Note: The title of this post is intentionally misleading…it has little to do with being black. The point was to get you here – and it worked! This post is not meant to suggest that racism is a uniquely Korean problem or that all Koreans are racists. I know that racism exists everywhere. I want to discuss the various forms of racial prejudice that affect most foreigners living in Korea. So drop the pitchfork, extinguish the torch, and read on.
I grew up in the American south, where racism has been an ongoing struggle for centuries. As a WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant), I was never on the receiving end of any discrimination. I knew racism existed in our community – we learned about it on TV and in school – but I never understood what it feels like.
When I came to Korea, I got my first taste of discrimination. This discrimination is usually subtle and mild compared to what others experience around the world, and it rarely amounts to more than an inconvenience. But it has helped me understand what it feels like to be judged by others for something outside of my control.
Pure Blooded and Homogeneous Society
Two terms that I’ve heard often since arriving in Korea are “pure” and “homogeneous” – used to describe Korea’s bloodline and society. The source of these terms is best explained in a PolyMic article by Julia Bass:
“But when you think about that history in terms of Korean national identity, the country’s homogeneity has been internally advertised as a source of pride, a concept that surprises most westerners (especially melting-pot-inclined Americans like myself)… In order to unite and move forward at the end of occupation, independence movement leaders created propaganda emphasizing the pureness of Korean bloodlines, which is now totally ingrained in the Korean mentality. It is still a source of national pride for many older Korean people.”
To many Koreans, purity means much more than an untainted bloodline. It is also a reference to the perceived moral superiority of Koreans over other cultures. This is why many older Koreans, especially those who grew up in the wake of the Japanese occupation, view foreigners as a threat, both physically and morally, to the purity of Korean society.
In the News
I first realized that Korea has a problem with racism after seeing a special report aired by MBC (Korea’s oldest TV network and a trusted news source). The report, part of the “Think Different” series, was titled “The Shocking Reality of Relationships With Foreigners.” Click here to watch the video with English subtitles.
The story relied on anonymous “sources” who gave anecdotal evidence of the “problem with foreigners.” Despite the sloppy reporting and poor production value, Koreans who are unfamiliar with westerners are likely to believe the “facts” presented in this story. With stories like this being presented by reputable news sources, it’s easy to see why some Koreans view foreigners as a threat.
Korean media tends to ignore stories that highlight the nation’s struggles with racism. This inhibits efforts to educate Koreans about issues involving racial prejudice. Late last year, the United Nations challenged South Korea under the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination. The issue was South Korea’s policy of requiring all foreign teachers to undergo HIV testing (often several times per year), while not requiring Korean teachers to be tested. This policy promotes the false belief that westerners are more likely to carry HIV than Koreans. Despite the fact that the UN Secretary General is Korean, not one major Korean news outlet aired this story.
Another reminder of the racial prejudice that exists in Korean culture came last year when The Washington Post’s foreign affairs blogger, Max Fisher, wrote an article titled, “A fascinating map of the world’s most and least racially tolerant countries.” South Korea received a special mention:
• “South Korea, not very tolerant, is an outlier. Although the country is rich, well-educated, peaceful and ethnically homogenous – all trends that appear to coincide with racial tolerance – more than one in three South Koreans said they do not want a neighbor of a different race. This may have to do with Korea’s particular view of its own racial-national identity as unique – studied by scholars such as B.R. Myers – and with the influx of Southeast Asian neighbors and the nation’s long-held tensions with Japan.”
How Racial Prejudice Affects White Foreigners
In Korea, most white foreigners experience racial prejudice in the following ways:
- Staring – This is something I deal with every day, especially since I live on the outskirts of the city. People stare, maintaining eye contact until I have passed, often stopping mid-stride to turn around and stare as I pass. Middle-aged men are the worst offenders. Such behavior is not acceptable and would be considered extremely disrespectful among Koreans.
- Public Transportation – I rarely feel more unwelcome than when I ride public transportation. The following is an excerpt from a great blog called Expat Evan:
“Racial discrimination is also evident in other areas of everyday life, however. The subway is one place where attitudes towards Westerners reveal themselves. It’s very common, for instance, for an older Korean person to change seats if you sit beside them, and most prefer to stand rather than take the only open seat if it is beside a foreigner. The behaviour is nearly identical to how most people would react to a heavily drunk – or smelly – person sitting next to them. “
- Foreigner Prices – In developing nations, it is normal for merchants to charge foreigners more money than locals for the same goods. In first-world nations, it is uncommon outside of tourist traps. Unfortunately, many Korean businesses have “foreigner prices”. In fact, some businesses go so far as to list “foreigner prices” separately.
- Interracial Relationships – This is a hot-button issue for many Koreans. Almost every foreign man who has dated a Korean woman has experienced dirty stares and rude comments in public. I’ve experienced this many times. Even before I understood what was being said, it was obvious people were angry. Other western men have reported incidents that range from rude comments to throwing rocks.
How Racial Prejudice Affects Non-White Foreigners
The discrimination I’ve experienced pales in comparison to what non-white foreigners deal with. There is a clear social hierarchy within Korean culture that is based upon both skin color and job description. Those who are dark-skinned and employed in low-paying jobs find themselves at the bottom of the social ladder.
Westerners of African, Asian, and Middle-Eastern descent who are employed as teachers inhabit an odd place in the aforementioned social hierarchy. Their jobs as teachers afford them more respect than blue-collar workers, but some of my African-American friends have experienced more direct and hurtful racial discrimination than their white counterparts. This even includes students directing racial slurs at them during class.
I make a habit of asking my Korean friends whether their parents know that they have foreign friends. Some of them are afraid to tell their families. In one case, a girl I was dating told me that she had permission to meet and even date foreigners, as long as they aren’t black.
The first (and to my knowledge – only) incident of racial discrimination to garner national attention in Korea occurred in 2009. The story, which found its way to The New York Times, involved an Indian research professor who was working in a Seoul university.
“SEOUL — On the evening of July 10, Bonogit Hussain, a 29-year-old Indian man, and Hahn Ji-seon, a female Korean friend, were riding a bus near Seoul when a man in the back began hurling racial and sexist slurs at them.
What was different this time, however, was that, once it was reported in the South Korean media, prosecutors sprang into action, charging the man they have identified only as a 31-year-old Mr. Park with contempt, the first time such charges had been applied to an alleged racist offense.”
The Bright Side
Although this post highlights my negative experiences, the majority of my interactions with Koreans have been positive. It is also important to note that some of the incidents I perceive as racial prejudice may actually be the result of miscommunication.
The students, teachers, and parents at my school treat me with respect. Many of the local shop and restaurant owners chat with me and help me practice Korean. Sometimes I even have friendly conversations with Koreans of my parents’ or grandparents’ generations.
My goal, while in Korea, is to help the youngest generation develop a healthy perception of foreigners. Positive experiences with non-Koreans will surely affect the way they treat foreigners in the future. I will continue to expose young Koreans to my culture, and hopefully show them that we are not so different.
Until next time.
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