I have in the past written about negative things in my experience in Korea, and not as much (especially in recent years) about positive experiences. So I thought I’d talk about a positive one, and believe it or not, it was a class discussion of the recent blackface incident on MBC TV. 

It could have been a negative experience, if I’d just sort of scooped up what people said and poured it into a blender and posted the mess online, or had decided (as so many do) to ignore the fact that a lot of people have never talked about such issues in a class before.

Instead, I asked the groups to share their opinions and thoughts, taking notes (and sketching out themes and connections) on the board. There were things that, you know, are quite obviously problematic, such as, “Since there wasn’t an intention of hurting black people, the intention wasn’t bad, so it wasn’t racist.” There were reactions like, “Well, since old people don’t get it about racism, and young people do, we need to understand our elders.” There was also the perennial standby, “This is all a big misunderstanding.” Or, “Those bloggers are overreacting to this incident.”

So I left my students with a few questions to consider. Like:

  1. Who gets to decide whether something is racist or not? Why do they get to decide?
  2. Where do we draw the line between reaction and overreaction? Who gets to say which is which?
  3. What kind of action are we talking about when we talk about “helping” older people understand, or being “patient” with them?

There were other questions.

Then, the following class, because of some disorganization among students but also unrealistic expectations on my part, we ended up not having all watched the movie we were supposed to watch to help with the discussion of this issue — which is the Spike Lee movie Bamboozled. Instead, I answered their questions with a kind of lecture on my understanding of the issues, and why some of the claims made in the class before don’t really add up.

We started with identity politics and language politics, and how this was important because of the stakes involved in identity for many people, both personal and also social (like how the Indian Act in Canada has very real administrative, political, and economic stakes for people depending on whether they are defined as members of a First Nation group, or excluded from that category). Categories and exclusions took up some of our time, and the forced imposition of identity by others did too. And as for intention, I highlighted a few examples that showed that racism doesn’t necessarily live in one’s intentions; it can live in deep-seated attitudes, in disrespect that one doesn’t consciously recognize or examine. That not intending to hurt someone of a given race doesn’t mean you haven’t done something racist.

(Also, the separation of behaviors being racist, from the derailing debate about whether a given person is in the essential sense racist.)

We talked about the inherent hierarchy in different racial terms used in Korea, from 외국인 (which conventionally implies a white, Western foreigner, though it literally means “foreigner”) and 흑인 (black person) — I asked, “But aren’t black people 외국인 too? Why call them ‘black person,’ but call me ‘foreigner’?”  — and of course, Southeast Asians getting called (even more problematically) 노동자 ([migrant] laborer). Again, “Isn’t a Southeast Asian a 외국인 too?” We talked about racism and hierarchic thinking, and about racism and exclusion from categories.

A student brought up an incident that happened at our university, during a summer school session, where an American lecturer who came to talk to foreign students asked for a show of hands of all the British students; apparently a young woman of Middle-Eastern or South Asian descent (religiously Muslim, but biculturally English and whatever her parents were) raised her hand and was told, “No, no, you’re not British. He is,” the lecturer said, pointing out a white English fellow, “but you’re not.”

The woman was incensed, complained, and was told, “Okay, we’ll deal with it.” According to the student, nobody heard anything more about it, and personally I imagine they just decided the woman was overreacting. But the student who told the story was wondering why the woman would be so offended, so we talked some more about forcible exclusion from categories, and how the same white American would be unlikely to exclude her from the categories of Muslim or Iranian (or Pakistani, or whatever she was — this wasn’t clear from the story) on the basis of her English passport. The privileging of certain categories is inherent in the exclusionary move. But it only really clicked when I made an example that actively excluded students from being a member of a group of which they considered themselves members. (I think the example I used was of “intellectuals” and the group I excluded was “women” because 90% of the class is women; another, easier and more common example, would be the old sexist saw about how one can be sane, rational, and reasonable, or one can be a woman. Same exclusion principle at work.)

(EDIT: And, yeah, we discussed how Islam is not a race. Not to worry.)

We talked about multiculturalism, and the multiracialization of Korea. We discussed that in the light of multiculturalism policy in Canada, and the perennial contrast with the “melting pot” of America; the contrast between ideals and realities kicked in, and I also discussed the difficulties involved in negotiating the line between accepting another’s culture, and demanding one adopt Canadian norms and standards… as well as the tendency to assign negative traits to culture rather than to individual character.

(Like the recent Shafia honor killing case in Canada; it’s sadly easy for non-Muslims are likely to say, “See, there’s Islam! Killing your daughters for using the net and going on dates!” But I’d say most Muslims in Canada were as horrified as most non-Muslims by the crime. Then again, there is the question of cultural norms — and while I don’t know much about Afghanistan, the little I know suggests women don’t have it so great there. I noted that for Canada, there’s a clear line banning the killing of anyone for religious reasons; but if one locks his or her child indoors for a few weeks for disboedience, or makes his or her  children study 14 hours a day, is that okay? I want to touch on that again, since Korean parents sometimes run into allegations of child abuse when they make their kids study the way they do, while abroad; but seen by Canadian terms, this aspect of Korean child-rearing does border on (if not constitute) abusive behavior.)

I pointed out that while the word “multiculturalism” is being bandied about in Korea, I have never yet seen any coherent vision of what a multicultural Korea would look like, whether melting pot, mosaic, or something else. And really, you’re not multiracial when only about 2% of the population is minorities, and 98% considers itself members of a single race. That’s not multiracial, much less multicultural. And yet, I also pinioned the idea that Korea is racially monolithic, noting that there are regional-cultural differences, and that those have been underemphasized for political reasons.

I normally try not to engage in such long lectures, but in this case, it seemed warranted; I don’t know how often these issues come up, but I feel like one of the things I can really give these people is an intelligent look at these issues, from an angle they likely would not encounter again without leaving Korea. (And since they don’t seem to be getting an intelligent look at the subject from any angle while at university — certainly their discussion didn’t suggest it —  it seems worth it to me.)

But there was one thing I found heartening, and that was the variety of perspectives about the MBC blackface incident. While some people defensively excused the incident — “We don’t have enough information,” or “It’s from a cartoon!” or “They didn’t intend to hurt black people’s feelings…” — or just dismissed the notion of it being racist altogether, others said that they’d immediately been disgusted or angry, and still others said that on reflection, they hadn’t realized it was racist at the time, but once they put themselves into the shoes of a non-Korean, by imagining what it would be like to see Koreans caricatured this way on TV by non-Koreans, they realized it was racist and unacceptable.

There was a range of opinions, and there were also people willing to admit that they didn’t get what the problem was, and to listen while I tried to explain. And even those who had started out excusing it, seemed to get at least some of what I was saying…

A good lesson, that one. A couple of hours well spent, even if it was totally off lesson-plan.

8 thoughts on “Fruitful

  1. Interesting….

    on the 10 mag podcast we talked about this and I will be bringing it to my convo class this week or next – your experience here helped give me some ideas of how to frame it.

    Also.. have you noticed that each incoming class is better at both English and critical thinking? Maybe that’s just at my Uni, but it seems that the hyper-evolution that Korea routinely undergoes has now hit these multicultural issues.

    Finally, as I ramble a bit.. I think there are three classes in a slightly different taxonomy that many Koreans use (these came up in my graduate translation class), which roughly translate to:

    1) Migrants – 노동자
    2) Native English Speakers (meaning teachers and I didn’t get the Korean)
    3) Expats – meaning foreign business people in Seoul who come with their overseas companies or are hired by Korean companies.

    Similar to what you argue, only the last two categories seem to be put into 외국인

  2. Hi Charles,

    Didn’t know 10 had a podcast, much less that you were on it. I am out of touch. :)

    … and I will be bringing it to my convo class this week or next – your experience here helped give me some ideas of how to frame it.

    Yeah, it’s very important, the framing, I mean. If you approach it the way one might do in the West — a little more confrontationally, I’d say — one risks turning it into a big fat exercise in emotional self-defense against foreign criticism, and nobody gets anything out of it.

    Also.. have you noticed that each incoming class is better at both English and critical thinking? Maybe that’s just at my Uni, but it seems that the hyper-evolution that Korea routinely undergoes has now hit these multicultural issues.

    I don’t know. I have kind of seen more fluctuations than a straight linear improvement. It likely maps, in averages, to a sort of loose linear improvement, but I’ve seen serious dips downward at times. I also think you and I are seeing a skewed sample, since a lot of our students are very likely to have been abroad and experienced life as a minority, making non-Korean (and even nonwhite) friends, as well as experienced racism firsthand, and so on.

    The stuff I hear through Miss Jiwaku is still pretty unsettling; not just stuff said in our presence, but also things she hears people spit out randomly. A girl stops in front of a mirror, frowns, and says, “I look like a Southeast Asian today,” or a guy passes a restaurant and says, “What’s that smell? Chink food!”

    Finally, as I ramble a bit.. I think there are three classes in a slightly different taxonomy that many Koreans use (these came up in my graduate translation class), which roughly translate to:

    1) Migrants – 노동자
    2) Native English Speakers (meaning teachers and I didn’t get the Korean)
    3) Expats – meaning foreign business people in Seoul who come with their overseas companies or are hired by Korean companies.

    Huh, that taxonomy is interesting — though also missing “US soldier,” for one thing. I’ve experienced it at times: go out in a suit and suddenly you’re a businessman, jeans and a T-shirt and you’re a hakwon bastard. But the taxonomy you outline is occupational, not racial.

    I was thinking about was more racial, and in that hierarchy, I think 외국인 is reserved for whites, while other terms are used for nonwhite foreigners. Like “Asian” is a sort of catchall for people from Asia in America, or some people say “Mexican” to mean “Latino” or “Hispanic,” I find in general use “노동자” seems to be as much a racial marker as an occupational one. 흑인 is the less offensive of the racial terms for black, and of course Chinese and Japanese (and Mongols, I think) are differentiated by “race” as well.

    Getting into racial terminology is interesting because you can see where the lines are drawn, for what purpose. When China was dominant, Korea lumped itself in with China because, hey, why not? Now, China is categorized as separate, and lowered down to about the level of 노동자, maybe a little higher. Seriously, I hear (overhear, or have reported to me) more shit-talk about Southeast Asians and Chinese than any other group.

    (Hence, in my earlier post about MBC’s blackface gaffe, my arguing I’m really more concerned about racialized mockery of Southeast Asians in Korean media, which isn’t big yet, but which I expect to increase rapidly and widely, and to affect the lives of those Southeast Asians (and those of mixed SE-A heritage) who live here.)

  3. Almost any discussion about Koreans doing black-face should be(is) positive, as long as they don’t automatically become defensive – A foreigner pointing out a Korean doing a negative thing Oh My! – Even if/when they become defensive I’d argue the discussion can be positive, simply because it’s a discussion that wouldn’t normally be discussed. The challenge would be to get more than 50 % participation on any level. I mean who really likes discussing racism? As long as they learn something and it gives them something to think about that they normally wouldn’t, is educational and can make them eager to learn more English. And yes, I commend you on your subject knowledge/different aspects. Another example on category exclusion would be that American Yonsei Severance doctor. Can he really be Korean? Better link – out of touch – 10 podcast…
    Heck, on that note a gyopo is almost never considered a native English teacher(unless a crime has been committed).

  4. tbonetylr,

    Well, the thing about having such a discussion is that it really depends on who is in the room; I find if there’s even one guy whose brainwashing in the military stuck, discussion becomes impossible. The other year, when I was trying to explain to students why it would seem nonsensical for Koreans to put anti-Japanese ads about Dokdo up in NYC, oe such young man launched into a screamfest in class. Wouldn’t listen, was very disrespectful, made great efforts to interpret everything I said in the worst possible light, and turned it all into an “us-Korean-victims vs. you-the-evil-foreigner” type thing.

    So yes, when a non-Korean criticizes things in Korea, it can be a touchy subject for a class. Indeed, if you don’t handle it carefully, it can poison a class. I was pretty happy with how it was handled because I think people felt like they got to express their (actually widely conflicting) viewpoints, and then I came in afterward to critique claims and to provide context, as well as to try encapsulate a few Western perspectives about it. One has to take great care with disclaimers, like, “It’s not as if we’ve eliminated racism in the west, but we discuss it and institutionally have efforts fighting it…” It’s also important to reach for analogies that communicate with the students’ own feelings, like the example I brought up a week before the discussion in question — “How would you feel if a video circulated online where non-Koreans painted their faces yellow, taped their eyes to look like single-eyelids, and ate hot dogs with little dog legs and tails and heads sticking out of the bun?”

    My students’ English on average is good enough that they need to be talking about issues and so on, to be branching out into specific strategic competencies; they’re mostly jacks of all trades in a sense, but without a lot of specialized vocab.

    As for Linton’s Korean citizenship, more perplexing to me is the fact that non-Koreans can become Korean citizens and hold dual citizenship, while Koreans cannot retain Korean citizenship after acquiring citizenship of another country. I imagine sooner or later, as the population starts to really grey and they start trying to figure out how to get more Koreans living abroad to return here. Certainly someone among the old men running this place is going to think that’s one way of keeping Korea Korean.

    And yeah, kyopo is another weird category I forgot to include, which is not quite racial, but sort of is. (I’d swear I’ve also seen kyopos designated by nationality alone, when committing crimes.)

  5. Not that I like over explaining everything in terms of Confucianism… However… One important part of Confucianism is the Doctrine of Names (aka Rectification of Names: — the idea that a certain thing is supposed to act like a thing. A king should act like a king, or else he is not really a king. (All of which I find rather similar to the Aristotle’s universals, actually).

    Which is why I find that classifications are more “sticky” in Korea (and much of Asia) than they are in the West. A leader is supposed to act like a leader. A junior is supposed to be a junior. A hiker should be a hiker (which is why so many people get dressed up like Edmund Hillary when they climb some dinky 200 meter hill). And similarly, a teacher is supposed to be a teacher. A migrant worker should be a migrant worker, etc.

    The separation of substance, accidence, and names I find a good thing in general. And even in the West, this is a relatively recent and ongoing change.

    Anyhow, not to be too pretentious (too late!), but imho that is a partial reason why Koreans get more hung up on labels and stereotypes than most people do in the US/Canada (I find labels are stronger in Europe still).

  6. Noah,

    That not only makes sense, but also seems to fit nicely into the thesis of an article I’ve been working on, about the jumbling of modern cultural imports (the business suit, the practice of karaoke, the coffeeshop) with older cultural norms and mainstays that they seem to replace. Like, the coffeeshop in Korea looks like a cafe, but functions like an olden-days madang, for one example, or the survival of shamanistic attitudes and behaviours in Korean Protestantism. Which explains how the “normal” behaviours for certain things don’t match with their North American equivalents all that well: the anti-intellectualism of a lot of academics here; the weird military-partiarchalism of business managers/CEOs here… you see these weird models of what a thing is supposed to be applied to a thing, so that in practice it becomes unrecognizable.

    (Sort of like what North Korea did with Communism or Stalinism, and what South Korea did with democracy or even punk rock music.)

    The funny thing (which I can’t weave into the article, as it’s a short wordcount) is that cultural confusion seems to be greatest where things stop acting like how the used to act; but young people, especially young women, seem to be growing adept at exploiting how badly people grasp the reformulations of old cultural practices into apparently modern, western-looking forms; they’re breaking away, but because they frame it a certain way, the anxieties become more complicated. Those hostile to these changes end up muttering crap about “dwenjang nyeo” (or, more recently, “herbivore men”) but unable to really critique or oppose the shifts. Which is interesting.

    You’re right that it’s a recent shift even in the US/Canada to move away from this kind of labeling; of course, part of why it happened in my (our?) generation to the extent it did is because of conscious efforts on the part of government (and, by extension, the education system).

    I’m surprised to hear labels seem stronger in Europe than in Korea by your estimation. Do you mean racial labels? (Which I might attribute to all the talk about the problems of multiculturalism now.) Or all kinds of labels, like work labels and so on?

    As for my point about race and labeling here — well, I mean that “migrant worker” ends up being used on kids. I don’t know if I mentioned the textbook I was asked to advise about, where a 12 year old girl is labeled a “migrant worker.” I corrected them twice and was still asked, “Are you sure?” I replied, “Does she work? Or is she a kid in school? If she is working illegally in a factory or farm in Korea, then yes, she’s a migrant *worker*. Otherwise, she is a student. Or a Thai kid. But not a migrant worker.” Well, and that different race labels also link to a racial hierarchy — something I imagine may still be a little stronger in Europe than in North America… I met an Asian German girl once who wasn’t offended when her friend said she wasn’t *really* German — after being born there and growing up there. I was shocked, and explained that for North Americans, that sounded racist, because what else would she be? But neither German girl — the Viet one, nor her ethnically German friend — though much of the distinction.

  7. Fascinating story about the textbook. Your article sounds like it is going to be pretty interesting, too. Koreans may have a connection to names, but they are also such a jjambbong culture. Not sure if those two aspects work in unison or in opposition, though. Probably both.

    As for Europe, I don’t mean to say it is like Korea. And of course there are many differences around the continent. But I do think that class and history have deeper roots there, which perhaps makes labels stick a bit more. But I wouldn’t want to overstate the case. There are so many different cultures here. I think the French and the Catalans are more accepting as long as you try to fit in and take on their culture. But Germans are more exclusionary (fancy that). But much of Europe is probably still figuring out how they want to deal with the modern, multicultural world.

  8. Well, the textbook makes a good story now, but at the time… there were a lot of little things like this: attempts at multicultural sensitivity gone horribly wrong, like the little black boy in the group who — you guessed it — hated academic work and was excellent at sports. So awkward to explain to someone who thinks they’re being enlightened that, no, no, you probably shouldn’t do that, when you know they’re going to be puzzled as to why.

    Now I see more clearly what you mean about what you’ve seen in Europe. Yeah, my sense is multiculturalism is something Europe will grapple with most directly this century… though they’re not going to have much choice unless we start building proper arbeiter bots: nobody in the “first world” is having kids (or enough of them to keep a stable working population), after all. Korea’s same problem, though I get the sense Korea, as usual, went more extreme more quickly. (And hence the huge interest in robotics here, and in Japan where it’s roughly similar.)

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