Not Even Global Superstars BTS Are Safe From Anti-Asian Racism

by Virginia Duan
Originally Published: 
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The targets of anti-Asian violence and racism aren’t just the elderly, low income, or vulnerable. No Asian is safe — not even arguably the seven most famous Asians on the planet, GRAMMY nominated K-pop band BTS.

On Wednesday, February 24, 2021, German radio host Matthias Matuschik compared BTS members to the coronavirus, saying they needed to be eradicated by a vaccine. The Bayern 3 station DJ then went on to imply that the South Korean septet would be “vacationing in North Korea for the next 20 years” as punishment, justifying his comments by saying it was okay because he owned a Korean car.

You get it? Isn’t he hilarious? It’s akin to the logic of “I can’t be racist because I have Black friends.” Except, in his case, Matuschik didn’t even reference a person. He compared humans to a car. That he owns. Also? His car is Japanese.

Yay! We love jokes by white people about owning humans and then wishing for these same humans’ deaths! We love being called interchangeable with other Asians as if we are cogs in a machine!

BTS’s offense? Covering Coldplay’s “Fix You” on their recent “MTV Unplugged” performance.

That’s right. A professional radio host of a public radio station — yup, as in funded by the public — compared human beings to a disease that needed to be extinguished. Extirpated. Exterminated. In Germany. Because they covered a song by a band he liked and didn’t feel BTS deserved to sing.

Of all countries, I assumed that Germany would be particularly sensitive to its fascist history and do better than most. “It is true and unavoidable that German society makes efforts to educate the future generation about its Nazi past and genocide of Jewish people,” explained University of Bonn Department of Korean Studies research associate Sung Un Gang. “When it comes to other ethnic minority groups, most people believe that they cannot be racist.”

“This was a wake up call for many of us, too,” said German BTS fan Siân Birkner, “not that we weren’t aware of it in an abstract sense. But this seems to have brought German [BTS fans] and these activists/scholars together. I hope it’s an alliance that will remain and give these people a wider audience and more recognition.”

True to form, after global outcry from BTS fans and members of the Asian diaspora regarding the blatant anti-Asian racism, Bayern 3 and Matuschik issued the standard white people non-apology with all the sincerity of curdled milk, saying Matuschik was being ironic and exaggerated, but “his words went too far and hurt the feelings of BTS fans.”

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Viet-German journalist and speaker Nhi Le broke down the apology for us. “It is a very typical dynamic in Germany and especially German media to have a racist incident and then to publish an apology that focuses on ‘hurt feelings’ instead of the problematic and racist statements,” she said. Le called Matuschik’s comments a typical racist incident except this time, the huge online power of BTS’s fandom drew attention to the case, leading to international coverage. “There were many supportive voices but of course I’ve also seen articles complaining about ‘blowing things out of proportion.’ Some people were more bothered by the dynamics online than the racist statement itself.”

The tone deaf media company even virtue signaled, saying that Matuschik was involved in raising aid for refugees so he couldn’t possibly be xenophobic or racist. (As if one could not raise money for charity and also be racist.) Then, they invoked the classic “I’m sorry you found this offensive” trope, the staple of gaslighters and people who don’t actually think they did anything wrong, saying “That does not change the fact that many of you found his statements to be hurtful or racist.”

BTS fan translator Twitter user @modooborahae summed it up well: “The worst part is the continued effort by not only Bayern 3 — but a vast majority of German media — to dismiss this issue as female fans being overly sensitive instead of taking a more measured approach and considering why fans and others have been so critical.”

According to Asian German musicologist and podcaster Thea Suh, there has always been anti-Asian racism in Germany. Painted as machines and mocked for their features and languages, Suh explained that aggressions against Asians rose during the pandemic — with people calling her coronavirus to her face and spraying her parents’ front door with disinfectant.

While these are small examples, they are examples of larger scale harassment, which makes the comments by Matuschik — a popular host with a reach of 3 million listeners — all the more troubling.

BTS, courtesy of Big Hit Entertainment

“If BTS as super stars can’t escape being othered, not being seen as humans worthy of respect, how does this popular host and his listeners see others?” asked Suh. “The utter lack of understanding in German media (only Buzzfeed Germany and the Sueddeutsche Zeitung wrote about anti-Asian racism) saddens me. They still don’t view people like me, Asian-Germans, as humans.”

This kind of targeted harassment tracks with what United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called “a tsunami of hate and xenophobia, scapegoating and scare-mongering” against the global Asian diaspora. He pressed governments to “act now to strengthen the immunity of our societies against the virus of hate.” Likewise, in a May 2020 report, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) counseled governments and countries to take preventive steps against “racist and xenophobic violence and discrimination linked to the COVID-19 pandemic” as well as prosecute attacks against Asians and people of the Asian diaspora.

Clearly, the prescient warnings were not taken seriously.

“Even though organisations like Korientation [a network for Asian-German perspectives] or I Am Not a Virus have signaled that they are ready to tackle the issue of anti-Asian racism,” said Suh, “No white German journalists or politicians have come out to support our cause to combat anti-asian racism. Absolutely none. The silence is deafening.”

“While U.S. media asked Asian-American writers for their point of view, German media haven’t featured a single interview or op-ed by an Asian-German author since Matuschik’s racist meltdown,” added Gang, saying that German journalists were indulging each other instead. “There is a culture of collective apathy towards Black and POC in Germany.”

Let’s not give the U.S. media that much credit, though.

Only Asian American journalists initially condemned the anti-Asian racism in articles for Teen Vogue (written by the incomparable Korean American journalist Jae-Ha Kim) and Paper Magazine (written by journalist Sandra Song). Isn’t it interesting how though major magazines like “Billboard” made money from BTS and K-pop headlines over the years, we didn’t hear a single word or article decrying the anti-Asian racism and xenophobia until after artists with whom BTS had previously collaborated such as Halsey, MAX, Lauv, and Steve Aoki spoke up?

The white journalists who made it big reporting on K-pop were noticeably absent — or extremely tardy. That’s textbook white supremacy in action in all its extractive glory, taking the music and labor of BTS, making money from them, but not caring about their humanity.

We Americans — not just Asian Americans — need to be concerned that Germany is trailing behind on anti-Asian hate because racist rhetoric, verbal harassment, assault, and discrimination against people of Asian descent is a global problem and especially invidious in Western countries. The Orientalism and fetishization of Asians is endemic, and if we want to affirm the humanity and value of Asian Americans, then we need to affirm the humanity of Asians everywhere.

Maybe one day, even non-famous Asians the world over can expect — and demand — the right to be human.

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