When BTS met Biden

Or, how our boys got invited to the White House—good exposure for them, but a massive PR job for America in the wake of rising Asian-American hate

President Biden does finger heart with BTS at White House. (Official BigHit Twitter)

IT was another moment to make every single BTS ARMY proud, as the seven members of the Korean global super band BTS—Kim Namjoon, Kim Seokjin, Min Yoongi (Suga), Jeon Hoseok (j-hope), Park Jimin, Kim Taehyung (V), and Jeon Jungkook—walked into the White House last May 31 upon the invitation of United States President Joe Biden.

“Welcome to the White House,” Biden said. “Come on up here, guys.” It was the last day of Asian American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Heritage Month, as White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre explained during a press briefing where she presented the boys to reporters. “They walked into the room to an audience much larger than normally gathered for a Biden press meeting,” reported Rolling Stone magazine. “And just like ARMY, their phones were out, hoping to capture the moment on camera.”

Still, while the milestone does make ARMYs proud, my band of BTS titas was more circumspect. “I hope they come home at once to be safe from any gun-toting loonies,” my boss remarked in our group chat. Meanwhile, I posted a picture of the boys with Biden, and called it a “nice opportunity” for BTS—after all, it would have been downright rude by any reckoning to turn down an invitation from the US President when hordes of Hollywood celebrities will probably never set foot at the White House—and a “massive PR campaign for America.” An FB friend even commented that BTS may not have been the ideal choice for a dialogue, and I had to agree. After all, the best people to ask about Asian hate would have to be the people who live with it daily in the hotbed of racism, which, right now—with apologies to the many, many Americans who aren’t racists—happens to be the good ole US of A. And that would be none other than Asian-Americans themselves, making their lives there in an increasingly hostile, frightening environment.

Racism is alive and well in the West, and it’s not even an American monopoly. A dear Filipino friend who lives in Richmond, Vancouver, Canada, calls her home turf the current capital of Asian hate. I remember seeing a video where teenagers—teenagers!—called out a Chinese couple on a bus for talking Chinese to each other, saying “You’re in Canada, you have to speak English.” When a First Nation bystander called them out, the kids said he was First Nation, but these people were “just Chinks.”

The best people to ask about Asian hate would have to be the people who live with it daily in the hotbed of racism, the good ole US of A

A few weeks ago, that same friend reported how her Filipino-Canadian MBA professor was beaten up because he was wearing a mask, and was loudly blamed for bringing COVID-19 upon “Western civilization”—which sounds like an oxymoron right now, if you ask me. After all, violence against Asians and Asian-Americans has been on the rise since 2020, when Donald Trump began calling COVID-19 the “China virus” and “kung flu,” among other utterly statesman-like pronouncements. Just last March 11, a 67-year-old Filipina living in Yonkers, New York state, was repeatedly punched and called an “Asian bitch,” right in the lobby of her own building.

My friend from Richmond is married to a white man, but when she’s driving alone, she regularly gets exhortations to “go back to where you came from.” Her strategy is to irritate the aggressor by playing dumb: “Where I came from? Home? The bathroom?” or by simply shooting back, “After you—I’m sure your folks weren’t from here, either.” The racist often ends up mumbling and walking away. Yes, Karen is alive and well, and she’s on a roll and crossing borders!

I haven’t had too many brushes with racism, mainly because people can’t immediately figure out where I’m from. I’ve been mistaken for Italian, Indian, Spanish, even Middle Eastern; when my mother and I traveled a month after 9-11, I was chosen for a “random” search because they probably couldn’t quite accept my Filipino-ness. (“You’re pretty tall”—but that was several years ago, in 2001, and Filipino kids have grown a lot since then!)

The most recent experience I had was even before Trump and COVID-19, which confirms the fact that Americans who were aghast at having a Black president were just seething the whole time, and were ready to party when Trump made tunnel vision socially acceptable again. I was attending classes at the Iyengar Yoga Center in New York with one of my favorite teachers, Bobby Clennell, and she invited me to help her out during her free community class for breast cancer survivors. She introduced me as a visiting teacher and survivor from the Philippines. I helped arrange people’s props, adjusted them when they were lying down, and checked if they were comfortable.

Most students were grateful—but one white woman simply refused to let me touch her. “I’m fine,” she said curtly when I offered to help, even if she was all askew. “Don’t touch me,” she finally said, not too gently, when I tried again. I shrugged and walked away. Bobby didn’t hear it, but after the class, two other students walked up to me to thank me again for the help, and to actually apologize for the woman. “I’m really sorry you had to deal with that,” one said. I simply told her that people like her made up for instances like that—and inside, I found myself grateful that I was just visiting.

BTS have not been spared racism; in fact, they’ve had to endure global levels of ignorance and vitriol because of their reach and fame

To be clear, BTS have not been spared racism; in fact, they’ve had to endure global levels of ignorance and vitriol because of their reach and fame. The charming comment of one American radio commentator when BTS first “infiltrated” the American Music Awards in 2017, when he called them chinky-eyed “lesbians”—alienating other groups at the same time, of course—comes to mind. The very fact that they have been ignored once more for a Grammy is, in this tita’s opinion, racism at its most subtle, which probably makes it more dangerous. At the risk of sounding like a racist myself, somebody should tell white North America—these folks who have never been thoroughly colonized, who have no idea what it’s like to accommodate others, and who demand their rights at the expense of everybody else’s—that their era has long been over. Really.

Yes, I believe that Asian-American artists living with racism every day in the land of the free, the land of their birth and their chosen home, should have been invited to the White House table. Maybe they were, but they obviously didn’t get the same publicity as BTS. It was a strategic PR salvo on the part of the White House public relations team to enlist the biggest boy band in the world, but the murmurings of discontent and puzzlement should be expected.

Then again, maybe Biden and company were being as naïve as some ARMYs are, hoping that BTS’ United Nations imprimatur and their undeniably positive, relevant messages of self-love and harmony could melt even the most callous, partisan, and prejudiced of hearts. As I wrote in my Facebook post, “Will it change the Asian hate trend? I don’t really think so. But we can always hope.”

Meanwhile, ARMYs were joking that even the cute, perky White House Press Secretary was whispering, “Yoongi, marry me!”

Memes on Yoongi Marry Me (a viral ARMY joke) didn’t spare the White House event.

About author


She is a writer, editor, breast cancer and depression survivor, environmental advocate, dog mother to three asPins, Iyengar yoga instructor and BTS Army Tita. She edits part-time for a broadsheet, but is headed towards a full-time vocation as an online English writing coach and grammar nazi.

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