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New Term: “White Endorsement Monkey” and “White Defamation Monkey”

Well, I’ve googled it and don’t see it out there, so I’m going to call dibs and coin this term: White Endorsement Monkey.

What is a White Endorsement Monkey? Well, if you’re a white person living abroad, you might experience this. I certainly have experienced it in Korea.

Don’t get me wrong: as stomach turning and ass-kissing as this book cover looks to me:

… I’m not calling this author a White Endorsement Monkey, because I’m not actually talking about what foreigners themselves do — but rather to a pressure that is sometimes imposed on non-Koreans by some Koreans. That someone publishes a book with a cover that looks like this can happen only because of that pressure.

So here I go, defining my term: a White Endorsement Monkey is a white person who says something positive about Korea. Or, rather, a White Endorsement Monkey is a white person who is reduced to a clown-like figure through saying only positive things about Korea, in an overly-flattering way, for the benefit of a Korean audience, but also, implicitly, at the behest of that audience.

(Maybe there are other shades of endorsement monkey; I’m not sure, though I imagine there are. All I know is that the white expats I know here seem to get pushed to say flattering things about Korea pretty constantly, certainly way more than the Asian expats I’ve known here, who seemed to face slightly different sets of pressures. Perhaps nonwhite expats will weigh in with their observations.)

I’ll give you an example: the first time that the Dokdo issue came up, I was baffled. It wasn’t because I had any feeling about the issue, one way or the other… no, it was because I’d never seen a society go so over-the-top regarding a minor land dispute with a neighboring country with which they were at peace.

This was sometime in 2004 or 2005, I think. There was an enormous wave of anti-Japanese sentiment in Korea, and Dokdo began appearing on T-shirts, on television — and not just the news, but in ads for restaurants and banks. Sometimes it felt like the whole nation had mobilized to declare publicly (if only domestically) that Dokdo was Korea’s.

So at some point, I was invited along to meet a group of Korean people who were about to go overseas to Canada on a Working Holiday Visa. They were nervous about their English, and many had never spoken in person to a native speaker of English, so as a favor to the woman I was dating then, I came along. At some point, one of the guys in the group asked me what I thought about Dokdo.

I told him. I told him honestly. It was about two sentences, along the lines of me being baffled there were still places in the developed world where nationalist fervor of this kind could get so high. That I felt the whole obsession was probably designed as a distraction from more pressing domestic political issues ongoing at the time.

I was nudged to stop, and I did. But many several people in the group were visibly crestfallen: they wanted me to say, “I think Dokdo is Korean!” They wanted me to criticize Japan, for their benefit. They wanted me to be their very own White Endorsement Monkey, and I had refused.

The pressure to be a White Endorsement Monkey can take many forms, and can have many consequences–some social, and some professional. Some White Endorsement Monkeys make good money for themselves. Some attain a certain degree of celebrity, praising things like Kpop (things that frankly don’t deserve the attention lavished upon them) or wrapping themselves in flags because, hell, that way lies profit. Some people who fail to become a White Endorsement Monkey actually get fired from their jobs, or experience painful social dislocation, or physical injury. More than once, I have had students attempt to wrest control of a classroom from me, so they could force me to choose between either becoming a White Endorsement Monkey or alienating the class. (And yes, in some classroom situations, those are occasionally the two options you’re faced with.)

But the worst consequence of this pressure to play the White Endorsement Monkey, the most terrifying outcome–believe it or not–comes from the failure (or the refusal) to be one for so hard, for so long, that one ends up becoming the White Defamation Monkey.

If you’re not sure what a White Defamation Monkey looks like, well, you probably haven’t spent much time on the Korean expat blogosphere, or in an expat bar. There are always, always, always a few of these people around. They’re not the ones with legitimate complaints about Korea, mind you; every foreigner I know has a few legitimate complaints about Korea, and they often line up with what more cosmopolitan or educated Koreans have to say about things.

No, this is the person who has a token phrase, usually a very offensive one, to refer to all Koreans. There was a very unhappy expat I knew who I was told, after he moved away from where I lived, started to use the word f*ckstick to refer to all Koreans. There’s a blog out there that refers to ajummas as “shaved monkeys” and “permed monkeys.” Which, in case anyone hasn’t grasped my position, is unacceptable and very, very offensive. It’s also, let’s not forget, patently stupid. And yet there are blogs out there dedicated to attempting to demonstrate the factuality of any number of offensive claims one could make about Koreans… usually essentializing ones, almost always generalizing, very often racist.

This isn’t just something observed online, either: some expats talk this way incessantly. Indeed, there have been times when my frustrations with Korean society, or work, or whatever had caused me to adopt the conversational position of the corrector: every time someone points out something nice about Korea, Koreans, Korean society, etc., I took on the responsibility of pointing out something related and equally (or more) negative.

It’s a bit like the various Derangement Syndromes that are discussed online. The thing is: the etiology. Some people say, “You’ve been in Korea too long,” but of course, this is revealing: the presumption is that there is an inherent “too long” that one can actually be in Korea… and I’d say one of the reasons is the pressure to be a White Endorsement Monkey.

I could go on about the postcolonial inferiority complex in South Korea in which this is rooted–that ravenous desire for American praise and approval (even from non-Americans: whiteness signifies Americanness to all too many Koreans, after all); but understanding why doesn’t make the what any less pervasive. This is a real and unavoidable phenomenon in the lives of expats in Korea.

But understanding why it happens is less important than recognizing it for what it is.

As for how to resist it? Beats me. Maybe you need to know when to fold, take your chips off the table, and leave. That’s what almost every long-term expat has suggested to me; that’s what many Koreans I know who’ve lived abroad have said, on their way back out of the country. Perhaps some people find a way to resist, or perhaps some just give in until they’re filthy rich, and then isolate themselves from whoever might pressure them this way? I find surrounding myself with smart people who see through this crap helps, but it doesn’t end the battle entirely.

Only one thing can do that…

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