Blackface, Korean Media, and the Context of the American Vaudeville Show

Apparently, there has been an explosion online regarding an incident in which Korean performers donned  blackface for a performance over the Lunar New Year:

Yeah. And this isn’t all that rare in Korean media.

In fact, Matt over at Gusts of Popular Feeling hits the highlights with an excellent and carefully-researched history of Three Decades of Blackface in Korea, though it’s not an exhaustive history — he doesn’t get into every example. Just the big ones, and especially those in programs (as opposed to in advertisements). Like, for example, the all-Korean production of Roots here. Yeah, seriously. Go give it a look, and I’ll wait here. While you’re at it, some useful thoughts over at Roboseyo.

As Rob mentions, there has been an apology issued by MBC. It’s the standard non-apology for situations like this, pleading “misunderstanding” and “this was for Koreans, not foreigners, so you don’t understand the context…”  but not really acknowledging that this kind of performance is demeaning to black people.

(Why is it always a case of misunderstanding or miscommunication? We’re sorry that your misunderstanding caused you to take offense! Ah, yes, because Koreans Can Do No Wrong, Especially When Criticized By Outsiders Who Obviously Cannot Comprehend Korea is a rhetorical strategy that never fails.)

That context we supposedly “don’t get,” by the way, is that the blackface skit was a reference to a Korean blackface cartoon. Which as you can imagine, hasn’t really alleviated much of the disgust among expats writing about it: so it’s the propagation of an older racist caricature from older media, and that’s supposed to change our opinion how?

Westerners have tended to argue, implicitly, that the Korean understanding of blackface is not very nuanced, and at least institutionally speaking, MBC’s apology demonstrates this to be true.   But I’m going to take a step back and say the Western bloggers also don’t have a very nuanced understanding of blackface; not in the Korean context, and not even in their own Western cultural tradition.

Before I explain why I think so, though, I want to first point out that I’m not condoning blackface or defending its use in Korean entertainment. I abhor it and what it represents, and I’ve regularly made it a part of my Popular Culture course in order to help young Koreans to understand why it is understood to be so offensive out there in the rest of the world, as well as because it opens up a lot of questions about depiction, about stereotype and caricature. Over the years, I’ve seen students get filled with anger, or sympathy, while watching Bamboozled — usually at the scene where Tommy Davidson and Savion Glover’s characters are transforming themselves into their blackface characters (Mantan and Sleep’n’Eat) and stare into the mirror in horror, self-reproach, rage in one’s eyes and sorrowful resignation in the other’s. I’ve seen students become passionate about the issue. So yes, talking about it is important.

Once again, this post absolutely is not a defense of blackface. But I think the kneejerk reaction we have to it today results in a kind of amnesia about the original social context of blackface and the handling of race in 19th century American popular culture, and how it might (usefully) be compared to the context in which racial caricature (of blacks, but also of others) goes on in quite constantly Korean entertainment media today. And that’s unfortunate, because I think there are parallels; I think missing the parallels makes us miss opportunities to engage in the process, to elbow our collective way to something saner that Westerners howling, “RACISTS! THAT SHIT AIN’T FUNNY!” and Koreans howling back, “NO WE’RE NOT! YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND! THIS IS JUST FUNNY TO US!”

I’ve been slowly, patchily reading up on blackface minstrelsy in American culture over the last couple of years, and I have to say that most of the commentary in Korea I’ve run across is missing out on an important part of the context in the American history of blackface (and its European predecessor) that would help to shed light on the practice in Korea.

Now, Korea doesn’t have a history of enslaving black people. Korea doesn’t have Jim Crow laws that target black people. White people are as likely (if not more likely, given how new the experience is to most of them) to complain about racism in Korea as blacks here.

So obviously blackface doesn’t carry the same resonance in Korea as it would in America, where there is a long history of blackface in entertainment, but also where that entertainment links directly to a history of enslavement, violent subjugation, deracination, forcible abduction, and the rest of African-Americans’ painful history. After all, blackface shows began growing popular soon after the end of slavery — especially in the North, especially depicting a nostalgic vision of the Southern past (often to Northerners). And as Strausbaugh notes, actually digging into the lyrics and performances, you find a bizarre mix of very offensive, anti-black racism, and moments of surprisingly sympathetic rhetoric. You find images of blacks being mocked for aspiring to the wealth and status of whites, but also images of blacks (performed by whites or blacks in blackface) speaking out against the indignities they had to live with.

But to say that  Korea is not 19th century America isn’t to say there isn’t racism towards blacks here. While there are a lot of Koreans who don’t think that way, there’s plenty who hate black people here, especially among the old but not exclusively among them. I’ve heard the Korean equivalent to the N-word among young people as well as old, and I’ve seen plenty of young (college-aged) Koreans make fun of blacks (often by making monkey sounds or making monkey gestures); when they did so, it was obvious they expected nobody to find it offensive, and indeed my own reaction usually shocked them.

Indeed, even the term “sikeomeonseu” mentioned by Matt over at Gusts of Popular Feeling (in the post linked above) has a clear negative connotation, not just from the latter half of the chant used by Lee Bong-su between 1986 and 1987:

Lee would dance on stage in a rasta wig in black face and shout to the music, “시커먼스, 시커먼스. 망했다, 망했어” (the latter meaning ‘ruined’ or ‘doomed’).

When I mentioned this to Miss Jiwaku, she immediately asked whether I know about the negative connotation to color-adjectives that begin with 시, implying filthiness, nastiness, or some other sort of objectionable status. I didn’t, and she gave me a few exmaples: when young women used to dye their hair red (or also, when red lipstick was new in Korea — or, sometimes, even now) older people would disapprovingly mutter about it, and the color terminology they would use was 시뻘건; meanwhile, 시퍼런 (for blue) is sometimes used for a nasty bruise (as here), or to describe the nasty hue of a ghost. (And when one Korean entertainer donned “blueface” to play the role of a Na’vi from Avatar, the color used to describe him was none other than 시퍼런.) This makes the term “시커먼스” take on a somewhat more ominous tone than I first realized, somewhere a little further along the spectrum towards what street folk sometimes called the blackface minstrel performance: “the n[-word] show.”

I don’t know how much of one and how much of the other audiences picked up on, but I will say this: sometimes when I watch Korean TV, with its melodramatic tendencies, its formulaic and marriage/family-focused plotlines (which to me feel straight out of 19th century literature of the sort I tend to avoid) and its primarily slapstick comedy, I find myself thinking that the consumers of popular culture in Korean audiences today and Western audiences of the 1870s and 1880s probably have a lot in common.

Not only that: it’s also important to remember that back when blackface was at its peak — when “Jim Crow” still referred to a vaudeville character — there were all kinds of other “race-face” being used, not just blackface. John Strausbaugh wrote of this at length in Black Like You: Blackface, Whiteface, Insult & Imitation in American Popular Culture, exploring the various stereotypes that were used for each race mocked on the stage:

It’s important to remember that on the vaudeville stage these blackfaced “Ethiopians” rubbed elbows with various other brands of broadly played ethnic stereotypes and impersonations, for equally low laughs–the brawling Irish, wheedling Jews, oily Italians, thick-headed Germans, inscrutable Chinamen, gullible country rubes and so on. Maybe we should call these greenface, jewface, pastaface, potatoface, yellowface and rubeface. “The Irish characters are drunk, belligerent, and dumb (dumb was the term commonly used in comedy–it meant stupid or unintelligent, but it also meant culturally naive, ‘green’ or bewildered, ‘unhip’ as well). The Italians are happy rascals, promiscuous, profligate–and dumb; the Germans, usually called ‘Dutch’ in vaudeville from the same corruption of Deutsch which gave us the Pennsylvania Dutch, are lazy, stodgily conservative, and of course, also dumb. Blacks are lazy, dishonest, promiscuous, profligate, irresponsible and–guess what–dumb. Jews are ‘canny’… that is, they are smart in the sense of too clever, manipulative, dishonest–but they are also portrayed, perhaps surprisingly, as dumb, especially as lacking in ‘street smarts,’ and potential suckers. Jewish men in particular are also particularly weak, cowardly, the victims of bullies (including Jewish women)…. Blacks are associated with an insatiable desire for watermelon, chicken, or pork chops; Italian immigrants are associated with crime and huge families; ‘Dutchmen’ with sauerkraut and beer, and so forth.” (131-132)

Strausbaugh argues that the world prior to the rise of identity politics was one where it was understood that mockery of difference would happen — but that mockery went two ways, for every pair of differences — and that it was also understood that, at the time —  when “the melting pot was on high boil” (and the term melting pot was coined in 1908, in fact) — it was expected one gave as good as one got; it was not unusual for people to gawk at those different from themselves, expressing an open, unabashed curiosity. Sometimes the tensions that arose between different groups were worked out in the streets; sometimes, they were, Strausbaugh suggests, worked out on the stage.

Vaudeville was, then, Strausbaugh explains,

a space where [members of different groups] could come together and stare at one another. In a primitive and limited way, vaudeville was as “multicultural” and “diverse” as any university campus is today. I’m not being facetious. Universities today routinely champion the notion that simply by being on a “diverse” campus, where you may encounter fellow students who do not come from the same tribe as you, your worldview will be enriched and you will become a better, more “sensitive” person. Easily affordable entertainment for the masses, vaudeville brought members of disparate tribes together both in the audience and on the stage. Audiences of workers and immigrants and families, of various descents and heritages, watched images of themselves and others on stage, sometimes in knockabout comic caricature, sometimes singing a familiar ballad or air from the Old Country (maybe your Old Country, maybe someone else’s), sometimes overemoting in a tearjerking vignette. They laughed at themselves and at one another, bawledover one anothers’ tragedies, went out humming scraps of one another’s music. It didn’t mean that they all loved one another, but it bred a certain familiarity, a starting point for tolerance.

For everyone except Black people. Black performers were sharing the stage with all those others, but that’s about all they were allowed to share. Offstage, no matter how elegantly they dressed and danced onstage, they were still [considered] niggers. They couldn’t stay in the same hotels as their colleagues. They couldn’t go to a restaurant with them after the show for a mug of beer and a plate of chops. In general, if there were Black people in the vaudeville audience, they were segregated to the balcony–called “nigger heaven by White theater managers. For newly arrived immigrants, mixing it up in vaudeville theaters was one part of the profess of becoming assimilated and recognized as White, melting into the American pot. Blacks were still outcasts and beyond the pale, pun intended.  A society of disparate member groups often seeks cohesion by organizing against an Other; it defines who belongs and is included by clearly specifying who does not belong and is excluded. America had designated Blacks as the Other long before the new great wave of immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century, and so they remained until they forced their way in through the civil rights movement. (pg. 132-33)

That last paragraph is extremely important: while there is room to make arguments about how racialized mockery in the vaudeville context may have involved more respect and sympathy than we tend to imagine, more complexity and respect and so on, the social norms tended to be much more brutal for black Americans than for anyone else in the system — in part as a result of everyone else collectively ganging up on the blacks.

There are some other things probably worth critiquing in Strausbaugh’s argument, and criticisms we should bear in mind — such as his assumption that the stereotypes enacted on vaudeville stages didn’t prolong racism and distrust of different ethnicities, rather than speeding the growth of tolerance — but there are also interesting things to consider when we compare this to the practice of racial parody in Korean media today.

The first is that there absolutely are other “faces” in Korean media. One, of course the first to come to my mind, is whiteface. I’m not talking of the plastic-surgery Europeanization of Korean celebrities, but rather of the depiction of whites on lowest-common-denominator Korean TV. We’ve all seen the emasculated, childlike white male on Korean television, especially in those EFL TV shows: giant thick-rimmed glasses, suspenders and a bowtie, childlike expressions, jumping and bouncing around. It’s akin to the way blacks were often expected to perform only if they performed caricatures of black people. My sense is that on Korean (entertainment) TV programs, the only white man allowed is a caricatured one. I could be wrong, or behind the times, though.

(And yes, there are Korean performers who are dressed up this way and who are expected to act this way too; this doesn’t mean that the parody of whites isn’t racist; I suspect it fits in as something comparable to “rubeface” in American vaudeville shows.)

Then there’s the racial-sexual complexities involved in depicting foreign women: anyone who paid any attention at all (however little–I paid barely any at all) to Misuda back when it was being discussed knows that there were racial stereotypes aplenty mobilized on the show, but also, oddly, there was a strong effort to get non-Korean women to present themselves in ways that somehow, eerily, “Koreanized” them. (Which is also to say, infantilized, since women are often highly infantilized in Korean media.) Sometimes the women got to speak out, but on the show, I remember a lot of scripted stuff where they were clearly acting out Korean male fantasies.

Arabs have been mocked in Korean TV too, most notoriously the Star King variety show’s mockery of Arabs and Muslims last year. Cartoons often show Arabic and Persian people in ways that suggest violence — machine guns, for example. This is to audiences where many viewers actually spent time in the Middle East, working, back in the 1970s and 1980s, too. (But as in Austen’s Mansfield Park, what happens in Egypt stays in Egypt, I guess.)

And then there’s Southeast Asians. I don’t know if there are many getting into TV, but they have been turning up more and more often in films. One example that comes to mind is 방바? 방가!, a film that overall was very sympathetic, but which featured two Koreans playing Southeastasianface: one, explicitly (the star, a Korean who pretends to be Nepali so he can get a job), and one simply by the fact that a Korean woman was hired to play a Vietnamese character. (Could they not find a Vietnamese actress for the role? If so, how hard did they try? I hear they have actors down in Vietnam, after all, and it’s not like plane far would have cost that much.)

Sympathetic as 방바? 방가! was — and as I mention at the linked post, like some of those vaudeville acts Strausbaugh mentions, it was far and away more sympathetic than I expected — the film clearly and directly paints a picture not only where sympathy for Southeast Asians in Korea stems from their underdog status, from their being “poor” and “downtrodden.” It’s the same pattern you see in Korea with pretty much every other outsider: you’re pitied for things that have nothing to do with the real problems you face in Korean society.

(When people sympathize with me, they’re usually thinking of how alone they imagine I feel here, or how hard it is to be somewhere where your mother isn’t providing you with home-cooked side dishes on a regular basis — not people calling any woman beside me a “foreigners’ whore” or a “crazy bitch,” or being attacked in subway stations by random assholes, or having my contract illegally changed midway through, or going unpaid by an employer, as many white hakwon teachers seem to experience. When they imagine racism against blacks in Korea, they think of rude old men muttering bad words into the wind, not assaults on the subway or in the streets or a constant barrage of being told to “go home” or the way leadership in this society thinks of black people almost all the way to the top, or how insulting and dehumanizing the depiction of blacks is in the media here. When those Koreans who are at all sympathetic imagine the problems of Southeast Asians, they think of hard work and low pay, not fear of summary arrest or violence at the hands of employers or unthinkably dangerous working conditions.)

And so it goes. At dinner not long ago, a young Korean woman — who seemed, in general, quite average, though I don’t know very well — suddenly said something I’ve heard so often it’s a commonplace here: “Chinese are dirty.” Miss Jiwaku and I did our best not to tell her off, since she was the guest of a good friend of ours, but the girl said it twice, with great surety. One of Miss Jiwaku’s responses was the funniest: “Well, Koreans are dirty too!” she said (and bear in mind, she’s Korean), “Whenever I go to a public bathroom, I’m the only one washing my hands!” (And all I could do is nod my head, because frankly it describes my [shocked] experience too.)

My point is, there’s an atmosphere of generalized racism, and of mockery towards all races, that exists in Korea today; most people vaguely know about it, though it still gets reported as if it’s news. Not only that, but this is something Korea has in common with America, just… at an extreme time lag. Racial caricature still exists in America today, but it’s been effectively politicized there; that’s not yet really the case in Korea. There are plenty of Koreans, of course, who are just as sick of this stuff as the ranting expats; however, most of them quietly frown and move on to other things. As I’ve pointed out, there’s a nonconfrontational streak a mile wide in the hearts of most nice people I’ve met here, which doesn’t help in terms of getting a debate about racism going in Korean society: the racists spew crap, and those who know it’s crap mostly stay quiet. Not that I don’t get why: as I’ve said, Miss Jiwaku has had pretty uniformly disappointing experiences when she’s spoken up, either being yelled at or mocked by racist acquaintances or “friends” or, in the case of the nicer-but-still-ignorant individuals, blank looks and nods, along with a sort of, “Oh, really?”

The things Miss Jiwaku tells me she’s overheard are very discouraging. A woman looking at herself in the mirror and saying, unhappily, things that can be translated as, “I look like a dirty Southeast Asian today.”  Or, when saying, “How about Chinese food,” to a former classmate during a meeting of school peers, hearing, “Nah, I don’t feel like Chink food…” (followed, at other suggestions, by, “I don’t wanna eat n[-word] food” or “I don’t wanna eat dirty Southeast Asians’ food” and so on). Where bigots I’ve met in North America know they need to keep that kind of garbage under wraps unless they know everyone in the group feels the same way, in Korea this kind of stuff gets said with depressing regularity, and the people saying it don’t seem to sense (or care) that it might be seen as offensive, let alone seen as  reflecting badly on them… because the people who are offended almost never stand up and say, in person, at the time, “That’s offensive!” Or the woman who stopped a friend of a friend of mine on the street to lecture her about her own disapproval of interracial marriage (as if anyone has to care about some random old woman’s attitude…).

Maybe Korea still just yet hasn’t hit that melting pot thing (or has just hit it, more likely) that happened in America at the turn of the 20th century; maybe the point is that in terms of thinking about racist caricature in Korean media, we would do better if we looked further back — back to 1890, perhaps, or 1880, or maybe even farther back. It may be that Korea (including its various groups of assimilating foreigners) haven’t yet settled upon a single group to treat as its collective Other. Korean society is still too busy talking about Others, and expats are not assimilating so much, so they tend to simply accept Other status —  especially when the alternative is doing whiteface, blackface, or Otherface clown shows on Korean TV.

I think the singular difference between blackface in Korean contexts, versus blackface in the American (or European) context is that in Korea, it’s not clear whether blacks occupy a special negative place in the Korean mind — yet, or still. While it’s easy for the Western North American to assume so, since the mockery used on blacks is so often copied straight from our own historically racist entertainment, where blacks did occupy that specially excluded/hated status — and while it is offensive to most black people, and deserving of criticism — the Korean use of blackface isn’t necessarily a sign that blacks are the Most Hated Others in Korean thought. I think this assumption might be lurking behind the loudness the Western response to incidents of blackface (as opposed to the much quieter and gentler expat response to the mockery of Arabs in Korean media).

That doesn’t mean blackface isn’t offensive. It’s ironic that it’s Japan and Korea — along with a few other East Asian societies, I’ve heard — are still using this in entertainment, but also the first to line up for a whine-and-bitch-fest at the first sight of any negative depiction of their dominant racial groups in foreign media. Think about the complaining that happened in Korea over the character Jin in Lost, or the Koreans who were doing human trafficking in Crash. (And that’s despite the fact that there is a significant human trafficking problem in America involving Koreans. They’re not the only ones, and obviously not all Koreans there do it, but Korean human trafficking in the States is a problem.) I’m fine with discussing the question of racism in that media… but it’s hard to take a nuanced discussion like that seriously when blackface minstrel performances are considered acceptable enough to be part of holiday family programming on major Korean networks.

Still, I sincerely doubt that blacks are likely to end up occupying the excluded Other status in Korean society: if I had to bet, I’d say that over time, it’s likelier that it’s Southeast Asians (and Koreans of mixed race with Southeast Asian heritage) who are going to bear the brunt of the 3rd class citizen status here. They’re the likeliest to get mocked, because they’re going to be the most common group here, because of Korea’s fetishistic obsession with its “pure racial bloodline,” because of the poverty in which many of these individuals are likely to have grown up amid (seeing as they’re primarily born to couples made up of rural men and their mail-order brides), and because they’re the ones whose anger at exclusion is most likely to inform experiences of regular Koreans on an increasing basis in the next fifty years.

I could be wrong: in Shakespeare’s day, the races most denigrated were those most absent from English life: the Jew (a group who had been exiled from England) and the Moor (who were rare as could be). But from what I’ve seen, attitudes towards white Westerners have gotten more extreme, not less so, over the last ten years; in Korea, it seems, familiarity with Others seems to breed, among a certain part of society, increasingly extreme contempt. Those people also seem to be far from rare in media here. But if we’re betting on who ends up being most excluded — and most mocked in the media — by mid-century, my money’s on the Southeast Asians and those mixed-race offspring of Southeast-Asian/rural Korean couples.

What this means in practical terms is… well, I’m not sure exactly, but a starting point would be critiquing all the other “faces” we see in Korean media, not just the ones that happen to offend us personally (ie. blackface and white face). When we see Arabface, or Chinkface, or Japface, or SoutheastAsianface, we should be speaking up about those, too: they’re all part of the same system — and even Jeollaface and Jejuface are part of that system. As well, we could reflect on whether the use of those “faces” might be part of a process we ourselves went through. It’d be nice if Korea went through it with more dignity than we did, but one thing I’ve noticed over the past decade is that Korean society doesn’t seem to want to learn from other societies’ mistakes when it comes to this kind of thing.

23 thoughts on “Blackface, Korean Media, and the Context of the American Vaudeville Show

  1. What leaves me incredulous about the non-apology apologies of Koreans for this sort of nonsense is that Korea knows full well what is wrong with it, since Koreans were subjected to exactly the same sort of demeaning “orientalizing” depictions – right down to the painted on swarthy complexions and projected shiftlessness – by the Japanese during the colonial period.

  2. The aporia in MBC’s faux “apology” is so self-evident that it is immediately rendered absurd, and essentially meaningless.

    If any foreign criticisms of their show can be deflected in their mind by the appeal to cultural “misunderstanding,” then the onus is on them to prove that they themselves “fully understand” the foreign culture that they have appropriated, in this case both “black” and “white” culture (since blackface largely emerges in the non-black Western imaginary). I think most Americans conversant in the history of African-American culture and blackface in particular would argue that MBC’s so-called “understanding” of this cultural form is wanting, at best. In other words, MBC would have to be able demonstrate a long, significant broadcasting track record in which they have proven over time that they fully understand and respect the history and culture of African-Americans in America. If they cannot do that, and I seriously doubt they can, then their appeal to cultural “misunderstanding” in this case collapses upon itself, and becomes self-servingly hollow –€“ lacking whatsoever in the most basic legitimacy. After all, one should only handle or discuss things one “fully understands,” right? You can’t have your rice cakes and eat them, too.

    A further contraction in MBC’s wobbly “defense.” In this day and age, when the Korean government and the Korean media, of which MBC are a major part, proclaim that Korea is now a “multicultural society” almost every day, how can they claim that the show in question was only meant “for Koreans”?

    Either the rhetoric of “multiculturalism” in Korea is so much hot air, or MBC doesn’t really believe in it. Which is it, MBC? Probably just More Bull Crap, no matter how you slice it. I would argue that MBC in particular and the Korean in media in general do not understand “multiculturalism” at all, for if they really did, they would not make such appeals to “cultural exceptionalism” as MBC has done here, but would actually try to respect, engage and more deeply understand the critiques by non-Koreans of their show, rather than trying, however lamely, to dismiss them by tossing them into the quicksand of Korean ethnonationalism –“ and thereby pretend that they no longer exist.

    Of course, I know what the suits at MBC would say to all this: I just “don’t understand,” do I? Can someone please toss me a rope before disappear completely?

  3. Sperwer,

    Actually, you know, the same complexity of attitudes and motivations that I describe in racial caricature in American popular culture, especially around the peak of “multiracial” immigrant influx in America, somewhat applies to the complexity of attitudes and motivations that inform Japanese depictions of Koreans up to and during (and even after) the period when Japanese held Korea as a colony. For Japanese, Korea occupied a place of nostalgic, romanticized historical projection: a sort of pseudo-Japan that time forgot, full of innocent-but-primitive pseudo-Japanese. Not that there isn’t racism inherent in that, but it’s not pure denigration: there’s idealization, there’s praise, there’s also in some echelons a strong effort and collecting and preserving Korean culture in ways Koreans simply weren’t doing. (And this pattern itself replicates how a certain class of Americans looked at and interacted with Japan during America’s “Gilded Age.”)

    Two very good books on this are:
    Primitive Selves: Koreana in the Japanese Colonial Gaze, 1910-1945, by E. Taylor Atkins. (see my review in the Japan Times, and further thoughts here)
    The Great Wave: Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics, and the Opening of Old Japan by Christopher Benfey, which I’ve reviewed here.

    I’m a little frustrated because, while I understand your and Scott’s inherent disgust with blackface other racial caricature, I feel like both your comments kind of got hung up on the non-apology apology… which, you know, is kind of common these days not just in Korea, but in the Anglophone world too. In fact, “non-apology apology” is a term I heard first in discussions of various SF/F authors and publishers who were non-apology-apologizing for sexist or racist content in their work (or for unacceptable public behaviour). Harlan Ellison grabbing Connie Willlis’ breast onstage is one example that comes to mind, but only one among many.

    I was trying to get at the point that while I am also frustrated by the excuse-making, this is something we have seen before — it’s something mainstream American entertainment did on a constant basis when America was having its first real explosion of multiculturality. Identity politics hasn’t exploded here, except in the monocultural, 우리 민족 sense, and I think Westerners are basing their reactions in part on an incomplete (ie. decontextualized) understanding of blackface performance (and other racial caricature) in Western, Anglophone cultures.

    In fact, a lot of the racist things we see in media — the putting of members of other races on display, as in Misuda — were also done — in more shocking ways — by white Anglophones (and Frenchmen, and so on) in the past (and not necessarily so far back). When I first heard about English villages, I thought of human zoos, and you know, those were all the rage in the 70s… the 1870s, that is. I struggle to imagine what your average vaudeville show (or human zoo) manager in 1870 might have said if suddenly bafflingly furious aliens landed in town and began scolded him for racism: I imagine it would be pretty much the same kind of noncommital non-apology. And, mind, some of those human zoo or vaudeville venue managers could easily have been children of immigrants considered members of “inferior races” (like Irish or Italian) who had happened to arrive a generation or two earlier.

    And yes, I am saying that in the practical sense, Korean society is (on average) at least a century behind the West in terms of its grasp on the complexities of race, caricature, and entertainment. Not all Koreans are there, of course: plenty of Koreans are disgusted by that, and criticize it online. But the average seems to me to map onto America circa 1870 or so. (As do a lot of patterns in Korean entertainment — melodrama, comedic style, criteria for entertainment — which I outlined above.)

    Scott, I agree, very few people I hear use that word seem to really understand what it might mean.

    I hasten to say nobody can understand what multiculturalism “means” in a definitive sense because after all different societies have different understandings of it, at least in the idealistic sense: American melting-pot multiculturalism versus Canadian “multicultural policy”, for example, and the policy manifestations of those diverging attitudes. (The differences between what is celebrated in Canadian literature, versus American literature, for example, are telling.)

    For me, the problem with Korea’s approach to the word “multiculturalism” is that it doesn’t seem to have gone beyond the power of a buzzword, plus maybe some vague sense of an unavoidable mixing of races going on in Korea, or perhaps some influx of people that something (wave magical wand) leads to Korea being number one, rich and powerful, streets paved in fluent English speakers, etc. In my daily experience, “multiculturalism” (in the form of student exchange programs, with inflow of foreign students, as well as foreign students enrolling in regular degree programs at the undergrad and grad level) seems to be what people think will keep the education industry here afloat as the college-aged population shrinks; but what’s needed to make a successful multicultural education system work is not considered, so you get foreign students enrolling in whatever classes they can find are offered in English (which means, lots of my classes, regardless of what their major is), and so on. Korean society in general doesn’t really have a picture of what a multicultural society would look like, and little wonder: the vision of America most have seems all too often to be monocultural too, with the cast of the sitcom Friends being the general, basic pattern.

    By the way, Scott, multiculturalists the world over make appeals to cultural exceptionalism at some point: Canadians struggled to accept the idea of Sikh RCMP officers wearing turbans and ceremonial knives when I was in high school (I think it was) and more recently the message came through loud and clear that there is no room within the rubric of multiculturalism for the excusal of honor killings of daughters. There is always a breaking point for multiculturalist beliefs; it’s not necessarily hypocrisy, it’s just the nature of the beast. The problems for me creep in elsewhere — mainly in the generalized lack of respect that underlies the kneejerk response, “this is all a big misunderstanding.” If I had 1000 won for every time I’ve heard that excuse…

    But, in any case, the non-apology apology is far from my main focus, and it puzzles me that both comments here seem to focus on that point. Did you just lose interest around then? Because really, it’s not my main point here!

  4. Gord, the apology in this case is everything. In a shame-based culture such as that of Korea, where internally regulated notions of guilt are often secondary or irrelevant, a “sincere” public apology is the ultimate means by which one recognizes the moral legitimacy of the wronged party. Do the comfort women ring a bell? If MBC cannot offer a sincere, unqualified apology to those blacks and others, including whites, who feel offended by their show, then they really do not “understand” at all.

    Anyway, it’s better not to overthink these things, since you can be sure that the writers and suits at MBC have already moved on.

  5. Scott,

    I don’t know what kind of reaction you’re hoping to get from me — “Gawrsh, you’re right, overthinking things is bad since Scott Burgeson thinks so!” — but all you’re really doing is demonstrating one of my main points here… which is that, for all their self-righteous outrage, those mostly white, Western bloggers who are outraged by this incident have an understanding of racial caricature in entertainment in their own culture (let alone Korea’s) that is not a whole lot more nuanced than the average Korea’s understanding of the same thing.

    Thinking people agree that the tendency is bigger than just MBC. Thinking people agree that the Korean media don’t get it. I believe thinking people can see the apology is a non-apology. Your comments here demonstrate a simple formula: pretty much, take what thinking people agree on, and stir in some rage. So what?

    Unless of course you’re just engaging in some kind of elaborate, convoluted inverse-racial-caricature of how Koreans react to depictions of Koreans in foreign media? Or maybe you’ve just gone native.

    So no, just because Scott Burgeson thinks the apology in this case is everything, don’t make it so. Far from it: the apology never counted for much, but never was going to, and everyone knows that. Howling over predictable, expected behaviour isn’t insight: it’s just just another expat working up a froth in the hopes of having his own little catharsis, right out in the public.

    Far more useful to try to understand specifically how and why those suits and writers at MBC don’t get it and have found it so easy to move on; and how and why those western critics who think they do get it might be fooling themselves to some degree.

    As for urging people not to overthink things, well, I could say a lot about that, but I’ll say mainly that I think of such admonitions as a mark of intellectual laziness.

    Good luck, though: I hope you get your catharsis someday. Me, I’d rather understand the situation, as well as see the parallels back in our own cultures, which are not so far back as we’d like to pretend.

    (After all, Amos ‘n’ Andy was on American TV in reruns until 1966, and on radios until 1960. And lots of people in the US didn’t “get” why that shit wasn’t funny.)

  6. Gord, I apologize if I my comments have not been expressed clearly enough, causing you to misconstrue where I am coming from. I don’t mind if you are keen on exploring these issues at depth. Good on ya, mate. What I am saying is that I just don’t care that much, that’s all, and chose to expend my mental energies on other things for now. I have actually attempted to directly engage the Korean media on similar issues in the past, and even in the Korean language, but they just don’t care on the whole. I will take them seriously on an intellectual level when they actually take me seriously first. For now, it is clear that they don’t, and I doubt they care what you have to say on the matter, either. Why not translate the above post into Korean and submit it to a Korean-language newspaper, and hopefully prove me wrong? (I won’t hold my breath, though.)

    I will also say that I’m rather tired of identity politics at this point, but that’s another debate entirely.

    I guess what I am saying is that just because you care deeply about an issue doesn’t mean that everyone else has to, does it? If I was “howling” about it, then perhaps I need to work on my rhetorical skills, don’t I?

    1. Scott,

      If you’re not interested, then you probably shouldn’t be going to blogs where people make an effort to discuss something at depth, and urging them not to do so and to focus on the little bit of the issue you’re interested in. It’s called railroading, or hijacking.

      As for identity politics, I don’t get the sense you’re tired of it from how quickly you posted it here, as much as your tired of people not playing the game on your terms.

      As for engaging the Korean media seriously, I understand being unwilling to take the people who make up the media system seriously in dialog… though given the logic of your rhetorical strategy as demonstrated here, and elsewhere, I kind of have to wonder whether an unwillingness to engage was solely the fault of your interlocutors. Because, yeah, frankly, I think you do need to work on your rhetorical skills, Scott. But I think at this point the most skilled and charming non-Korean (or even the most skilled and charming Korean) would not get the media establishment here to listen to “get” it… and that, in itself, is interesting.

      I guess it comes back to what I often say to my students: a bad movie or song still might give us something to talk about. Judging whether it’s “good” or “bad” distracts us from the harder and more complex work of understanding how and why people or groups do the things they do (from writing bad love songs to racial caricature to whatever).

      Which is also to say: sometimes I feel like I’ve spent so long railing against things in Korea that I think are bad that the mode becomes my default, though I make efforts to do otherwise. I suspect you know exactly what I’m talking about. After all, this recapitulates our discussion of the way Korean protesters used V for Vendetta masks in protests: you focused on how they got it all wrong, they hadn’t understood the Alan Moore anarchist comic, etc. I focused on, you know, pertinent facts like how the original meaning of the comic (which IIRC hadn’t been available in Korean translation until just around that time) was less important than the meaning of the iconography as used in the film version — the version most Koreans knew, if they knew any at all, and how the interpretation of the protesters using those images wasn’t far off at all.)

      Now, you and I both know it’s pointless to translate my post and publish it in Korean newspapers — if it ever would be published anyway. But asserting that shared perception doesn’t prove what you think it does. It doesn’t make exploring the parallels with American entertainment — something most people seem committed to ignoring — pointless or futile. It is up to the Korean media, and Korean society, to find the wherewithal to understand all of this at some point, but I’m not going to sit around waiting for that to happen before I try build my own understanding.

      (An understanding I am sharing with students, and with anyone interested in reading my blog. If you’re not, there’s a whole internet out there waiting for you.)

  7. Gord:

    I’m familiar with the books you reference as well as a lot of other material regarding the Japanese perspectives on Korea from the late 19th century through the colonial period. Yes, it was complex – much more so than Koreans themselves are willing to admit. But even at its most well-intentioned, it was quite frequently blatantly “orientalist”, and was recognized by some Japanese as being such at the time (although no one used the term orientalism then), just as some people in the States recognized the grotesquely “orientalist” nature of American condescension to their “little brown brothers” in the Philippines, and the cognate problem of continuing American condescension (to say the least) towards its black population. But so what. Yeah, all this might be grist for a teach-in on the subject. But, frankly, that just seems seem obfuscatory in the circumstances – at least that is how I read the Korean (as distinct from your) references to such phenomenon, which amounts to a not-so-sophisticated version of “other countries have done it too, so we should be excused”. The fact is that while black-face doesn’t carry PRECISELY the same freight in Korea as it does in the US, its local exchange value IS exactly the same given Koreans own experience of having been subjected to an east asian specific version of the phenomenon with the same normative valence. Thus, I only meant to point out the deep hypocrisy in this Korean attitude, especially given that the often viciously demeaning nature of such condescension is well known to Koreans, particularly those in responsible positions in the cultural policy-making and production sector, who never fail to seize the opportunity to castigate the Japanese for it whenever the opportunity presents itself.

    1. Sperwer,

      Well, well-meaning racism is still racism, and one thing that is a universal is those who were victims of an oppressive power tend not to want to remember the complexity and self-contradictions that existed within that power.

      I don’t see the “so what” as anything but an easy dismissal of something that, unsurprisingly, Westerners don’t want to talk about: that, at the moment when Americans were undergoing their mass influx of outsiders, American entertainment had at its core racial caricature, just as, now that Korea seems to perceive itself as having a mass influx of outsiders (rightly or otherwise, comparable or otherwise), its entertainment media relies on things like putting non-Koreans on exhibition-style display and gross racial caricature.

      I think it might be a bit hypocritical to forget that, institutionally, the American entertainment industry took pretty much a century to grok that this shit wasn’t okay, while westerners in Korea are acting like this is some absolute truth that people ought to grasp as surely as day follows night. Meanwhile, in our own media, Italians (for example) still often are made out to be stupid and criminal, and Irish are still drunken and superstitious… and people who complain about that are just hypersensitive — which is likely how Koreans perceive Westerners’ objections to blackface performances. (Meanwhile John Strausbaugh notes some pretty interesting, or rather discomfiting, parallels between the personae adopted by blackface performers prior to the turn of the century and those adopted by hip-hop artists today.) While you and I understand why blackface would be understood by Americans as much more offensive than pastaface, or greenface, a lot of the Westerners in the discussion don’t know the first thing about the wider range of racial caricatures involved; nor, in fact, do they quite grasp how or why Koreans wouldn’t get that intuitively.

      Doubtless, there is also some self-serving victimhood-fetishization at work: I liked B.R. Myers’ observation that North Korean official culture has near its heart an assumption that Koreans are a pure, innocent race who can do no wrong, trapped in a brutal, hateful world of evil others, mostly because of how applicable that was to the way the racial double standard is applied to things by so many South Koreans: when Koreans are subject to racial caricature, it’s horrible and awful and wrong; when Koreans mock other races, it’s innocent and funny and if you think it isn’t, you’re just not “getting” it. Of course that is bullshit: but why does the meme persist? Why does it make sense to so many people.

      As for Koreans “knowing” the vicious and demeaning nature of racial mockery — well, yes, but wait a second. You have noticed that all kinds of vicious and demeaning mockery are commonplace here, right? People telling one another they’re fat, or they’re ugly, or their ass cheeks are uneven, or their hair looks dumb, or whatever? There’s a degree of insensitivity here that is generalized, and applied between Koreans as well, which cannot be left out of this. (And again, it makes me think of the picture Strausbaugh paints of late 19th century America.) On that insensitivity, I remember once showing part of an episode of Mad Men to students — I think it was the pilot — and there was a scene where men were making wife jokes in front of their wives. Not everyone got how that was supposed to be deeply shocking, and to reveal a kind of sexism we like to think is gone.

      I’m not an apologist for insensitivity, but you know, eventually one ought to tire of saying, “This is wrong? Why don’t you understand that?!!?” and pause and take another angle, like, “Okay, do you realize that when you do these things, you look insensitive? You look boorish and stupid. We did these things for a hundred years in my country (and for much longer in my culture) and now we look back on it with such shame that when we see you do it, we’re horrified seeing it at all?” Not to TV execs, because telling them would do as much good as taking a time machine and telling a vaudeville venue owner the same thing… what would they care? They certainly wouldn’t shut down their show, even if they “got” it, when it’s part of their entertainment industry.

      As for how all of this tangles up with the general obsession with castigating the Japanese, well, you may remember what I said in an earlier discussion we had here about Frantz Fanon and the Korean urge to (a) praise Korea publicly and prove it’s a Number One Country to Everyone, and (b) shame and castigate Japan. I still stand by it… Korea’s going to be fixated on that for a long time, and it makes sense for that to be something that happens in a society that ends up being decolonized passively, from without.

      Anyway, my point isn’t that blackface isn’t offensive, because of the differing cultural context. I asserted that it’s offensive enough times not to have to say it again. I’m just as much put off by it as you, or Scott, or anyone else. I just think the Koreans who justify it on the basis of others having done so are not the only hypocrites in the discussion.

      I would like to think my comments point towards more than a mere “teach-in”: those pointing fingers and saying j’accuse are missing the point on two levels: one, that blackface in Korea is probably not the most dangerous form of racial caricature (just the one that we Westerners find most immediately and automatically offensive) because in the long run, because the “race” that will be oppressed by racial caricature most directly will likely be Southeast Asians (whose mockery and distorted portrayal in the media we white Westerners never get this riled up about), but also, two, that Americans who are so horrified are missing that larger context of racial mockery both in Korea and in their own home cultures. They often don’t retain the historical memory to see the parallels, and there’s an off-putting irony there.

  8. As a person of Chinese descent, when I was living in Korea, I did get the feeling that once someone found out about my heritage, I was looked down upon. The only things that made it better were that I was an anglophone Chinese person from Canada and that my family’s from Hong Kong, which is slightly “better” than Mainland China.

    However, regarding perceptions of other races in Asia, it is interesting how Korea seems to be making so many mistakes. I showed the blackface video to my parents and they instantly said that if that aired in Hong Kong, there’d be mass firings on the network right away. While Hong Kong is more “westernized” than most Asian locales, I remember hearing the same racist stuff about black people there – but the difference is that once they realize something is wrong, they seem to understand why it was wrong. I didn’t see the same attitude in Korea.

    In Korea, familiarity seems to breed contempt. But if you’ve ever been to Hong Kong, you know that there are many non-Chinese people roaming around; instead of contempt, there is a sense of “normalcy.” My non-Chinese friend (who was also working in Korea at the time) came with me to Hong Kong and was surprised at how they switched from Cantonese to (often broken) English without a second thought, and nobody really treated him better or worse because of his skin color. It’s “normal” to them.

    I’m ranting a bit now, but sometimes I wonder if it’s impossible for Korea to achieve the same sense of “normalcy” towards foreigners as a place like Hong Kong. (I know it’s like comparing apples and oranges. Just wondering though.)

    1. Bucky,

      Well, I doubt it’s impossible anywhere. I think Korea’s general experience, dominant ideology, and a few other factors mean it’s going to take a good long time for Korea to be as racially tolerant as you say Hong Kong is. (I remember seeing some of the recent outburst against mainlanders in Hong Kong media lately, especially for bad behavior on the subway, and thinking that Hong Kong people would probably not like to have average Koreans acting like average Koreans on Hong Kong subways either.

      I don’t know much about HK, having only been there for a day of my life — a pleasant, if crowded, day — but what you describe doesn’t surprise me. Neither does what you describe about your experiences in Korea: the whole “Chinese are dirty” thing is something I’ve heard people say and then, once I’ve interrogated them, they’ve admitted to having experiences (dorm roommates, or fellow dormitory residents, or Chinese classmates) who obviously contradict the claim. One young man I talked to admitted that he often ran into Chinese exchange students in the showers at the dorms, because they had similar schedules. “Then why did you say Chinese are dirty, if this guy is showering as often as you?” got no real response except embarrassed silence.

      As my comments to others on this thread suggest, I think there’s a lot of stubbornness in terms of admitting a fault in Korea; I’d say most of it ties to two things: that neo-Confucianist culture (and the non-confrontational memes within it) gets carried to such extremes here that plenty of people are used to saying dumb shit with absolute impunity even when most people around them are put off by what they’re hearing, and second, there’s a whole postcolonial victim-complex that is really used to excuse just about everything. However, I think probably your average New Yorker circa 1889 wouldn’t have grasped why anyone would be horrified by a blackface minstrel show, or an anti-Semitic caricature, or a caricature of a so-called “Chinaman” on a vaudeville stage. So clearly there’s something in the process of developing that sense which has happened in some places, and hasn’t in others.

      I know I don’t have the patience to sit in Korea and wait till Korea does get there, but it’s probably foolish of us to collapse Korea down into what we see today (and ignore that that process of generalized realization is perhaps going on, and takes a long time — a hundred years of American mainstream entertainment, essentially; it’s likely just as foolish as when Koreans look at America’s attitudes towaards, say, gender or sexuality and assume those differences are eternal and inherent, rather than the result of ongoing (and incomplete) processes and efforts by individuals and organizations acting on a set of traditional attitudes and dogmas not altogether different from those publicly considered “acceptable” in South Korea today.

  9. Good essay, Gord. As for your annoyance with Korea’s love of the “misunderstanding,” my favorite explanation is still:
    “Whenever possible, the shamanistic man desires to avoid even the process of conciliation by achieving a consensus that no civil conflict ever existed. Instead, he will say that there was a misunderstanding which was wrongly perceived to be a conflict and the abundant humanity of the concerned parties had only to exert itself to correct the dangerous misperception.”
    – Hahm Pyong-choon, “Shamanism and the Korean World View”. From SHAMANISM: THE SPIRIT WORLD OF KOREA.

  10. Gord, you’re taking what I’m writing here awfully personally. I didn’t say I wasn’t “interested” in these issues, I said I didn’t really “care” that much at this point. Interest vs. care. There’s a difference. To lecture someone like me on a lack of nuance and subtlety here, and then misconstrue where I’m coming from for pretty much the same reason, strikes me as rather odd. Apart from your blog, where else have I commented on this latest brouhaha, let alone “howled”? Nowhere, that’s right. I commented on the MBC apology because what I do care about is the Korean media in a more general sense and its relationship to the twin issues of nationalism and multiculturalism. Sorry, but I don’t have a week to offer an in-depth academic commentary on all the other issues you raise in your post. Dis me yet again if it makes you feel better.

    However, I will say that it’s a bit rich to have a Canadian lecturing me, an American, on how I don’t understand the American tradition of blackface minstrelsy, and lack subtly on the issue. Well over five years ago, in my review of a book by Maarten Meijer, I argued that Korean shows like “Surprise TV” featuring Westerners was a form of “whiteface Occidentalism,” so you’re not exactly speaking to some rube here, and I’ve acted quite a bit on Korean TV and been in the Korean media many times over the years. Like I have said, however, at this point all I am interested in commenting on is the MBC apology. Sorry if I can’t offer more than that, but I just don’t care enough to devote any more time to the issue for now.

    On a side note, I was just in Japan and happened to pick up Benfey’s “The Great Wave” without realizing that you had reviewed it yourself, and look forward to reading it shortly.

    1. Mark,

      Thanks, and yeah, that sounds pretty much descriptive of the situation. One of the ways in which Korea ends up being so perplexing and frustrating to those of us who think it’s better to just admit conflicts, talk about them, and move on. And, thank goodness, an explanation that isn’t based on railing about Confucianism.


      I’m not taking your post personally. I’m trying to stop the discussion from being dragged back to the lowest common denominator “That’s racist! MBC sux!” level, which was why I wrote the post in the first place. The thing that puzzles me most is why, of all the blogs where you could have posted a comment about the bullshit nature of the apology — something plenty of blogs didn’t mention, sadly — you chose my post, where it’s a footnote. If I’m suppose to be flattered, well, thanks, but it annoys me that people are dismissing the whole point of the post as irrelevant just so they can drag the discussion back down to the simplistic, black-and-white vision of Korea and the West they hold so dear.

      I don’t see the difference between interest and care on a functional level. “Don’t over think this,” is your admonition, and you insist the apology is the only thing that matters. Your words “someone like me” are a bit baffling, though, since my experience of your rhetorical approach with Koreans (and the things various Koreans have told me about talking with you) add up to a picture that resembles basically a sort of pseudo-Socratic bait-and-switch method: you ask a question, but not to gently lead the listener to deducing your point for themselves, because it’s obviously true; rather, you ask the question and then when you don’t get the answer you want, you hammer them with why they’re wrong and you’re right and they don’t understand, are probably a hypocrite, and don’t give a fuck. There really isn’t room for dialog when Scott Bug is in the haus.

      I’m not saying you need to drape yourself in a Korean flag on your book covers, but again, the fact you’re not getting attention and hearing you think you deserve, it may not necessarily be because of the media… just like that author I know who has sent out dozens of short stories and novel proposals, and doesn’t get a bite, and spends his days online criticiizing the stupidity of publishers and editors out there in public. I mean, it is necessarily just the publishers who are to blame when his career doesn’t take to the winds? Seriously?

      If you care about nationalism and multiculturalism as much as you say you do, then the question of how a society develops a sense of what multiculturalism means matters; the process matters, and not just in a prescriptivist sense. (Rather like caring about democracy doesn’t mean there’s an apparent formula for creating them, despite what Straussians who occupied your country’s white house in the past few decades would like to think.) There needs to be room for descriptive understanding, not just prescriptive, and if we hurry straight to prescriptive, we’re likely to say things that are easy to say… but may not be useful or true. Discussion of this issue is not just an occasion to berate people for not getting it; it’s an occasion for asking ourselves why and how, for example, we arrived at our various understandings of the concept of multiculturalism, or “racial tolerance”… which in part occurred along a bumpy road including a lot of the things Westerners are railing against in Korea as if Korea were unique in those problems.

      And by the way, Scott, I suspect this is precisely why academics don’t take you seriously: you throw around words like “academic commentary” for discussions like this. Where did I quote Derrida, or Barthes? Then did I use deconstructionist terminology? If mentioning some historical context, and making parallels with the process of developing a sense of multiculturalism in other societies is academic, then it seems you prefer a lowest-common-denominator discussion. That’s fine, but why come here — one of the few places trying to go deeper than that — to urge for it? All I did was provide more data and context… but hey, that stuff gets in the way of a good, fulfilling resentment, right?

      I have no idea where you commented about this, because, believe it or not, I don’t follow your presence on the net.

      However, I will say that it’s a bit rich to have a Canadian lecturing me, an American, on how I don’t understand the American tradition of blackface minstrelsy, and lack subtly on the issue.

      Why, are modern Americans somehow genetically special in their ability to understand the pop culture their grandparents’ generation consumed? Seriously? That sort of sounds like the criticisms Westerners get for critiquing issues in Korea, and the dismissals: “You’re not Korean, so you can’t understand this the way we do.” Maybe you’ve gone more native in Korea than you care to admit? My experience of most modern Americans is that their historical memory extends back to about the 1950s, and a romanticized version of that sixty-year span, at that…

      Enjoy the Benfey, it’s a great book full of interesting tidbits and details.

  11. BTW, I gave a lecture on multiculturallism in Korea two years ago both at Kyobo’s Kangnam store, and at the Gwangju International Center. Both events were well-attended and well-received, including by the organizers themselves. I made a point of inviting members of the Korean media well in advance, and even hired a simultaneous interpreter for the Kyobo lecture, and had my publisher send copies of my most recent book — on the selfsame subject — to all the major newspapers in Gwangju along with the invitation, but not a single member of the Korean media bothered to turn up.

    So despite my admittedly less than perfect rhetorical skills, I would argue that in such cases, most members of the Korean media just don’t really give a fuck. I could offer plenty of other examples, but that’s enough for now. Like I said, I have such low expectations for the Korean media at this point that it’s hard to really care anymore.

  12. Man, Gord, you are seriously being too serious. Reread what I wrote above. The “don’t overthink things” comment, which was meant to be gently playful, was directed at me as much as it was you (in an evidently failed attempt at self-deprecation). And I never said the apology was the only thing that matters. What I said was that it was the only thing I personally cared to comment for now (because I have worked with MBC in the past and just think they’re kind of sleazy; that was the trigger for me, and nothing else). Jeez… this is no longer any fun. It’s at times like these that we could all use a little Lenny Bruce:

    Do you think “How To Relax Your Canadian Friends At Parties” would be a good follow-up for me to try?


  13. Scott,

    Well, you’re right about one thing. This isn’t fun anymore…

    You didn’t say the apology is the only thing that matters? I quote:

    “Gord, the apology in this case is everything.”


    While I agree that MBC (and most Korean media outlets) are pretty of sleazy (in my limited experience too, and especially in the experience of those close to me) — in ways that outstrip the sleaziness of media I’m used to from back home, I don’t think your personal resentment is relevant to the discussion I set up in the post. That’s all.

    Anyway, about the rest, I apologize if I hurt your feelings. Not that I think my observations are wrong — I do urge you to consider what I said about how to dialog with Koreans — but perhaps publicly isn’t the way they should have been shared.

    As for the Lenny Bruce gag… Nah, you’re just going to say I’m too serious if I point out this shit still happens to non-white people I know, and that it’s even less funny when you’ve experienced things relatively like it yourself. (It’s just sort of saddening, eventually; you realize far more humans than anyone wants to admit are just plain pig-stupid.)

    It will not surprise you in the least to hear that Bill Hicks is more my speed: rants and humor and more rants…

    1. Boss,

      Pardon my French, but your comment looks pretty dumbassed to me. Who cares whether it’s an essay or a blog post.

      If I could be more concise, I would. It’s a blog post and it’s free and my time is limited enough that I didn’t edit it heavily and if you don’t like it, there’s a big amazing world full of free content I’m sure you can enjoy on your own. You know where to look…

  14. Korea, 1890 America? When did the US give votes to the Black Americans? Weren’t there a policy of segregation in America as late as early 1970’s? The racial integration of America are not that old if you really think about it. Even today, how do Asian Americans get treated in the mainstream American media? Not much better.

    1. Mea,

      Just because I suggest a metaphor in one area of culture doesn’t mean I think the societies are the same across the board — that would just be stupid!

      For example, one could easily (very easily) discuss a lot of parallels in the drinking culture we see in Korea today, and what was observed in London during the Gin Craze — a parallel that even applies well to the liquor industry (both depended heavily on waste products that couldn’t be exported), but Korea isn’t engaged in a military operation (or depending on soju taxes to underwrite its military).

      When I said Korea is at a stage we’ve seen before in the West, I was speaking in terms of the depiction of race in mainstream entertainment not in all aspects of attitudes toward race. Korea is Korea, and America is America. There can be parallels, though, without exact correspondence.

      (Another, more pertinent parallel, is this: the way most Koreans abroad in Southeast Asia interact with Southeast Asians today has a lot in common with how Japanese occupiers in Korea interacted with Koreans, for example. But Korea hasn’t engaged in a military occupation of any Southeast Asian country lately, has it? That doesn’t mean that economic and cultural imperialism don’t have parallels with political or military imperialism, though.)

      In any case, I’m arguing mostly about entertainment culture, and the sophistication of the audience. Korean audiences don’t really demand much sophistication from their entertainers, something that most young Koreans who actually care about entertainment and art bemoan pretty much any time Korean entertainment comes up in discussion. Korean comedy shows are extremely vaudeville-like, and the melodramas match well the kind of narratives that dominated the literary and dramatic entertainments of most Americans in the 19th and early 20th century, and films from their beginnings.

      That said, I have been thinking about it and maybe I set the date back a little too far. I was thinking about (and discussing with a student) how it took until 1966 before blackface was taken off the air in the USA. I’m thinking maybe the 1920s may be fairer, for various reasons — in part because at that moment, young people in America were starting to struggle to define themselves in terms other than their race or the religion they were born into. (A moment that is likely just around the corner in Korea, but hasn’t really yet arrived.) I’d say by the 1960s a large and vocal portion of American society existed that kind of got how objectionable things like blackface performance were, and were openly critical of the system, even as a large number (the majority, even) may have failed to “get it.”

      That said, I’d suggest the 1960s is a very poor parallel in a few ways. One of them is a divergence that may actually be cultural, the conflict-avoidant tendency in Korea. “Nice” people here are both the ones likeliest to “get it” regarding racial caricature, but are also very likely to be conflict-avoidant. In the 1960s, large — significant — numbers of Americans were embracing a counterculture that, imperfect as it was, at least involved rhetoric of respecting racial difference. There was an active opposition; there were definitely occasional opportunities for the minorities to get their say in — Langston Hughes was honored by the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1961, and even back as far as 1953, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man got a National Book Award; indeed, some white American critics were unhappy about the book not because of its criticism of American society, but rather because Ellison wasn’t, in their eyes, angry enough at white America.

      I bring intellectuals like those reading Hughes and Ellison for a reason: in South Korea today, the society has not really progressed far enough for any minority person’s criticism of racism within the society, or of their own experience, to get a real hearing. Can you imagine a half-Nepali who grew up in Korea publishing a first novel in Korean that wins a prestigious national book award and becomes a bestseller? Can you imagine Korean critics complaining that the author wasn’t writing enough out of his or her anger at racist Koreans? Take it from me: that’s unimaginable here today; forget the critics wanting more anger — I can’t imagine anyone who identified racially as anything but “Korean” (full stop) winning any kind of culture award here at all. That half-Nepali’s books (or full-blooded Nepali, or half-Thai, or Chinese person who grew up in Korea) would not make it onto university syllabi as “Korean literature,” would not be in the running for awards, would not be reviewed in the newspapers.

      We’re at least a generation or two from that kind of thing being imaginable. Like, 1880, or maybe 1920 at the outside, and it’s not merely because there are so few non-Koreans working in the Korean language.

      My point is that the kind of consciousness I’m talking about — the consciousness that even makes some relatively ignorant Americans careful about when and where they reveal their racist beliefs — hasn’t penetrated Korea’s intellectual society, let alone the mainstream. These kinds of things tend to proceed that way: the highly educated get it first, then it trickles down. My personal experience (one reflected by a lot of Koreans and expats alike I know here, with whom I’ve discussed this) is that while some highly educated people here get it, many simply don’t.

      It’s difficult to compare Korea now to America in the past because of criteria — choose one criterion and you get one date, choose another criterion and you get another date. The criteria I’m using is essentially the media-saavy, audience sophistication, and general awareness of how these kinds of things look to anyone other than the local racial majority. But the dates are less important than the pattern; it’s plainly obvious that Korea is in the early stages of processing what it means for different races of people to live together without some oppressive controls in place — just as America was doing from 1865 onward, but especially at the peak of immigration into the US a few decades later and into the beginning of the 20th century.

      While you might feel that’s an insulting assertion, what I’m trying to talk about is a pattern. Every society that is actually multicultural (not just talking about it) went through a process of acclimation to get there; Americans forget aspects of it, and forget that Korea is doing the same. Ironically, Americans forget just how the process as they see (and complain about) it in Korea resembles how the process unfolded in the USA.

      (And ironically, Koreans are clearly bullshitting when they cite ignorance of global attitudes towards blackface: if they were connected enough to receive the blackface tradition from abroad, as they obviously were, then they were also connected enough to find out how black people, and decent people in general, felt about it. “We don’t have enough information,” looks like bullshit precisely because of how much Korean blackface draws on and imitates American blackface.)

      As for how Asian-Americans get treated in American media, it’s far from perfect — though why would that dismiss the issue in Korean media? My saying that there’s a problem in Korean media doesn’t imply that Korea is the only society with a problem — and why would it? Also, why would America not being perfect justify racism in Korean media? The logic there is somehow broken, and I imagine it proceeds from holding up America as some kind of “minimum acceptable global standard” or something — like, something is only wrong and open to criticism in Korea when Americans have solved that problem completely? Until then, one is a hypocrite to criticize at all?

      That’s both crazy and untenable, and here’s why: if I can’t criticize Korea’s media as racist, then no person of Northeast Asian heritage would have the right to criticize America’s media as racist — because the media in Northeast Asia is saturated with racist imagery that far outstrips American media.

      That doesn’t make sense, does it?

      (There’s plenty of media I am uncomfortable with: 30 Rock is one example. Another was the crappy superhero show Heroes, where the one Asian guy was a nerd. Though, to be fair, values differing as they do across the ocean, a lot of things that would have the term “nerdy” unthinkingly slapped onto them in the West are quite normal and acceptable to your average Northeast Asian. Hiro reminded me of lots of Koreans I know, but not in ways that make me mock him or them… for me, he was the one character who seemed relatable and realistically human. But that was an awful show anyway.)

      I will say this, though: even though I don’t see a lot of American TV, I can still very easily think of depictions of non-whites in American TV that aren’t laced with mockery or racist stereotypes: Gray’s Anatomy (which I hate, but the Korean-Canadian actress on the show isn’t more of a clown than anyone else, is she?), both Korean characters in Lost (who start out just as stereotypical as every other character on the show, but are humanized as those stereotypes are deconstructed throughout — and I’d say are humanized more than most of the other characters); though I haven’t seen it, Lucy Liu’s recent role as a cop in Southland (and, I’m guessing, as a female Dr. Watson in the upcoming Sherlock Holmes).

      But there is one contrast I think bears considering, nonetheless: when I asked my students to think of a fictional depiction of a non-Korean on Korean TV that wasn’t somehow based in a negative racial stereotype, they came up blank. They couldn’t think of a single example. I don’t mean they suggested examples and then I shot them down — they actually came up with nothing.

      And yeah, I think that says something. Frankly, even with its problems, I believe that nothing so flagrantly, unarguably, irredeemably racist as the incident being discussed above (not to mention mean-spirited: when you mock another race, at the very least have the tiny shred of decency not to put the words, “I love Korea!” in their mouths) would get onto American TV today — especially not as holiday programming for the family. And if by some bizarre event it did, the people who aired it would not get away with it by issuing a non-apology. There would be firings, there would be a lawsuit, there would be an apology (meaningless, maybe, but they would be forced to make it and that isn’t meaningless). Bucky suggests that would be the case in Hong Kong, too. Not coincidentally, Hong Kong worked through a lot of its multiculturality issues earlier than Korea too…

      As for the racial integration of America, and segregation (I know of cases into the 1960s; the 1970s sounds wrong to me), I’m afraid perhaps you’re not really up to speed on the practical realities of being a non-Korean in Korea. As one example (of maybe possible ones), consider how small is the tiny percentage of people who aren’t pure-blooded Korean who manage to graduate high school here; it’s a testament to the fact that segregation can exist (and be part of an institution) without explicit institutionalization. Hell, even school attire/appearance codes specifically enforce racial characteristics on students. (Koreans born with naturally curly, or non-brown, hair — for whatever reason, even when they are “pure Korean,” whatever that means — have awful stories to tell.)

  15. We in the US are hardly without our racial issues. In the long run the almighty $ or won, is too important to make such clumsy excuses as – you just don’t understand. As Kpop and Kdrama spreads, entertainment companies and the entertainers will eventually learn that certain behavior is likely to make them lose money. Actually changing the hearts and minds of people will take way more time. We in the US, have just learned it’s bad business to do and say certain things.

    1. Ruthie,

      Obviously the US is not free of racial issues, but the fact is that as screwed up as the US is about race, at least intellectuals and some institutions recognize racial discrimination as an issue to be concerned about, as do relatively educated Americans in general. They may fail, racist shit may pop out of people’s mouths, and of course there is racism in institutions, but efforts also exist to make things better.

      In Korea, I’ve observed none of that. So there is a difference. But maybe you’re right that if Korean entertainers get slammed enough by the people they’re hatefully mocking they may eventually realize it’s bad for business. The thing is, Koreans tend to be really good with the whole, “Oh, that wasn’t for foreigners,” response. The blackface minstrel shit is really cute and funny if you’re Korean, see, and if foreigners are offended by it,. they shouldn’t be watching what wasn’t intended for them.

      Meanwhile, from what I’ve seen online (and even a little in real life) non-Koreans of color seem to relate to Korean pop music the way they would any pop music: ignoring what offends them and consuming something else. Which is to say, I don’t think it’ll affect the Korean music business generally, nor do I think it will give rise to institutional impetus to change or reform. MBC seems to get let off the hook with its feeble half-apologies.

      I think the thing that would create change would be a population of people growing up in Korea, fluent in Korean, who aren’t fully Korean-blooded and who say, “Fuck no,” loudly for a couple of decades. Maybe. But outsiders pointing out, “When you air shit like this, you look like backwards, bigoted scum, and yoou make the whole country look this way” doesn’t seem to make any difference… because of the whole, “You’re not Korean, you could never understand,” argument. (And indeed, as I mention, even students of mine who’d gone abroad and experienced racism there didn’t get why MBC’s blackface show could be seen as bigoted.)

      But I agree broadly that it’s a social-change thing, and itt’s slow and takes time. Hence my discussion of the USA a century ago…

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