Does Sam Okyere face risk of deportation for calling out South Korean students' 'racist' Blackface parody?
Samuel Okyere continues to face threats and backlash after calling out South Korea's continued fascination with Blackface, particularly from a minority who believe the television personality is bringing shame to their country. Okyere is a Ghanaian television personality active in both South Korea and Ghana. After being accepted into the Korean Government Scholarship Program in 2009, Okyere moved to Korea to study computer science at Sogang University in Seoul before applying for permanent residency in South Korea in 2019, which he revealed during an appearance on the KBS reality show 'Hello Counselor'.
Okyere first found fame in South Korea after appearing on the 2014 JTBC talk show, 'Non-Summit', which was built around the theme of seeing "Korean culture through the eyes of a foreigner." The panel, comprised entirely of foreigners who lived in South Korea, became increasingly popular with its Korean audience who got to experience their own world through an entirely different lens. Since then, Okyere has gone on to appear in several other programs, including guesting on the similarly premised JTBC show 'Love 7.7 billion' earlier this year.
Over the course of his career, the 29-year-old Ghanian has built a career for himself as one of the most influential foreign entertainers in Korean show business as well as 'the most famous Black man in Korea', but that apparently isn't enough to keep him safe from the industry's rampant anti-Blackness or the silence of his colleagues in his time of need. Okyere has gotten increasingly vocal about the racism he has experienced first-hand while living in South Korea. Despite his fluency in the language and deep understanding of the culture, Okyere has described being exposed to anti-Blackness during his TV appearances, and usually, his plight is noted by viewers who hope the country could do better to address these issues. But Okyere's most recent callout of racism didn't land quite as well.
Earlier in August, Okyere expressed his frustration at a yearbook photo that saw local high school senior students in Blackface, parodying a viral Ghanian video of dancing pallbearers during a funeral. In a since-deleted Instagram post, Okyere expressed in Korean as well as English, "I feel regret and sadness to see something like this in 2020. This is not funny! From the stance of black people, this is very insulting. Please don’t do this! I can understand you’re trying to imitate a different culture, but is there a need to paint your face black? I wish things like this didn’t happen in Korea! It’s good to respect each other’s cultures. So I’d like to speak with you if I ever get the chance."
Sam Okyere spoke out about the students in blackface parodying a meme. He posted about 1 hour ago on instagram and I'm so happy he said something. pic.twitter.com/ECharRMTnW— Luna 🏵 (@LunaIsFree_) August 6, 2020
He continued, "Time and time again why won’t people get that blackface is very offensive and not funny at all!!!!!! There have been so many instances both on and off-air where people paint their faces black here in Korea and think it’s funny! It’s not and I am highly against it and highly disappointed." His post concluded, "You put in so much effort to educate people here in Korea and make them understand that you can appreciate a culture without making a mockery of the people. This has to stop in Korea!!! This ignorance cannot continue!!!!!" In response, Uijeongbu High School released a statement that read, "The parody graduation photos that our students took was just a parody without any other intention. People are saying they’re looking down on black people and being racist, but if they were white, our students would’ve painted their faces white. I wonder if people would’ve said they were looking down on white people if they had done that," essentially further highlighting the lack of understanding of the problem at hand: the continued use of Blackface despite attempts from people like Okyere to raise awareness on its harm.
Okyere soon found himself in the middle of a raging debate, with some supporters on his side and others firmly against him. One Twitter user noted, "The comments under the post are really sad. There’s a huge amount of hate being left under his post," while another said, "The hate against him is just so overwhelming- they attack people who defend him too! Whew.. hope he's okay." He evidently was not, since he soon posted an equally lengthy apology for his callout.
The comments under the post are really sad. There’s a huge amount of hate being left under his post.— 5hinee&Crush🌸 (@Timba_Simba12) August 6, 2020
The hate against him is just so overwhelming- they attack people who defend him too! Whew.. hope he's okay— hohoho (@ccchakungg) August 6, 2020
The first wave of backlash came from South Koreans who felt it was inappropriate to share an image of the high school students along with the school's name, additionally taking issue with Okyere's criticism of South Korean education. Others took specific issue with his use of the hashtag #teakpop, something that is seen as a derogatory expression used when discussing Korean culture. The second wave of criticism followed, this time linked to Okyere's own past behavior during 'Non-Summit' in 2015 where he pulled the corners of his eyes back, a commonly used racist gesture against East and Southeast Asians. And the issue was exacerbated when one of the pallbearers from the original video, Benjamin Aidoo, shared the students' photo and congratulated them on their graduation.
Okyere's apology post was entirely in Korean, and stated, "I had no intention to humiliate the students. I had gone too far in expressing my opinion, and I apologize for using their picture without their consent." He additionally apologized for seemingly discrediting the Korean education system, and stated he did not realize #teakpop had a negative connotation. "I have received lots of love for a long time in South Korea, and I believe I was indiscreet this time. I apologize again. I will become a more educated person." The backlash didn't end there, however, as soon, a petition began making the rounds to have Okyere deported for "deceiving Korea, which had provided him with convenience and security he would not have been able to enjoy in Ghana." The petition was blocked by the Blue House, but not before it sparked support for Okyere online via the hashtag #I_Stand_with_Sam_Okyere. One user stated, "There’s people trying to DEPORT Sam Okyere.....there is whole petition. this is truly vile. Why are some Koreans so pressed?? A Black man sticks up for himself and this is what he gets??"
there’s people trying to DEPORT sam okyere.....there is whole petition. this is truly vile. why are some koreans so pressed?? a black man sticks up for himself and this is what he gets?? #나는_샘_오취리와_연대합니다#I_Stand_with_Sam_Okyere https://t.co/n49pfskeqk— ᴇʙs ; (@hwiyri) August 11, 2020
As the debate rages on, one thing is clear: the issue around the continued use of Blackface has been swept under the rug, with Okyere being made the target of hate instead. And for the crime of calling out racism, an entertainer nearly faced the risk of deportation. And this calls up yet another issue when it comes to South Korea's struggle with tackling such issues. Okyere has made many friends in the industry, all of whom have remained woefully silent on the current backlash Okyere is facing. None of the South Korean idols and celebrities who spoke out in favor of the Black Lives Matter protests appear to be coming to Okyere's defense either, and this points to hypocrisy and double-standards within the industry where anti-Blackness is concerned. As one Twitter user surmised, "Sam Okyere got f**king attacked for speaking up against racist actions that happen against African-Americans in Korea, and instead of standing with him, people made him apologize."
#나는_샘_오취리와_연대합니다 #I_Stand_with_Sam_Okyere #BlackLivesMatter— hannah (@hannahyg03) August 11, 2020
sam okyere got fucking attacked for speaking up against racist actions that happen against african-americans in korea, and instead of standing with him, people made him apologize.