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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[The Korea Herald] Does the media portray foreigners fairly?

Xenophobia in the media is a recurring complaint among foreigners in Korea. In the summer of 2012, an MBC documentary entitled “The Shocking Truth About Relationships With Foreigners” provoked a particularly strong reaction from foreigners in the country. This and other incidents inspired the following look at the Korean media’s portrayal of non-Koreans. — John 

For many Westerners here it was an all-too-familiar example of the media’s habitual vilification of non-Koreans. An MBC segment focusing on Western men and their relationships with Korean women titled “The Shocking Truth About Relationships With Foreigners” provoked outrage online for what many saw as blatantly xenophobic and sensationalistic journalism.

The segment described Westerner-Korean couples walking arm-in-arm as displaying “daring intimacy” and featured unverified claims of foreign men stealing from their partners and infecting them with HIV.

When several “victims” contacted by the show denied they’d had any negative experiences of dating a foreigner, the narration rationalized that “most of the victims avoid telling the truth.”

Defending the segment several days after airing, the lead writer told The Korea Herald that it had attempted to portray “a difference in culture” and was “based on facts.” At the time of writing, a Facebook group protesting the broadcast had garnered more than 8,500 members, including Koreans in relationships with foreigners.

The MBC broadcast was far from the first to be accused of maligning Westerners living here. Previous reports, such as a 2005 SBS segment titled “Is Korea their Paradise? Report on the Real Conditions of Blond-haired, Blue-eyed Teachers,” focused on similar themes.

Symbolic stigma

Kyung Hee University law professor Benjamin Wagner said the most striking aspect of the MBC segment was its focus on HIV.

“MBC has indicated that its program was more of the same nonsense portraying foreign English teachers as sexual predators who victimize defenseless Korean women and infect them with AIDS, but the irony is of course that teachers have been tested and re-tested for HIV ― how is it that they still represent an AIDS threat?” he said.

Wagner, a longtime advocate against mandatory HIV tests for foreigners, said that persistent claims over the years that foreigners carry the virus have represented a “symbolic stigma,” where HIV is used as a vehicle to express hostility toward foreigners and especially sexual relationships between different races.

The MBC program, he said, marked a new low for a major broadcaster in that regard.

“When mandatory HIV tests were introduced for foreign teachers in 2007 the argument from the government was that they were supposed to rehabilitate the reputations of these teachers and reassure Korean citizens about foreigners. Of course, the exact opposite of that has happened, the testing has reinforced the existing stigma and now it’s become acceptable for a major broadcasting network to insinuate that foreigners are spreading AIDS.”

Wagner also pointed out that previous portrayals by even minor media groups have had big consequences for the residency requirements of foreigners in the country, most notably with the introduction of HIV testing in 2007.

“The education ministry has said before ‘well we don’t think foreign teachers have AIDS or the likelihood to transmit it, we just want to make the parents feel comfortable.’ So the question is why do the parents feel uncomfortable, why do they think they have AIDS? So this you basically trace this back to a lot of stories in the media stories portraying foreigners as suspect for HIV like this most recent one from MBC.”

Migrant workers from East and Southeast Asia have also complained of their representation in the media, leading to the formation in 2005 of Migrant Workers TV Network, to counter what one participant described as the media’s depiction of migrant workers as “comical or miserable.”

Mahbub Alam, the director of Asia Media Culture Factory, a group of artists that often explores migrant issues, says that the media has tended to either shy away from migrant issues completely, or only depict migrant workers as “poor” and “helpless.”

He has, however, seen much change in his time here, especially from film and in the emergence of small, independent media outlets.

“In many cases, (with) the programs like (on) KBS and MBC, you didn’t find any kind of alternative TV programs here, not about migrant rights, it’s very hard,” said Alam, who arrived here from Bangladesh 13 years ago.

Rising crime

Much media emphasis, too, has been placed on the rising crime rate among foreign laborers from China, Vietnam and other Asian nations. Last month, the Chosun Ilbo reported that foreigners account for about 8 percent of murders despite making up just 2.8 percent of the population. The story, as with many others on the subject of foreigner crime, did not provide full context for its statistics. While crimes by foreigners have risen in recent years, the overall foreigner crime rate remains below that of the general population.

Seong Sang-hwan, a professor at the National Center for Multicultural Education at Seoul National University, identifies a tendency by the media to idolize Korean ancestry and see collectives rather than individuals as coloring its coverage. He notes the celebration of successful ethnic Koreans overseas such as Fleur Pellerin, who was recently appointed to the Cabinet of recently elected French President Francois Hollande.

“They value these people highly even though these ethnic Koreans don’t have much to do with Korean society. These people are valued highly just because they have a Korean ethnic background,” said Seong.

Negative generalizing about foreigners is the other side of the same coin, according to Seong, as seen in the backlash against ethnic Korean-Chinese in the wake of a brutal murder in Suwon in April.

“When this kind of serious crime case happens, then Korean people, they tend to associate this case, or this person, with the entire ethnic group.”

But not all depictions of non-Korean living here have been negative. The rise in the numbers of so-called “multicultural families” has been followed by a steady stream of stories highlighting the difficulties they face in acutely homogenous Korean society. The Korea Herald featured an interview with Jasmine Lee, the country’s first foreign-born lawmaker, earlier in the year on the challenges multiethnic children face, while a piece in another English-language daily last year spoke of how families from diverse backgrounds can make Korean society more open.

Arirang TV newscaster Sean Lim believes that his station’s status as a public broadcaster allows it to avoid sensationalism in its coverage, including its coverage of foreigners.

“As a public entity, Arirang is not driven to focus on scandals and sensationalism in the pursuit of profit. This gives us space to expand our coverage to a wider variety of topics including human interest stories that show the contributions of those in our foreign community,” said Lim. “For many Koreans, Arirang is a comfortable conduit to the foreign community because we cover events, conferences and foreign news from a perspective that is relevant to Korea.”

He rejects the idea that journalists should do “positive” or “negative” stories, but rather sees the journalist’s job as to “bring light to the dark places.” In telling the news, the station naturally portrays foreigners’ positive contributions.
“Every day we show foreigners who live active, passionate and normal lives here in Korea,” Lim said. “Very recently we covered stories like the Latin American Cultural Festival, foreign students performing traditional Korean music at the National Folk Museum of Korea, and an international chef competition at the 2012 International Congress of the World Association of Chefs Societies. In the past we also covered stories of foreigners volunteering at animal shelters or helping the homeless.”

Lim declined to comment on the coverage of other outlets.

Assimilation

Whether some coverage is seen as positive or negative could depend on the consumer’s views about multiculturalism and assimilation.

Seong referenced a recent episode of KBS’ “Love in Asia” that told the story of an immigrant widow who looks after her sickly Korean father-in-law.

“She lost her husband … so she is raising her kids without her husband and then she is also supporting her parents-in-law. The program portrayed such a picture that what she does for the entire family … is very good. It inherits traditional Korean values.

But the program was criticized by the Korea Communications Commission for elevating assimilation above multiculturalism, according to Seong.

“The commission cautioned the broadcasting team … (They questioned) why the (producers) are thinking why the foreign wives should support parents-in-law and why this should be portrayed as a model case.”

[The Korea Herald] Skin color a qualification for some native-speaker jobs

By John Power and Monica Suk

Job opportunities for native English speakers have grown in recent years along with Korea’s global standing, extending beyond the traditional refuge of teaching. But not all native speakers are equally employable when it comes to the color of their skin.

One such case was a job advertisement last December for assistant to the CEO of a high-profile Oriental medicine hospital in Seoul.

The ad, emailed by a then-staffer at a recruiting company to a professional acquaintance for recommendations, sought a native English-speaking Caucasian to deal with foreign patients and manage files in English.

The ad also specified that the applicant be female, aged 25-32 and be from the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand or England. It declared no preference for martial status. The hospital in question runs an international clinic and regularly advertizes to foreigners.

When contacted, the ex-staffer at the recruiter denied that the ad represented racial discrimination, instead describing the reference to race as a “preference.”

“Many people go and consult a doctor need a person who is…people could…” she said, trailing off, before agreeing that patients needed someone they would be “comfortable” with.

“They just told us the kind of people they need, and it was not a must-qualification. The race was not a must-qualification. Black people could apply but there was a preference.”

She later said, however, that the hospital had not asked her former employer to specify any particular race or gender. She claimed to have forgotten the name of the company she had worked for and who had decided to include the reference to race.

She also said the ad was not publically circulated because to do so would have been discriminatory.

A spokesman for the hospital denied it had anything to do with the ad: “All we asked the headhunter was to find a Gyopo (Korean-American) who can speak Englishand Korean fluently. All we did is to interview the candidates on the list that the headhunter sent us.”

The advert seen by The Korean Herald, however, indicated that proficiency in Korean was not necessary.

The spokesman added that the assistant to the CEO position was ultimately filled with a Korean-American.

A spokesman for the recruiting company also denied it made any specifications regarding race.

“I mean it makes no sense. Does it make sense to you? What kind of a right-minded person would write such a comment on a job opening announcement?” he said.

“As far as I know she’s (the former staffer who sent the job advert) not the type of person who would discriminate people against gender or race. It’s hard to believe that she did this.”

The names of the hospital and the recruiter, whose website features pictures of people of a number of different races, have been withheld to protect the source of the email from the threat of legal action and blacklisting.

Racial discrimination pre­sents itself in less high-profile positions, too, affecting the hiring process for native English teachers.

In October, an ad on Koreabridge.net stated “Caucasians are preferred” for positions at two schools in Deungchon-dong and Songpa-gu in Seoul.

The director of Independent Start Korea, the recruiter behind the ad, said she removed the reference to race in later ads after receiving complaints as she did not wish to offend anyone.

She claimed that, from her experience, some 50 percent of hagwon prefer not to hire black people. The ad and its reference to race remained online at the time of going to print.

Another recruiter, based in Busan, stipulates “Caucasians only” in its internal requirements for native English-speaking teachers. The document, seen by The Korea Herald, also specifies lower pay grades for South African teachers than other nationalities.

While the law in Korea does prohibit unequal treatment of foreigners once they are employed, it is not illegal to discriminate on the basis of race in the hiring process.

“(In) The National Human Rights Commission’s law, there are certain guidelines about racial discrimination. But the Korean government doesn’t have a discrimination law about race at this moment,” said Park Seong-nam, migrant rights team director at the National Human Rights Commission.

The National Human Rights Commission Act 2001 in theory prohibits discrimination based on race but is non-binding. The Commission can take complaints from victims, provide advice and assistance and petition the government, but has no power to impose penalties or coerce private businesses.

“Personally, I think the Korean government has to make a law against discrimination, especially against race,” said Park.

In 2009, Democratic Party lawmaker Jun Byung-hun proposed a bill that would have criminalized racist language and behavior. The bill, which never made it out of the National Assembly, would also have covered mistreatment in employment, education, housing and financial and medical services.

The bill was proposed after a Korean man was prosecuted for contempt for racially insulting an Indian professor on a bus as no provision existed regarding racist language or actions.

By John Power and Monica Suk