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South Korea and Racism. Again.

Sam Okyere talks about racism in South Korea

Just because you don’t know it’s called “being racist” doesn’t mean you’re not being one

A couple of years back, I wrote about racism in Korea. Recently, Ghanaian-born South Korean TV star Sam Okyere’s JTBC interview has got South Koreans thinking about the issue of racism once again. Okyere’s experiences of racism, optimistic outlook, and integration in South Korean society echo those voiced earlier by Stanley Hawi in 2015.

Racism exists in South Korea. There’s no denying this (There is racism in every society, no matter how”educated” or less “educated” their general population may be on the issue). It manifests itself in different ways: Here in South Korea, white women are labelled whores, because they are sexually liberated, so I, also a man, deserve to have a go at them. Korean women who date white men are seen as sluts, because they remind me of the government-sponsored whores we leased to the GIs. South Asian women are seen as subhuman, because we bought you, and thus you are a living doll, to be ordered around.

The sentiments felt by Sam are shared by many people of colour in South Korea. The stupid questions Sam has been asked, such as “How many lions do you have at home” were thrown at people around me. These are not limited to the “less educated middle-aged women you meet in the subway”, as Sam recalls. They were reproduced by well-travelled, foreign-educated middle-upper class South Korean students at elite universities.

When a professor at Korea University stated, during a lecture in international development, that “Africa will never develop”, virtually all the African students immediately shot out of their seats and started speaking. The hurt ringing in the phrase “How can you make such a statement” from a Kenyan student was echoed by many international students. She was shot down by the professor, who hurriedly dismissed the class. She walked up to the professor and talked to him for several minutes. He eventually apologised, but I don’t know how sincere he was about this.

Why I’m writing about racism (again)

Racism is a topic that’s been on my mind a lot this year in the Netherlands, because it’s hit me in the face, over and over again. In fact, it annoyed me so much that I started a Twitter account where I will chronicle each and every one of them.

Racism is not a yes/no question. It is a spectrum. A person who is nice to whites without any particular reason yet does not show the same niceness to people of colour is a racist. He or she is inflicting positive racism on the former, and negative racism on the latter. By assuming a white person in a suit must be educated, by saying that those speaking with a British accent sound “smart”, by saying white women are “liberal”, we are boxing them into packages labelled “white” “British man” and “white woman” and expecting they be the same as the “standard” white, British man, or white woman. And even those who think such things agree humans are not Tesco-packed beef wrapped in polyester, who come with a price tag, a nutrition etiquette, and whose price depreciates because of a single characteristic.

When a man’s experience of racism is read out in a “black accent”

Uzo Paul Chiedozie talk about racism on the same programme Stanley Hawi appeared in.

In the February 27th episode of “Hello Counselor”, Nigerian student Uzo Paul talks about the racist experiences he’s come across in South Korea so far, using much of the same narrative Stanley Hawi and Sam Okyere have testified to.

A black man is mistreated for being “African” – by individuals. It’s just individuals who are ignorant. “Educated Koreans” don’t treat him that way – he has many South Korean friends. He struggles but still loves South Korea. He loves the food. He has a South Korean girlfriend. The girlfriend is abused publicly by fellow South Koreans and the black man is sorry about this. But he hopes, that by his “being strong and assimilating into Korean culture”, these racisms will eventually disappear.

The cast and the audience reacts the same way. The MC begins by reading his story, in a mocking rendition of what he perceives to be an “African accent”.

What is particularly shocking in this episode is how a story of racism is read out in a racist manner by the MC. He reads out Uzo’s “story”  using a thick accent. The cast and audience burst out laughing. This is racism.

Lee Michelle, finalist of Kpop Star Season 1 and member of now disbanded SuPearls comments: “I overcame these [racist] difficulties thanks to my family and friends. Not everyone in the world can love me. […] If I work harder for the people who love me, life will surely get better”. 

Eventually, racism is reduced to a “personal, unfortunate incident” that the victim has to “pull through, since they’re in a foreign country, and that’s how things are here”. Even a programme dealing with racism is rife with racist attitudes. The victims play nicely, they don’t accuse South Koreans of being racist. The audience is left feeling good, and they all pat each other on the back – “We aren’t like that. We are not racists”.

Stanley, Sam, Uzo are all saddened by the “unfortunate incidents” – but happy at the end, because they are optimistic things will get better. Never, ever, are they angry. Because the last thing South Korean TV wants to see is a black person who is angry. An angry “African” will only prove the stereotypes to be true, that “Africans” are emotional and get violent. The “victims” must play the part, sad, soft-spoken, innocent – or what is an outstanding example of tone policing.

In “(I am) Twenty-Three, and Decide to Die”, Cho Eunsoo writes about her 10-month journey in Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Madagascar and more

Tales from the Motherland

Racism is harshest on black people. It’s also a crime by association. Travel writer and author of “(I am) Twenty-Three, and Decide to Die (스물 셋, 죽기로 결심하다)” (surely a pun on Veronika decide morir by Paulo Coelho) Cho Eunsoo’s Facebook and Naver Blog regularly receive comments such as “So, did you suck black dick?”. Whenever there is a photo of a Korean woman with a black person, you can safely assume some anonymous Korean man will comment on her “promiscuity”, just because.

As I’m not running for the Oppression Olympics, I’m not going to start comparing my experiences to those faced by Sam and Stanley. Our experiences are different, yet lie in the same realm of ignorance mashed up with racial superiority.

Whenever I tell my flatmate Jonas that another Dutch man has screamed “Hey Miss China!” at me, he says “That’s not racism, it’s just a stupid person being stupid to you” and I shoot back “You don’t know racism because you’ve never experienced it. Shut up“, he concedes. He doesn’t start yelling at or threatening me, but that doesn’t make Jonas’s support for racism go away. By denying the “Miss China” part as racist, he is delegating the axis to me  – I am the problem. I am the “over-sensitive prick” who is making a “big deal”. When Jonas tells me and my other flatmate Haley that “catcalling is a compliment, you girls should appreciate it”, he is being part of the problem by disregarding our experience (Before you ask me why I’m still living with Jonas – it’s the university’s 12-month minimum contract for student housing. I’ve looked into it. Multiple times).

A friend of mine is currently living in New York City and living together with her boyfriend from Trinidad and Tobago. She “came out” to her mother about their dating and living together, but she says she and her mother will never tell her dad. “He will die”. I still think she is one of the most courageous women I know.

It took my grandparents three years before they let my stepfather, a Dutch national, enter their apartment. “We have a reputation to keep; we cannot have the neighbours think we have a white man in the family”. When a white, middle-class man is rejected for not being Korean, how it must be for a black student (students not having much money, of course) – I will not claim to understand their pain, because I will never experience it to such an extent, but I will acknowledge that it is pain.

And often, acknowledgement is all we need.

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