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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.

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