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What Debate?

Bryan Kay’s article, “South Korea’s Racism Debate,” amuses me mostly because I don’t think there’s really all that much of a debate going on at all. When Miss Jiwaku has tried, with some of her Korean friends and acquaintances, to talk about the issue, she’s had a pretty disappointing success rate: often, she runs into the usual justifications, evasions, or dismissals that any non-Korean can tell you about. She’s lost friends over it. What’s more heartbreaking is that some of those friends wouldn’t even empathize about the crap she’s had to put up with herself — the intersection of sexism and xenophobic racism that turns Korean women who date or marry non-Korean men into acceptable targets for staring, public criticism by strangers, assault, or worse.

A debate won’t be possible until people actually recognize there’s an issue about which disagreement is possible; given how my students react when I recount experiences like this one or this one — almost always with unbelieving shock, as if this kind of thing never happens in Korea anymore — I think it’s gonna be a long, long time till such a debate even begins.

And of course, then people will have to be willing to debate. It’s not that I haven’t any Korean friends: I have a number who are quite free of apparent racism, or who do their best; I have friends whom I can call on that kind of thing, and they get it and understand — and they can call me on crap I say or do, too. They’re a solace, but in the abstract sense: they’re not people I feel I can call for support when I am experiencing racist treatment, not just because I feel they couldn’t do anything anyway, but because I’ve noticed a widespread conflict-avoidant tendency that is most pronounced in the nicest people I’ve met here. I get the sense that maybe conflict-avoidance is the way they managed to get through life in a society where the rules are pretty much in favor of the insensitive or the downright callous. I have trouble imagining any of my Korean friends (not including Miss Jiwaku) standing up to a drunk shouting at me on the subway. I know for a fact that several times when push has come to shove in a professional context, the wagons have circled and left me on the outside, even with those who I like to believe are sympathetic. Sympathy often costs a lot more here than it does where I’m from. So does getting into a real debate.

(And I realize now that, for all my discussing these problems, blogging about racism online has never fixed racism offline. I also realize that one thing I don’t do enough is to write about my friends — Korean or otherwise. Going through old posts and tagging them, I realized I used to write about my friends a lot, but now I don’t do it so much. I shall have to start again.)

Anyway, I have feeling the big changes that would proceed from any “Racism Debate” in Korea won’t be coming before I’m a senior citizen. (And I’m in my late 30s now.) I could be wrong — things sometimes change quickly here — but I think some things change faster than others, and there are a number of debates (the status of women being one) where the line is moving very, very slowly.

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