Twitter, members of ARMY, BTS’s fandom, claimed that those users Kia had encountered were not actual fans, but “BTS antis” who were purposely trying to tarnish the group’s reputation by using slurs. The “anti” excuse is common, and Zina is exhausted by it. “Perhaps you could not assume that conversations about Blackness or anti-Blackness are coming from outside the fandom every single time?” she says. Kia is equally exasperated, “Those people are calling us the N-word. Whether they're an anti or a BTS fan, this is an issue. But fans just care about their favourite idol’s reputation. It's hurtful.”
Ebony, a fan of Seventeen, showed Refinery29 screenshots of Korean fans calling her a “monkey” and threatening to “put marshmallow lettuce wraps in her mouth” in the Seventeen section of WeVerse. One Korean fan wrote in English, “This is a place for fans and artists. This is not a place to talk about human rights.” 
But, posting about George Floyd on WeVerse did result in some change. A Korean fan asked Brianna if she was signing the correct petition, and then proceeded to donate “quite a bit of money” when prompted by “For a Korean fan to look at the issue, educate themselves and then donate… that to me signalled okay, there are people that get it and then there are the people that don't want to get it. There's that excuse of ‘so-and-so is not from this country, so they don't know about certain issues,’ but this is proving that, in fact, they do. The whole world is hearing Black cries right now. The entire world is awake.”
Even so, many K-pop fans are still waiting on the agencies behind their favourite groups to make some sort of show of solidarity. While cultural appropriation in K-pop is common, apologies from idols or entertainment companies are rare. As a result, Black fans have always kept their expectations low. But when it comes to the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, Kia says a friend told her “this is probably my first time sitting here expecting my idol to say something about a Black issue.” Azana, a fan of the group ATEEZ, was “anxious” for the group to speak up. “Silence is betrayal and I would hate to feel betrayed by a group I've been nothing but loud for,” she told Refinery29 over DM.
Support from the industry trickled in. Independent and solo Korean artists and individual group members showed early support. Eventually a handful of groups including ATEEZ, BTS, and Monsta X (all with notably large fandoms in the U.S.) posted short statements in support of Black Lives Matter, but some fans felt it was neither a united nor a concerted effort.
“I'm now realizing how much Black stans tolerate.” says Ellie. “When I think about how much we influence the international stan space, from our vernacular to our creativity. [For K-pop stans specifically] we're expected to give hundreds of dollars to these idols in concert tickets, album sales, and free promotion, and then people also expect us to have low expectations for them when it comes to cultural appropriation, saying the N-word, or respecting our culture. My expectations should be high! You can’t be using Black art and Black music, touring in America, making so much money off Black stans, and then not say anything.”
Brianna acknowledges that some K-pop idols are limited in their ability to speak publicly, either by contract or because they have limited access to social media channels that they themselves control. But as the industry continues to expand beyond the borders of Korea, and as groups make significant money from touring and fan purchases in the United States, “at some point, a certain level of standards should be set,” she says. “You do have international fans so you have to be aware of things that happen in America.” She notes that BTS, who were the second best-selling artist in the U.S. in 2018, removed the Korean words “naega” and “niga” (meaning “you” in informal Korean) from lyrics during U.S. performances because they sounded similar to the N-word.
“There are certain idols that I want to speak up, but I'm not going to push them,” says Aerial. Jordan agrees, “I think if they're going to speak out about it or donate, it should be genuine. Not because they're being bombarded” by requests. And as much as it can help for an idol to align themselves with the cause, as BTS did with a $1 million donation to Black Lives Matter, Kia notes that “you shouldn't wait for your idols or your celebrities to speak on the subject just to get with the movement. Be your own person.”
For Aniya, a pop punk fan from Baltimore, pushing her own idols to speak up worked. She’s been attending shows for 10 years, since she first heard the music of The Maine at 13. She only knows of three other Black fans in the fandom, one of whom doesn’t even live in the U.S. That means that Aniya is usually the only Black fan at concerts. And while the small bands she adores regularly tweet in support of social and political issues like LGBTQ+ rights, the abolishment of ICE, and supporting Planned Parenthood, she had never once seen a group voice their support of Black Lives Matter on Twitter. 
So on Thursday, May 28, she published a single tweet listing the names of nine bands she wanted to hear from, without tagging them. That set off a chain of events that would eventually lead to tweets of support from all nine, and more than an estimated USD $40,000 in donations, including from The Maine. Aniya acknowledges, “Something that I and most people struggle with is, well, I'm only one person, how am I going to make a change? It's crazy, because if I had known that all I had to do was tweet, I would have done it a decade ago.”
But even as some bands donated, others DMed Aniya with excuses for why they couldn’t publicly show support for Black Lives Matter. She scoffs at this. “The bar for what I am asking them to do is on the floor. And it's still like pulling teeth,” she says. “So don't come to me to explain why you can't do the bare minimum. I mean, after all, punk music is all about standing up for what you believe in and for what you know is right. I said to one band member that ‘14-year-old me deserves to know that she has the same amount of support as 24-year-old me’ and she told me that’s really sticking with her. The reason that bands need to speak out isn't just for their fans that already exist, but for young Black fans to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they don't ever have to worry like I did.” Now, “I know that I can go see The Maine and, even if no one else in that room is on my side, they are on my side.”
“At the end of the day, the vast majority of people I've seen across my timeline, across different fandoms, have been using their platform, their voices, their internet presence, to do something really good and to show that they care,” says Zina. “I just want this to keep going because, that's the thing… will Black lives still matter next week to these people who maybe didn't really think about it before now? Will Black opinions matter? This needs to keep going, even when it's not trending. Black lives matter even when there isn't murder, even when there isn’t a revolution visible in front of you. We matter all the time.”

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