The crumbling myth of Korean innocence about racism

The following op-ed was originally written for translation into Korean for Newsweek Korea. The Kookmin Ilbo later quoted part of the column in a story published on Sept. 11, 2014 .

Foreigners living in Korea are prone to forget just how much of a bubble they live in. What exercises Americans, Canadians and Brits away from home may be of little or no interest to Koreans.

So it’s been with a recent skit on the hugely popular Gag Concert that many expatriates have decried as demeaning to Africans and black people generally.

In the sketch, Korean comedienne Heo An-na dons full-body black makeup, over-sized fake teeth and a leopard-print loincloth to play an African tribeswoman in a tumultuous relationship with a Korean man.

Completing the image of a savage African, Heo’s character at one point becomes so emotional that she resorts to animalistic grunting and beating her chest.

A video of the sketch soon spread among resident foreigners on SNS, sparking both anger and dismay. Many wondered out loud how the state broadcaster in such an ostensibly modern country could air such racially offensive material. Their outrage in particular focused on the use of “blackface,” referring to the use of makeup to imitate black people, which has become largely taboo in the United States in particular due to its association with the mistreatment of black Americans.

But what was the reaction in the Korean media and webosphere? Silence. This writer could not find a single article, blog post or comment thread even acknowledging that such race-based mockery might be controversial, never mind objectionable.

Whenever such examples of Koreans apparently lacking racial sensitivity arise, the common justification, made by both locals and many foreigners, is that Koreans either mean no harm or don’t know any better. Indeed, while many foreigners attacked the Gag Concert skit, lots of others equivocated that Korea does not share the same racial history as the U.S. or other Western countries, or that most Koreans don’t know racial stereotypes are offensive, having been only so recently exposed to foreigners.

The implicit suggestion is that Koreans can’t be held to the same standards as Westerners because, unlike Westerners, their intentions are most likely benign. The idea that Koreans are a particularly innocent and moral people is held with pride by some Koreans, and all too often indulged by foreigners, some of whom are likely to squirm at the thought of judging people of a different race and culture.

Recently, on a trip to Busan, I had an alcohol-fuelled conversation with a group of four 20-something Koreans that revealed this mash of myopia and a sense of moral superiority. Without exception, each insisted that there is little racism in Korea. Not only that, they said, racism is much worse in Western countries. I challenged the first claim, listing various examples of racism and xenophobia I’d witnessed personally, as well as the experiences of other foreigners documented in the media and elsewhere. To the second point, I said that trumpeting a supposed lack of racism in a country with so few foreigners was almost meaningless because a large number of racist incidents would first require a relatively large number of foreigners. It would be like a boss congratulating himself on the lack of sexism in an office with no female employees.

The special pleading and excuse-making made by, and on behalf of, Koreans might be understandable if Korea were simply a politically incorrect place that slaughtered sacred cows without prejudice.

Even if one ultimately objects to such an environment, there is at least an appealing consistency and rebellious mischievousness in declaring that humor has no limits, even when it comes to race. After all, lots of great humor has offended somebody, somewhere.

But Korea is not such a place. Korean society, media and officialdom often express outrage over perceived slights against their country and people.

And it goes beyond historical grievances and territorial disputes with Japan. In fact, the Korean media has demonstrated plenty of familiarity with the pitfalls of racial caricatures and stereotypes – that is, when it has been Koreans who have been the victims. When, in 2012, a foreign Hollister model on assignment in Korea uploaded a photo of himself making a squinty-eyed pose to appear East Asian, it generated dozens of articles in the local media and outraged comment online. Just this May, Jorge Cantu, a third baseman for the Doosan Bears from Mexico, sparked a flurry of critical media coverage when he retweeted an image joking about how East Asians supposedly all look alike. During the World Cup, meanwhile, one Seoul newspaper reported that Russian fans had mocked Koreans by pretending to have slanted eyes during the game between the two countries. Earlier this month, a social media-driven news site reported that K-pop star G-Dragon had been heckled with the insult “ching chong” by a member of the public outside a fashion event in Paris.

The examples go on and on. Simply put, pleading ignorance about racial sensitivity looks ever more dishonest and self-serving.

As an outsider, it isn’t long before you become aware of the deep sense of victim hood rooted in Korea’s national character, most often manifest in dealings with larger and more powerful countries, be it in diplomacy, business or sports. Crucially, being a victim means never having to admit fault. Perhaps this is why Africans can be mocked on national television without a whisper of protest, while jokes at the expense of Koreans cause controversy.

The choice for Korean society, then, seems clear: embrace a modest degree of racial sensitivity, or don’t and duly renounce the right to complain when Koreans become the butt of jokes themselves.

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72 thoughts on “The crumbling myth of Korean innocence about racism

  1. The same high standards as western countries? That’s a joke right? I mean have you seen south park?

    “Herro shitty wok?” I mean it’s practically a institution. Just because a show is parodying racism doesn’t make any less racist.

    Don’t see many threads declaiming that show either.

    • South Park is not a family show, obviously. Controversy is intended and expected in South Park, and clearly not in Gag Concert. They parody racism to show how absurd it is. You are making a bad analogy here… I can see point the writer is trying to get across here when he says that Westerners tend to take a moral high ground in regard to racism.

      • The problem lies with the audience. It’s the same issue that Dave Chapelle had with his viewers and Colbert had with the Ching Chong incident. The audience doesn’t get the parody and simply laughs at the racism.

  2. That’s why I turn my head at people that make stereotypical or racist remarks about Koreans. How can I defend a people that can so easily do that to others.

  3. I don’t understand why this video would be considered as racist. I didn’t get the sketch (I don’t speak that much korean). But it’s just humor, few things in humor should be considered offending. Why would putting on black make-up and dressing up as the stereotyped african be racist ? It’s so OBVIOUSLY exagerated, why would you take it seriously ? A lot of humorists make racist jokes or make shows based on stereotypes. I don’t know about US, but I know that in Belgium, in France and in Germany, humorists make fun of Jews, Muslims, Catholics, Black People, Asian people, White people etc. They imitate their accent, make fun about their customs. I agree that dressing up as them may be controversial in some cases, i don’t know why.

    My theory about this, is that most foreigners didn’t even try to understand the sketch. If you don’t understand the skit, you cannot judge. If it was in English, you would probably have been laughing as much as the public does and not focus on the “She is wearing black make-up” thing. In foreigner’s mind it’s like the public is mocking the black girl for being black. No sorry, the skit is probably more complex.

    Just my opinion, I understand some people might get offended though, but it’s just humor.

    • “I know that in France, humorists make fun of Jews, Muslims, Catholics, Black People, Asian people, White people etc.”

      It’ may have been true once upon a time, but recently Jews humorists make fun of Jews, Black people of Black people, and so on and so forth. France have created too many laws/association and co to protect “minorities” that you risk law suit and such if you make fun of another religion, color, etc… Moreover in order not to be labeled as racist, France, forbade racial survey and such.

      • …which still doesn’t make France all that morally superior to Korea, does it? Just because a country is stocked with more laws and regulations doesn’t mean its better. It can, in reverse, limit the freedom of speech and expressions.

    • As someone who understands enough Korean on the variety shows, although I am not Korean, I can say very comfortably and confidently that the reason why this humor is not really as innocuous as it claims to be, is that it makes Africans the butt of their jokes, and assumes stereotypes of them which are not true, such as that Africa is full of jungles and aboriginal tribes, and that Africa is full of uncivilized areas. In one way, it is no different from what they do on Polish television, in terms of yellowface, with Polish actors and actresses wearing yellow paint and makeup on their faces alongside pigtails and Qing dynasty costumes and speaking in mangled Polish or something else. To South Koreans, it is not funny because they are the ones making the joke and enjoying it, but it is essentially at the expense of the Africans by perpetuating stereotypes which are not real.

  4. It’s good that you are bringing awareness to Korean society about racism. Hopefully Korea will have it easier in the future that way. I think Koreans certainly have it hard right now, while foreigners especially from western countries have it so easy. Koreans are not at all good at handling the issue like this as you pointed out. And I think it’s because of their innocence out of ignorance.

    I used to believe that learning English changed my way of thinking but it was not. It was the ideas that I absorbed through internet, books, in English, that changed the way I think about things. People who identify themselves as a full Korean, the majority in the society, are not in contact with the ideas that many foreigners from western countries bring with themselves.

    Those ideas that I learned in English and made mine, are meaningless if there isn’t any proper, cultural context to apply to. A pure Korean has no reason to admit their fault when there are only ideas delivered from foreigners without context that makes sense to them, Koreans.

    I think this idea of “victim mentality” or “low self-esteem”, however it’s labelled, may also fall into this case, even though it’s about human mental condition. After all, these ideas have developed in the (historically rather dominant) western countries, and Koreans certainly don’t bring up this term as much. They do understand what these terms mean of course, just not that in contact with the ideas as much. Given that, I guess there is still some innocence left for Koreans despite of their shameless contradictory behaviors.

    Because at the end of the day, the point of all this is to understand, right?

  5. Pingback: The crumbling myth of Korean innocence about racism | Kitsowisdom's Blog

  6. Has the Korean version of this piece been published yet? If so, I’d like a link. It’s all good and well the foreigners discussing this point but if Koreans are not reading it then what is the point?

  7. Another overly simplistic view on race – breaking it down as this or that, over generalizing based on a small sample size and anecdotes (one being four drunk 20 something’s), pretending what the media reports represents the culture, and simplifying everything by “Korean” this, “Korea” that.

    I would love to know where this author is from. I’d unfairly assume a western country based on the tone of this article. Assuming that’s correct, I wonder if the author has examined his own country in such away.

    Yes, Korea has racist issues, like every country…ever. Korea, however, I think should be allowed some time to figure it out on their own, which I believe they will. Yes, Koreans can be very insensitive. However, that’s natural to a country that just recently, relatively speaking, “opened” up to the outside world. The insensitivity I see here can be repulsive at times, but it’s typically harmless when compared to lack of sensitivity other cultures and countries have displayed over the years – segregation, hangings, beatings, racial profiling, job discrimination, genocide, etc. My home country, the US, has been dealing with racial issues for hundreds of years. And, we’re far from figuring it out. If anything, we have may digressed since the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s.

    “Korean society, media and officialdom often express outrage over perceived slights against their country and people.” Where is this not true? Of course the officialdom will overreact. Of course a portion of the society will be offended. Name a country on this planet where this isn’t true. Can you?

    I just don’t understand the author’s point, I guess. It’s an overplayed argument I hear frequently here in Korea. Whether it is innocence, stupidity, inexperience … it’s different and unique to Korea. You can’t view racism here in Korea in the same context you would in your home country or any other country for that matter. What’s similar is that it’s a problem. What’s different is everything else.

    Give Korea time to figure it out. I’m not sure why we expect them to have it figured out when most other countries haven’t, especially some that have had plenty of time to figure it out.

    • For the record, I do commend the author for writing this. It helps raise awareness and has clearly led to a discussion.

    • I lived in Korea for six years, speak Korean at near fluency level and can honestly say that rarely have I met more ignorant racists. There are amazing, wonderful people in Korea and I was fortunate enough to have many as friends, but the degree to which racism in Korea has grown belies your argument that Koreans simply need time to figure it out. No. What needs to happen is a concerted campaign of education on racism and the detrimental effects thereof.

      • “…is a concerted campaign of education on racism and the detrimental effects thereof.” (1.) I agree, but doesn’t this take time? It’s not an overnight process. Compared to many other countries, Korea is still new to immigration, to diversity, to a globalized world. Knowing human nature — a fear of the unknown — wouldn’t it be expected for ignorance to lead and merge into racism here? (2.) Well, duh. It’s always about education. Every country knows this. Every culture knows this. So, why does it still happen — everywhere?

        Also, in my experience, from where I am from, I have met plenty of just-as ignorant racists, which are often much more vocal and less bashful about their views. Again, I’m not saying racism doesn’t happen here; I’m saying it happens everywhere, so what’s so shocking about it being here? The racism I’ve experienced here in now way compares to what I’ve seen back home and in many other countries.

  8. Racism exists everywhere. However, Korea’s racism is more or less harmless. Yea, it sucks to be singled out, not taken seriously, or made fun of, but is rarely violent.

    So let’s cross the ocean over to the USA where you have white cops shooting black people left and right, gangs of vigilantes gunning down Mexicans trying to cross the border illegally (You know illegal stay/entry is only a civil offence, right? Not a felony.), or whenever something bad happens, they blame Muslims.

    Albeit, most Americans are not like that, but the fact that even a small portion of the population is this insanely and violently racist is deeply worrying.

    If I had to ‘choose’ which one I preferred to be subject to until racism finally goes away, I’d rather be at the butt of a racially insensitive joke than the butt of a rifle.

    • While your point about racism in America is valid, calling Korea’s racism “harmless” is making too light of the situation. A vivid example is when native English speakers apply for teaching jobs in Korea, where they get turned down simply for the fact that they are not white, or where you can actually find adds for these jobs that specifically say “No Black people, No Filipinos”, etc. There are racially intensive jokes, and there’s pure discrimination, which is rampant in South Korea.

      • This is not racism. It is no ones right to be able to make a living (and a very good one at that) off merely speaking white American accented English. This is a privilege, so the absence of it is not racism. To argue that being able to make a living in a foreign country (where English has never been a part of the cultural history of the nation) by merely speaking English (not even having any teaching qualifications) is a God-given right would be ridiculous.

        What this analogy is productive for thinking about is how American racial attitudes (mimicked and appropriated by Koreans) prevent brown or black persons from having this kind of privilege (again privilege, NOT right).

      • No, Yuri, even if we were to agree that teaching English based on native speaker status is a privilege, not being allowed to because of skin color is racism. In the USA, we don’t put our photos on resumes (can’t speak for other countries). True, we can’t hide our faces when we go in for interviews, but at least we can get the interview. Employers in the USA can still choose not to hire you, but they can’t say “whites only” in the job posting. If you find out you weren’t hired because of your race (or religion, creed, sex, age, medical status/history(!), veteran/military status, national origin), you can actually sue the potential employer. Tough to prove, but it happens sometimes. Skin color/eye shape/hair texture has ABSOLUTELY NO EFFECT on teaching ability–why should it keep someone from being hired?

      • JB, there’s a difference between prejudice, discrimination, and racism. I agree with the point that taking away someones imperial privilege to teach English in Korea is not racism. You’re also comparing Korea and the U.S. as if they have the same history of racism or institutionalized/political systems of oppression. They don’t. Everything you described in the America context is correct, that would be racist given the U.S.’s history and political system. In the Korean context it gets a little murky. Are these individuals Americans? Are they from the Philippines/Africa? Because then it might not be an issue or race but a prioritization of a white American accent, which under your argument would be basing it on skill. Anyway this all seems to fall into the category of discrimination rather racism to me, since taking away ones imperial, cultural, or white privileges (that would not exist in a different world order) is not racism.

    • There is no such thing as ‘harmless racism’. When the 9 year old girl was raped practically to death by a KOREAN repeat sex offender, the government immediately changed the visa laws for foreigners. Korean courts accept testimony by foreigners at a 3/4 ratio with Korean testimony. When businesses submit contracts to the visa bureau, they are in Korean, and if there are any differences between the Korean and English versions, the Korean version is deferred to, even if not signed by the employee. Harmless racism, eh?

  9. “…a large number of racist incidents would first require a relatively large number of foreigners. It would be like a boss congratulating himself on the lack of sexism in an office with no female employees.”

    Untrue. A quick look at the U.S. and its historical abuse of and legislation against immigrant laborers corralled into de facto extinction camps says otherwise.

  10. This is finally corrected comment. I’m sorry that I’m leaving many of the same comment. I could not figure out how to remove the ones with the error and found out that you are censoring your comments. So, I am assuming you will approve this one, not the previous one with an error I found.
    I personally have a very critical opinion on Korean media for the lack of racial sensitivity and therefore, I agree that this issue has to be brought up within the society. However, I do not know how much marginalizing the voice of Koreans against racism and colonialism in an attempt to collect the legitimacy to critique another form of racism would help conquering racism. Especially, when the both form of racism are constructed, institutionalized and introduced by the writer’s own race and still very severe by the people in the nation that it is rooted from.

    Also,It is absurd how the writer gained his reasoning regards to the silence among Korean society from some Koreans that he has met that obviously does not have very good understanding about the issue such as “a group of four 20-something Koreans”. Not only that it is racist that he judged the entire sentiment in the nation based on just some small group of people he has met that he did not attain very positive impression on, but also it shows his poor understanding on the Korean history and the formation of it culture.

    I just do not understand how the writer felt so entitled to write a whole article dedicated to the issue that Koreans would have to deal with due to its people and to minimize the movement to conquer another form of racism also created by his people.
    Honestly, if the writer really cared about conquering racism, I am pretty sure he must have found much better things to do than critiquing the product of his people for doing such a good job at learning what they educated.

    • “Especially, when the both form of racism are constructed, institutionalized and introduced by the writer’s own race and still very severe by the people in the nation that it is rooted from.”

      In what way is my race relevant to the subject of racism in Korea? Your thinking absolves Koreans of all responsibility, treats them as people without thoughts of their own, and passes the buck to others, i.e. white people, or “my people.” This is exactly the mentality I am challenging in my argument.

      “Not only that it is racist that he judged the entire sentiment in the nation based on just some small group of people he has met that he did not attain very positive impression on, but also it shows his poor understanding on the Korean history and the formation of it culture.”

      At no point do I judge the entire sentiment of the nation. Your charge of racism is frankly tiresome and without foundation.

      • When you suggest that “Koreans” should develop sensitivity over the anti black racism within Korean society, you are grouping us as one thing and putting the responsibility because it is within the group. So, I did the same thing to white people or “your people” just so that you realize how you are escaping your responsibility as white person.

        Remember how racism is an internalized mode of thinking that everyone has to combat within themselves.
        I understand your privilege allow you to escape the responsibility of racism among white society, media and officialdom and give you the sense of superiority and entitlement to point out the countries that are slower in the process of combating the racism introduced by your people.

        In addition to that, when you marginalized the anti racism and colonialism sentiment of one entire nation with your white privilege and colonial power, you “judged the entire sentiment of the nation” and that is racism. If you actually care about combating racism, the least thing you can do is to mineralize the voices that are fighting against it. You are trying to combat racism by being a racist. That has never worked and never will.

        As a Korean person who wish the racism against us, black, south asian brides and workers and many more will be challenged among Koreans and also an asian person who wish the racism in the world will be challenged, your racist article is only offensive, rather than helpful. There are Koreans like me that wish the same thing because we were privileged enough to recognize the problem. And we do not think what you are doing is helpful in every ways. (http://news.khan.co.kr/kh_news/khan_art_view.html?artid=201403272131455&code=960801)

        Mr. John power,
        Asians or Koreans can do what you think you need to do for us.
        So, please stop being racist and imperialist that give you the entitlement.
        If you understand the history, that did not make a very pretty end.

    • Dae,

      You and others like you as Koreans that understands Koreans far better than an outsider, are the voices that need to be heard in order to eradicate prejudicial attitudes about race in Korea. I’ve listened to moot points on Korea’s insensitivity towards races, and the reverse of others being insensitive towards Korea’s plight in recent history. The interesting dialogue that should be discussed is understanding. For people to become sensitive towards others they themselves have to understand the next person. You can spend your time harping on the points of this article, but in the end weeks, months or even a year later Korean media will repeat the same offense. This article will become relevant again in trying to understand racism/racist/racial bias/or whatever you want to call it.

      I lived in your country for two years, and those two years took an emotional toll on me. By the way, I’m black. I’ve dealt what I interpreted as straight out racism, and listened to stories of friends experiencing the same as well. It would’ve been quite easy for me to contribute to the growing post and blogs stigmatizing Korea as a country of victims victimizing other people of color. But…I didn’t and still will not to this day because I’ve never met all Koreans and I may have ran into the worst of the worst in Korea. I do know that my Korean experience was quite different from my white friends who loved Korean, but they in turn started to hate the racism they started seeing directed towards me.

      In my experience, the racial prejudice, racism or whatever you call Korea’s view on race isn’t healthy for anyone. The few Koreans I called friends befriended me based on who I was not my skin color, and they were 20-somthings. I’ve learned they were taught their views in schools by teachers. They travelled out of Korea where they experienced racism from whites, and made quite a few black friends. In the end, they expressed their need to have competent educators really talking about race instead of creating unnecessary fear, racial prejudice and diluting Koreans students with the notion they are white.

      From my experience, it will take everyday Koreans talking about race and prejudice in Korea and taking a stand against being labeled by others. If Koreans don’t speak up about these issues how can they expect others to be sensitive towards them.

      • Dottie,

        First of all, I am truly sorry for what you have experienced in Korea and I could not agree more that “the racial prejudice, racism or whatever you call Korea’s view on race isn’t healthy for anyone” ” it will take everyday Koreans talking about race and prejudice in Korea and taking a stand against being labeled by others” in order to legitimize our own struggle and I do understand your frustration as an asian person in the US who experiences racism on a daily basis and as a Korean person that witnesses other Koreans’ prejudiced perception on black people.

        That is why, As I mentioned in my previous comment, I do take a very critical opinion on the lack of racial sensitivity among Koreans and am very vocal about it but I also get very frustrated that it does not seem to make a change.
        However, I do believe there is a way that we can combat the prejudice and one of the most important thing in winning the combat is to understand the problem. That is why I started to be interested in how oppression, racism, prejudice have formed and worked, the history of them and the history of how these were challenged.

        Anti-black racism is not different from the one in the US in some ways. First, there has been no significant institutionalized immigration of black people in Korea. Therefore, Koreans have gained the perception of black people through the relationship between the US’s institutionalized system, not within ours. And also, only the relatively privileged black people could come to the country because of the imperialistic nature of Korea and US relationship. (For example, It is helpful to think of the social, financial status of black people in each country) and Institutionalized racism in Korea against people from other countries such as south asian brides.

        Therefore, I find this article very offensive that the writer wrote an article that he escapes his responsibility in combating the system of oppression as a white person, when the system was constructed, institutionalized and introduced to Korea by white people and it is still operating very actively in both Korea and the US and also to be entitled to minimize another form of struggle against racism. I also think Koreans are better informed at the prejudice against themselves as it affects our life much more and it sometimes upsets me to see how selfish it looks.

        However, if we listen for the operator of the power system critiquing its product by exercising the power to choose what to minimizes and what to signifies rather than listening to the oppressed ones, it will only make us fall into the oppression even further.(For example, it will be good to think about how the model minority theory has formed and worked or how the system worked in the case LA riot). This is not only from me. It is also from many scholars and fields of study that dedicates specifically to this certain issue.

        So, please, let’s not make the same mistake, Dottie.

        Thank you for reading.

      • I am sorry that I am leaving the same comment twice but there were some correction to make.

        Dottie,

        First of all, I am truly sorry for what you have experienced in Korea and I could not agree more that “the racial prejudice, racism or whatever you call Korea’s view on race isn’t healthy for anyone” ” it will take everyday Koreans talking about race and prejudice in Korea and taking a stand against being labeled by others” in order to legitimize our own struggle and I do understand your frustration as an asian person in the US who experiences racism on a daily basis and as a Korean person that witnesses other Koreans’ prejudiced perception on black people.

        That is why, As I mentioned in my previous comment, I do take a very critical opinion on the lack of racial sensitivity among Koreans and am very vocal about it but I also get very frustrated that it does not seem to make a change.
        However, I do believe there is a way that we can combat the prejudice and one of the most important thing in winning the combat is to understand the problem. That is why I started to be interested in how oppression, racism, prejudice have formed and worked, the history of them and the history of how these were challenged.

        Anti-black racism is different from the one in the US in some ways. First, there has been no significant institutionalized immigration of black people in Korea. Therefore, Koreans have gained the perception of black people through the relationship between the US’s institutionalized oppression system, not within ours. And also, only the relatively privileged black people could come to the country and they usually take up relatively higher socio economic status in Korea because of the imperialistic nature of Korea and US relationship. (For example, It is helpful to think of the social, financial status of black people in each country) and Institutionalized racism in Korea against people from other countries such as south asian brides.

        Therefore, I find this article very offensive that the writer wrote an article that he escapes his responsibility in combating the system of oppression as a white person, when the system was constructed, institutionalized and introduced to Korea by white people and it is still operating very actively in both Korea and the US and also to be entitled to minimize another form of struggle against racism. I also think Koreans are better informed at the prejudice against themselves as it affects our life much more and it sometimes upsets me to see how selfish it looks.

        However, if we listen for the operator of the power system critiquing its product by exercising the power to choose what to minimizes and what to signifies rather than listening to the oppressed ones, it will only make us fall into the oppression even further.(For example, it will be good to think about how the model minority theory has formed and worked or how the system worked in the case LA riot). This is not only from me. It is also from many scholars and fields of study that dedicates specifically to this certain issue.

        So, please, let’s not make the same mistake, Dottie.

        Thank you for reading.

  11. Oh gosh, this entire blog entry reeks of condensation, and is clearly written by a white man who has no idea what racism actually is. One small observation and case study (comprised of merely 20 interviews) does not make you an expert on Korea, on Korean racism, or on American racial ideologies at that.

    Koreans cannot be racist towards the people who are occupying their country by military force. I’m not sure if you understand what I’m saying Mr. John Power, but the U.S. military still controls Korea wartime operations and troop movement (Koreans cannot declare war on their own), has thus been responsible for the massacre of thousands of civilians (such as what happened in Kwangju), has partook in an institutionalized system of militarized prostitution that provides Korean women to both Black and White GIs, and is the reason why Korea remains divided today. I’m sorry, but the U.S. is an imperial force. Since racism is all about power, Koreans cannot be “racist” towards Americans. Period. Any scholar of race or imperialism would wholeheartedly agree with this.

    What actually is happening in Korea RE: blackface is that the Korean people are mimicking, at a very interpersonal level (not systemic nor institutional) white racial attitudes. In other words, they are appropriating anti-blackness they learned from Whtie America at a very superficial level. You cannot simply label Koreans as racist. They learned about anti-blackness from American media, interactions with Black GIs in camptowns, by observing anti-blackness performed by the U.S. military (the U.S. maintained a segregated military in the early years of occupation). There are absolutely NO institutional boundaries in Korea for Blacks like there are in America. Prejudiced people do exist, hence the SNL skit. But this is at the INTERPERSONAL level, not institutional–which is why it is not racism. In reality, Americans (black or white) still occupy a very privileged place in South Korean society. Whether that be Americans who are English teachers, tourists, or military. They come to Korea backed by the power of the largest military empire in the world.

    You need to be careful with how you talk about this and who you’re placing blame on. Blackface in Korea does not carry the same weight as blackface in America–the genealogies are completely different and in Korea blackface is not backed up by institutional racism. Granted, that doesn’t make it good or right–but it’s something that should be analyzed as a separate phenomenon to American blackface.

    • @Yuri the problem I see with this is that when Koreans generally talk about Americans they are talking about White Americans. For some reason “true Americans” are seen as White. You said it yourself:

      “What actually is happening in Korea RE: blackface is that the Korean people are mimicking, at a very interpersonal level (not systemic nor institutional) white racial attitudes. In other words, they are appropriating anti-blackness they learned from White America at a very superficial level. ”

      I would like to disagree with you calling it a superficial level. As a black person if you look at me and automatically assume racial stereotypes about me, that is not a superficial experience. Right now it feels like you’re arguing with a white person about how since korean racial prejudice was learned from white people its not the same. Well what do you say to the black person whom these thoughts and actions are being racially prejudiced towards?

      “Blackface in Korea does not carry the same weight as blackface in America–the genealogies are completely different and in Korea blackface is not backed up by institutional racism.”

      As I am learning, Korea is a different society in general. Certain things do not need to be backed up institutionally to have a severe social effect on someone. Social pressure in Korea is much different than in America. For example, divorce, while not illegal in Korea brings a great shame to ones self and family. So much so that a divorced party can have a very hard time if they ever want to re-marry, especially if that person is a woman. There is a social, or as you say ‘interpersonal’ stain that follows that person. However, this ‘interpersonal’ stain has serious systematic and institutional implications. Implications that can and do even current or future employment. And I’m just talking about how Korean society deals with fellow Koreans.

      Now if you take that into consideration when looking at adopted views about blacks, one can see how you do no need racially prejudiced ideas to be ‘backed institutionally’ in order to have a harmful effect towards people. In Korea the power is not within your institutions, the power is within Korean people.

      Again, I’m just learning about Korean language, culture and society. I have only been to Korea once and I am in no way an expert on all things Black, Korean or in between. I am however qualified to express how it feels for a friends mother to be concerned about me coming to visit specifically because I am black. Or how it feels for that same friend to hear a conversation between my mother and I and remark on how clear and white we both speak. Those ‘superficial appropriated anti-black’ ideals have a very long reach. Now the full story is that I went and had a wonderful lunch prepared by my friends mother. I visit fairly often and she has come to enjoy our conversations even through my broken Korean (still learning). However, it still stings knowing that my blackness was initially a strong fear (friends words, not my own). I also explained to my friend that neither my mom nor myself speak white and why that comment, although not malicious in nature, was offensive. We spoke, we learn, we continue to get along. It would be nice not to have to overcome such a negative image. However that seems to be reality. I think the biggest pain comes when these things are pointed out and they are brushed over as unimportant or simply misinterpreted due to separate history. It’s easy to say not all people are this way. I’m not saying everyone feels this way. I am saying that it is more than a random, isolated occurrence.

  12. Another note, white people in America love to complain about Koreans are so racist towards them. This is not racism. You are in a foreign country and your white privilege is different/doesn’t operate in the same way it does back stateside. You are not culturally, socially, or linguistically fluent in Korean and you don’t have the rights of citizenship. Some Koreans might actually even be being mean to you in an anti-colonial context. If you have a problem with being foreign or you have a problem with Koreans who oppose U.S. military occupation of their country–go back home you are here because of the networks established by the unequal nature of the U.S.-ROK military relationship. This is not racism, so please stop victimizing yourself. On the flipside–you can still command Koreans speak English to you at a cafe or restaurant (and make them feel incredibly stupid and incompetent if you don’t understand them) and you can still make a good living teaching English in a country where it symbolizes class, wealth, and power (hmm…why doesn’t a good command of the indigenous language do that?). People will probably also view you as particularly attractive because the standard of beauty glorifies whiteness.

    • I disagree with just about everything you have written, primarily the idea that any prejudice among Koreans must be blamed on westerners/whites and that hate and ignorance can be justified with appeals to the supposed collective guilt of Americans/whites/Westerners. I can’t see me changing your mind, however, so I’ll leave it at that.

      • I’m sorry when did I say hate and ignorance can be justified? I was just letting you know–that that is a part of living in a foreign country and has nothing to do with institutional laws or systems of oppression. I’m sorry you cannot fully exercise the extent of your white privilege in Korea as you can in America, but you are in a foreign country–also, your privilege still goes a long long long way in Korea. I mean–you have a job there primarily based on your status as an American citizen and English speaking ability, right?

      • And also, let me just reiterate for you. People are mean to people every day based on various miscellaneous things. I’m not saying that’s alright or okay, but I’m saying that it’s not racism as bad as it made you feel. Racism cannot be relegated to the interpersonal, it’s about systems, institutions, and history.

  13. Also–go ahead and make fun of typos on your twitter written by Koreans. Really ironic for an article that’s sole purpose was to prove how Koreans are racist against AMERICANS.

  14. That’s not my definition–that’s the academic definition. You know, the one scholars, cultural theorists, and philosophers agree upon.

    • And it’s one that is highly controversial. There is no unassailable truth in that definition. In any case, discussing my race, my incorrectly assumed nationality, my incorrectly assumed job and the presence of American soldiers in Korea is irrelevant to the topic at hand.

      • Your race is absolutely relevant, because this article is extremely patronizing and Orientalist (it homogenizes and essentializes Koreans through Western eyes). It would be less obnoxious if you were Korean yourself. You have no right to speak on behalf of Koreans or critique an entire society and culture at large. And please, talking about anti-blackness in Korea without mentioning its history is pointless–your article is not based on any sort of relevant historical context/you are not equipped to talk about race, so please stop. You are not an expert on Korea nor race. And it’s not hard to figure out what your job is/what you do in Korea when you make that information so publicly available. And it was your white privilege and English speaking ability that has allowed you to enjoy Korea. Sorry people are mean to you sometimes (that’s a part of life though, anywhere you are…and BTW you’re in a foreign country).

      • The notion that your race dictates your ability to form a logical argument or take a position on an issue is absurd. I have nothing more to add than that.

      • You simply dismisses the claim that you failed to include many other factors that are relevant to the issue you presented in the article and still failed to explain why you think they were not significant enough to include in your perspective. So, let me explain why it is relevant.

        Racism against some racial group with our institutionalized system that oppresses some group of racial group that has systemically immigrated into Korea exist. And you also failed to mention it. Because, assumably, you saw some stuff that talks about how anti black racism is such a big deal in white community and that made you feel entitled to educate Koreans with the idea. By doing so, first, you are escaping your responsibility as a white person to combat the internalized racism of your own and also, you are showing the terrible lack of understanding on racism and Korean history, politics, cultures as a whole.

        And also can anybody teach this guy that even so many people that are totally irrelevant to Journalism know that “I don’t see the color of your skin” thing is super lame? I mean.. it’s 2014, John.

        I know you can just simply dismiss my claim and refuse to explore the knowledges that you obviously had no idea about, combat the internalized mode of thinking embedded that prevent you from seeing the privilege you have.

        Korean people will most likely take you seriously because they are lack of racial sensitivity and that gives your statement some legitimacy as you are a white man.
        So please, stop whatever you think you know what you are doing.
        I mean please

    • Yuri, for someone who’s so knowledgable about the work of “scholars,” “cultural theorists” and “philosophers,” it’s weird that you’re so deep into Gag Concert. Which one of their skits is your favorite? Do you like the “homeless people are crazy!” skit, or how about the “this poor family lives in a really small apartment” skit?

  15. Yes, anti-blackness and racism exist in Korea. But I can not take this article seriously. I can sense bitterness in your writing and the content is just petty. As a white person benefitting from white supremacy (with racist tweets), I can’t take this shabby attempt at calling out racism seriously. It’s just so obviously from someone who hasn’t even read a book on racism. Very cringey.

    And you are homogenizing Koreans. With all the xenophobia in Ireland, I can generalize all white Irish and type some psycho-babble I came up with out of my ass too.

  16. With all due respect, I have to disagree, Mr. Power.
    The faulty approach here can find its roots from your own words in the beginning: “Foreigners living in Korea are prone to forget just how much of a bubble they live in.” Everyone knows that ‘Gag Concert’ is namely a comedy show. I’ve seen plenty of comedy shows, reels, movies, and all sorts of jokes in the States, Australia, and UK making mockeries of Asians and other non-majority population. I’m not so much trying to say that they are as bad as Koreans so we tie; comedies are comedies, and as horrible as they may sound to the targeted groups, those aren’t exactly the best moral indicator of the respective nation either. So are your 20-something interviewees, who were obviously drunk. I have dealt with, and really been blithely among, plenty of drunk college boys and girls in the States who can be cruelly insensitive and racist. Obviously, what they say isn’t the best sample from which you deduct a sensible generalization.

    The problem with that Hollister model photo isn’t that he made awkward V-sings and slanted his eyes, mimicking stereotypical Asian faces, at least in South Korea specifically. By same token, the Gag Concert comedienne mocked the looks of Africans, and many others who would mimic hollow-eyed, hairy, and hooked nose white peopleㅡthis happens everywhere by everyone. What really riled up the anger in Korea specifically was that the model made such pose in one of the palaces of Seoul, the sacred and beloved site for many Koreans. The sense of disrespect, not exactly racism against Asians overall, was expressed in the picture which many Koreans considered offensive. (Recall those pictures of American/British-I don’t quite care where- man careless standing before Mao’s portrait in Beijing shirtless, or annoying American tourists making YOLO photos at Tsukiji Market in Tokyo where earnest locals trying to do their job). It isn’t always about ‘racism,’ but it’s about respect to the social norms and culture.

    You mentioned of foreigners living in Korea “living in a bubble.” That says something too. How many foreign residents sincerely and full-heartedly try to mix and mingle with Koreans? Really learn from their perspectives, not in a temporary, superficial level? Despite facing so much insensitivity(often meaning no harm, I understand) and misunderstanding, I lived in the States and Canada doing so much more than I could possibly imagine to look, talk, and think like people around me; and I think I did pretty well in the end.

    Do you make those kinds of efforts? It’s safe to keep a certain amount of distance from your ‘objects of observance’ and be a critical journalist. But have you really got out of your bubble?

    • I do make an effort to fit in and have studied Korean quite hard to the point of getting TOPIK level 4. Could I try harder? Of course. You always can. At the same time, I work 6 days a week in an English-speaking office, when I have to use English as part of my job. If you believe that I should be assimilated within 4 years in such an environment, we’ll just have to disagree about what is a reasonable expectation. When I leave my office, I regularly meet Koreans who insist on speaking to me in English, a common experience of anyone white here. I highly respect any immigrant who moves to the West and can adapt. But comparing Korea and the U.S. or Canada seems to me to be a case of apples and oranges. I would say it is arguably impossible to really fit in in Korea as a foreigner — it is not a nation used to foreigners or immigrants. There are no “white Koreans” or “black Koreans.” So, to sum up: Am I in a bubble? To some extent, yes. I wouldn’t dream to claim I am an expert on Korean society. But I am not your stereotypical expat, either, and don’t believe my perspective can be dismissed as such.

      Regarding comedy, I am actually quite sympathetic to the view that comedy is just comedy. But the real point of my article wasn’t that Gag Concert is bad, but that it is a dubious idea that Koreans are so much more innocent than others. This is the constant excuse I am rebutting. Even if I allow you the example with the temple, which I am not sure is convincing, Naver is awash with awareness of slights against Koreans — I provided at least four. In which case, you can’t reasonably get upset at crude depictions of your own while laughing at those of others.

      • I respect your efforts to learn the Korean language to such a high degree, and I am also aware of your professional life which realistically doesn’t provide much time and opportunity to mingle in even more. By no means I argue that I tried harder thus I broke my bubble better than you. However, you knowㅡwe all knowㅡ that not all Brits, Americans, Australians, etc do the same. We all know so well that vast majority ofㅡlet me make some crude grouping for convenience’s sakeㅡ English-speaking, White, 20~40-something, studying or working men and women rarely restrain from taking a moral entitlement, which makes it so much easy to think “How come Korea is so stuck and not multicultural, multiracial and forgiving like mine?” (When those countries are not free of racism, nonetheless). But what can we do about the reality that the some 90% of this country’s population IS homogenous, and this is how it had been for thousands of years. Can you seriously and realistically think it’s fair for you to ask for “white Koreans” and “black Koreans”?
        Could you honestly ask for that when I am very much sure that lots of foreign residents and international students and such are also facing much prejudices in Ireland, Britain, etc?

        So it seems what you really tried to attack here is the notion that Korea’s more innocent and it deserves relatively lax criticism against it’s own racist issues. That itself I have absolutely no qualms with. No nations and states in 21st century world deserves a most-favored-nation status when it comes to discrimination and such. But that means, by same token, Korea isn’t so uniquely more racist and more devious than others either. Koreansㅡwhether the officialdom or ordinary crowdsㅡ thus have all the rights to get angry when they collectively sees “the butt of jokes themselves.” It was bit too much of judging there when you say Koreans should rather duly renounce that right.

      • I wish my Korean was a lot better, to be honest. It clearly doesn’t compare to your English.

        I don’t necessarily think every country has to be “multicultural” in the way the U.S. or Canada is, by the way. It would be dishonest to pretend that multiculturalism doesn’t have its own problems. When I say there are no white or black Koreans, I mean it more as a simple reality than a criticism. For the record, I am not sure how many Westerners would really like to have the obligations that come with being Korean. Some foreigners have entitlement, yes. The vast majority? That’s a bit ridiculous. Plenty of Koreans have told me things to the effect of: our country is better than yours. The Korean government relays this message quite a bit. The idea white people own arrogance is just bizarre to me.

        There are also foreigners, and Koreans, who aren’t willing to hold people from here to the same standards they’d expect of themselves and those like them. Not all Koreans are to be chided for being offended at some racial jokes and not others, but I think the general awareness has shown itself to be poor when offence can be common in one instance and non-existent the other. I am not saying there needs to be 50 percent visible minorities on the streets of Seoul like Toronto. Just that portraying Africans as animal-like (and, frankly, if it does happen in Western countries, it is far, far more controversial) is lacking in basic self-awareness, especially when significant numbers of Korean seem to be perfectly sensitive about racial depictions of Asians. People can’t have it both ways.

      • By the way, if I implied there wasn’t prejudice in Western countries, that was not my intention. Critiquing one aspect of a country I do have considerable affection for, Korea, does not mean I think my own is perfect.

        Thank you for your perspective anyway.

  17. (It seems wordpress does not allow more replies upon reply, so here i write a whole new comment in continuum)

    Whey you said that you weren’t unsure how many foreigners would like to bear the obligations of being a Korean, of course they wouldn’t like that, because most of them never had that in agenda anyway and there areㅡyou can’t deny thisㅡ truly certain privileges and things you can get away with while staying as a foreign national in this country(taxes, work hours requirement, etc). But I wasn’t asking everyone to turn ‘legally’ Korean. I had always been an international student with F-1 visa status in the states, and that entailed a series of hard, legal distinctions(both beneficial and bad). However, I’ve been pretty confident in my language skill and other than legal status, I felt completely happy being local and ‘American'(but I try to remain as vernacular-ly Korean as possible when home). If foreign residents in Korea can reach that state too, I think what they have always previously seen critically would look quite different.

    It is easy to turn this whole conversation into a moral dick-comparing, arguing who’s better and who’s worse.
    To direct this to more progressive conclusion everyone need to break out of this cycle. (In that sense, I liked Dae’s comments above) I sympathize with your shock and anger how Africans were depicted in that show, since I have witnessed plenty of equivalences which demeaned Asians while I was abroad.

    Thanks for caring enough to answer what I had to say. 앞으로도 좋은 글들 많이 기대하고 있을게요. 그럼~

  18. This is how you address racial issue without being racist, embracing and a joke.

    http://fascinasiansblog.com/post/37326481432/lets-have-a-much-needed-discussion-about
    http://seoulbeats.com/2014/01/misrepresentation-continues-rains-la-song/

    This will make the total lack of understanding on racism at least a little bit better.
    http://everydayfeminism.com/2014/07/8-things-white-people-race/

    I’m giving you some information that used whiter english because my broken english is not enough for your racism mindset to make you understand that your article is a piece of garbage.

      • Racism and ignorance are tiresome.

        I’m not attacking you personally. I’m attacking your racism, ignorance and entitlement.

        I am sorry that I am obsessed with race, this is what happens when you face consistent and “tiresome” racism such as what you and your article carries.

        You already have my email address that uses the same name above and also got a tweet from an account that uses the same name, so please use the absurd assertion that my name is fake to further escape your responsibility as a white journalist.

  19. Pingback: In defense of Korea, and beyond the reverse-racism nagging | Bilingual Asia Watch

  20. Just try being a black person in Korea if you want to know what racism is like. Blaming Korea’s racism on US relations or a lack of information on or interaction with black people (INTERNET, MUSIC, POLITICS, HISTORY, TECHNOLOGY etc) is basically saying Koreans do not have the ability to reason for themselves.

    Yes there is racism in other countries, we are not talking about other countries, we are talking about Korea, where we live and work. The Korea that wants to market itself as a global and racially-tolerant country. We’ve been using the same ‘Koreans are naive’ excuse for 25+ years now…..broken record much?

    The racism I have endured as a black person in the country is nothing compared to the positive experiences I’ve had. I just wish non-bigoted Koreans had more of a voice and actually take action against their bigoted and prejudiced countrymen.

    Racism is not the only problem Koreans have. I have the privilege to leave the country whenever I please and start a new life somewhere else. I truly feel for many of the “undesirable” (fat, poor, so-called-ugly, dark-skinned etc) Koreans that cannot escape the hell they are subjected to by their fellow countrymen.

    • LOL I live in the US and I don’t care about your plight. Likewise the racism I experienced from Blacks is nothing like anything I did elsewhere. Once I had to break up a Black 5th grader trying to beat up a Korean 3rd grader because the Korean kid walked to school with his 1st grader sister. I just want to remind you that Korean people owe you NOTHING. If they are racist, leave or even boycott their products. I guess Koreans don’t have much to lose even if you do. Why? you know why. LOL.

  21. I have lived in the US for most of my life and Asians, especially men, are ridiculed constantly with absolutely no repercussion. “Lighten up. Have some sense of humor”. blah blah. So by the same token of “logic” you blabbered, you have absolutely no right whatsoever to demand Koreans of racial senstitivity. Because you got none yourselves.

      • You were essentially saying if Koreans are not clean themselves they have no right to demand sensitivitiy from others. By the same “logic” Jews have no right to lament Holocaust when they percescute others. The same goes to Arabs, Africans, Europeans, Southeast Asians,…. In fact there is not a single population in the world worthy of anything.

  22. Also to clarify, what Heo portrayed was a Korean stage actress employed as a cheap entertainer for some kind of show. It was a mockery of Korean back-allly entertainment business, so called “night show” than Africans. This is clear if you watch other episodes where she is forced to wear all kinds of ludicrous costumes like a tree, slug, dog etc.
    I really cannot say the US is any better as far as racial senstivity toward Asian men goes. And still it is quite a bit better than Europe or even South America, perhaps even Middle East and Africa. So just suck it up dude. Your respect for black people is so great, so what? I don’t fcking care. Shove your self-righteous tirade far up your ass.

      • The most pitiful attempt at sarcasm I have ever seen. Apparently you don’t understand Korean yet made all the big fuss thinking that was THE moment of your life-time for your self-righteous charade. Do you have any sense of shame. It looks like a cliche but I am genuinely curious. You misinterpreted the skit. You don’t see it?

  23. Well, there’s a shitload of racism in the West, you know. In the Canadian suburbs, I’ve been treated like crap. People, often they were young, would often racist terms in the street. Some idiot made a racist graffiti in our home. I’ve been thrown rocks at, spit in the face. I don’t understand how you can compare if you didn’t have prior experience of being a colored minority in the West.

  24. first, can i just say DAAAAANG there are a lot of comments!! that must mean u struck a nerve in one way or another ;p

    second, as i read this article and some of the comments (too many to read everything), i was reminded of something i heard in uni from a prof lecturing on racism. it’s always stuck with me.

    “denying racism is a tell-tale sign of its presence.”

  25. The American media makes such a big deal about racism when a black person is mocked or made fun of. But totally ignores it when the same thing happens to Asians or Muslims. It’s brushed off when someone makes derogatory comments about Asians or Muslims.

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