Ask any expat living in Korea, and they will likely agree: Korea is racist.
Stick around long enough and you come to expect it. In fact, racism is so commonplace here that a comedian at an open mic I attended a few weeks ago included the following joke:
blah blah blah… “a racist Korean. Sorry that was redundant, I should just say a Korean.”
I think what strikes westerns (or at least Americans) most when they encounter racism in Korea is not that there is racism here (after all, our country has it’s own MOUNTAIN of problems in that department), but how it presents in this community. People from the U.S. have gotten used to thinking about race and racism in certain specific ways. But, situations, language, and observations that make U.S. residents—especially white ones—tread carefully often go completely unnoticed by Koreans, and as a result, they tend to step all over our not-being-a-racist-jackass sensibilities.
Within my first few months of living in Korea, I encountered the following woah, WHAT?! situations:
- While out with some friends, a monk (yes, a monk, I thought it was weird, too) approached my group and began chatting with us. After a while, he turned to the black woman among us and said, “You know, Obama.” The President of the United States, we were all thinking, no, not personally. “Yes,” we answered. “Obama—your father?” he tried to joke with my friend. (Needless to say, the attempt was unsuccessful.)
- The teachers in my office and I were chatting/gossiping about men. They asked whether my boyfriend was handsome. I got out a picture to show them and when they looked at the image of me, a white woman, smiling beside my very handsome boyfriend, one asked if my mother cared that he was black. Another said he looked like Denzel Washington.
- A older man I was helping with English told me a story that to him was both funny and remarkable about a movie he saw as a teenager with an interracial relationship (between a “negro” man and a white woman—and no, this movie was not set in the South during Civil War reconstruction). He and his friends thought this movie was just fiction, and then they found out that a very famous black person in the United States—Obama—has a white mother and a black father. His mind was blown. (Though, his explanation of his shock used much more Korean-man-with-a-limited-command-of-the-English-language terms.)
Add to that list, the half dozen anecdotes I heard from my friends about activities in class that resulted in everything from students laughing and calling Louie Armstrong a gorilla to writing “black man” and “white man” down as “opposites,” and I had a pretty disturbing picture right off the bat about attitudes toward race in this country.
I should add a disclaimer that not every person believes/behaves/speaks this way. One of the teachers gossiping about my boyfriend remarked only that he was “bald” (he is a soldier who keeps his hair cropped short), my group of students seems unphased by the presence of people of color in the materials I use, and I’ve seen and heard of plenty of perfectly civil interactions between black expats and Koreans.
Nor is it fair to say that the racism prevalent among Koreans and often exhibited in the Korean media is going completely ignored or unaddressed. This article
in the Korean Times condemns the use of blackface in a popular Korean sketch comedy, calling it out, not as an isolated incident, but as part of a larger, disturbing trend in Korean pop culture. “It’s entirely inappropriate for 21st century television to feature people wearing blackface makeup, but KBS ― Korea’s state-run broadcaster ― must have missed the memo, or indeed the twentieth century,” writes Jung Min-ho in criticism of the show and the station that allowed it to air.
Further—and I’m still working to investigate this claim so if you have any insight regarding it, please let me know—I believe much of the institutionalized and systematic presentation of racism that courses through U.S. political, social, economic, and cultural spheres like blood borne disease that we can’t seem to shake is strikingly absent here. I intend to do much more research and publish future posts to substantiate this hypothesis, but from where I’m standing right now, I get the sense that as far as “the system” is concerned, an expat is an expat.
For those entering Korea from a country that likes it’s racism hidden in the seedy underbellies of our bureaucracies, a place in which citizens of privilege do their best to spread the “ideal” of color-blindness and where “negro” was so effectively rendered a dirty word so long ago that to modern ears it sounds like something that must be quoted from a historical document, comments that blatantly call out a person’s race (whether in a malicious way or not) can feel like a bit of a slap in the face.
I’m writing this piece in installments. I don’t know how long it will ultimately be. This is unquestionably a huge topic, and I don’t believe I can cover everything I’d like to all at once. And to be honest, this is the sort of subject matter that wears me down a bit. However, it’s on my mind A LOT, and I think deserves my attention. It also deserves careful and thoughtful consideration and discussion that will be most easily delivered in small doses over time.
My country’s history of race relations is not the same as Korea’s historical and cultural experiences of race. It would be easy to point a finger at some of the country’s more unsettling incidents, write the whole place off as “racist,” and call it a day. But to see real change, we need to seek real understanding of the conditions we hope to improve or eliminate. We cannot look at Korean racism through western eyes and judge it with our western knowledge of how the world works. Nor should we judge too harshly that which we’re still quite a long way from perfecting ourselves.
So instead of judging and instead of giving Korea a pass because it’s Korea, I’d like to spend at least a few posts looking closely at racist issues and incidents and see if by examining them and learning more about the country as a whole, I can foster the sort of understanding that might lead to real change.
If you’re in Korea, your input is especially welcome as I explore this issue. Feel free to comment or send me an email! (firstname.lastname@example.org)