Site icon

A Side Order of Context


Something I find fascinating is how people talk and talk and talk about diversity as if it only means different races, and not different cultures–that different cultures and the frame of reference in which they operate ought to be transparent to anyone without the slightest bit of effort or context.

For example, the above image has apparently started doing the rounds on Facebook… at least, I assume so. I’m not tracking the trends, but a friend shared it.

Is it racism captured in a nutshell? I don’t think so… but I’m guessing a lot of Westerners would.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not denying that racism towards black people (and many others) exists in South Korea. It surely, surely does. I mean, a while back the Minister of Defense caught himself midway through the Korean racist epithet for black people in a press conference: zero repercussions. Korean public television stations regularly air blackface minstrel show crap. By “regularly,” I mean at least once every year or two, sometimes more often than that. There’s a long history of Korean blackface minstrelsy, too: it’s well explained by Matt over at Gusts of Popular Feeling. And if you check out Matt’s post, you’ll also see that until recently, it was routine to caricature Africans (and African-Americans) by putting them in animal skins and a bone in their nose:

Probably the most re-blogged caricature ever printed in Korean media. At least, among English-language blogs.

… though I’ll add that racialized caricature is more common and accepted in Korea generally… including when caricaturing Koreans, sometimes. I mean: the above image has a literal Chinaman, in Qing Dynasty Era clothing. It has a white woman with dark circles under her eyes and a massively phallic nose. Still, only Africans get the bone-in-the-nose (and “Duh, what?”) treatment.

And, well, then there’s advertising…


So, er, yeah. Issues.

Still, when I see this image:

… it doesn’t scream Can You Feel the Racism?!?!?? to me.

The reason is because of context.

  1. The rest of the world is not America. (Canada, the UK, Australia, Kiwiland, etc.) You can’t expect it to be parseable by your cultural rules and frame of reference. That doesn’t excuse everything–some cultural norms are shit and we shouldn’t have to respect them–but you can’t just read everything by your own cultural codes unless you want to be ignorant and waste a lot of time leveling stupid accusations at undeserving people. The worst part is, that this laziness is also part of the Social Justice movement. Back in the old says, it was white people insisting everyone speak white. These days, it feels more like North American people (white and nonwhite alike) insisting everyone speak American. That’s lazy. Diversity is harder work than that.
  2. South Koreans dramatically overreact a lot, for all kinds of things. Poodles, for example. Cats. Korean children in Spiderman costumes. A surprise chocolate cake. I’ve had older Koreans react that way just because I greeted them in Korean. I say, “안녕하십니까?” They shriek and jump back like they’ve just looked into the face of Cthulhu. It’s a cultural thing: they overreact very dramatically because that’s how you emote surprise, and it leavens interactions in a society where anyway people to be more reserved about emoting in other ways. And the old lady, when you look at her face carefully, right at the end of the clip? That looks like a smile to me. I’d wager she’d have jumped almost as high if it were a white, or an Arabic, or any other sort of (non-Northeast-Asian) person behind the mask. Or even, you know… a poodle, or a chocolate cake, or her brother that she hasn’t seen in three days.
  3. The older woman probably has never seen an actual black person up close, or ever at all, before. It’s even possible she’s never interacted up close with any sort of non-Korean person. I’ve met a number of people in Korea (and a couple of Koreans in Vietnam) who told me that I was the first white person they’d ever talked to. It happens less and less often, but it still happens even today. And there are way more white people than black people in Korea.
  4. Korean society has been brainwashed into believing it’s homogenous. (It can be useful in a fascistic regime struggling to create a narrative of national identity, as Korean dictators did after the end of Japanese occupation.) To a point, the race-homogeneity story is sort of true, though the pure-blood ideology is bullshit: there have been foreign peoples of various kinds–Japanese wanderers, Arab traders, foreign missionaries, and so on–on the Korean peninsula for centuries. Still, when you spend a lifetime bombarded by messages that outsiders are practically aliens, well… it shapes your reactions. On top of that:
  5. Korean media and education has conditioned a lot of older people to see non-Koreans as Radically Other. In other words, it’s not just culture: it’s extensive and conscious brainwashing that was part of education and all media. Such brainwashing also exists–about various things–in all societies. It’s hard to blame your average person for taking certain things for granted, when they have so little access to other ideas–which is what dictatorships like those that existed in Korea until 1987 always bring about. Blackface minstrel shows shape how people react. Education about other races and about history shape how people react. Which is to say, media and schooling has hypertrophied the Us and Them thing, and hypertrophied the degree of surprise people experience, and most older Koreans haven’t had any experience that prompts them to sit down and rethink those ideas. But…
  6. In most societies where an outsider hasn’t been seen before, or is only rarely seen, people often react this way. Londoners went through it for a few centuries, putting non-English (and especially non-white) people on display, sometimes in cages, for the general public’s viewing pleasure. I mean, Josephine Baker’s whole early career in France was built on the same curious-but-anxious transracial gaze. My (white, French-Canadian) mom got the same stares and pokes and wide-eyed looks (and weird harassment from occasional locals) during her days in Malawi, even when she spoke to them in chiTumbuka. The natural human reaction to one’s first encounter with visible difference is baffled curiosity, and societies only learn to soft-pedal that on a timescale of decades or centuries, not years. In other words, Westerners who are outraged at this are a bit like the people who were born on a space station, laughing as the new orbital emigrants take some time to get their bearings in zero-g.
  7. When this lady was a kid, practically the only black people in Korea were GIs. Need I add that some of those GIs were legitimately scary, and kids were warned to stay away from them? Need I add that there was an extensive (and open-secret) sex trade in servicing GIs, which gave them a bad reputation? Need I add that the media was careful to publish as many stories as possible about GI crimes, in order to keep Koreans from mixing with them?
  8. The situation is contrived… and manipulated. I mean, they’re in front of a camera. The younger guy obviously seems to know what’s about to happen. He even reacts with a scary look (anticipating the shock he must pretend) and then adjusts his reaction to curiosity when he catches himself. He jumps offscreen, and seems to shout, too… which I’m willing to wager prompted a more extreme reaction from the older woman than she’d otherwise have had.
  9. The older woman doesn’t flip out on the black guy. Yes, this is a point directed at outraged Americans. At least she doesn’t pull a George Zimmerman on this fella in the Iron Man mask. (On top of which: she probably doesn’t know what the hell Iron Man is, so she’s probably already at WTF? before the guy even lifts up the mask.)
  10. We don’t see what happens next! I’m willing to bet they just all laughed, and the black guy talked to them a little in Korean, and then they laughed some more, and went about their business. She maybe playfully smacked him in the arm and said, “You shouldn’t scare people!” and he maybe said, “Ha, it’s funny, right?” And then she said, “Oh, your Korean is really good!” I mean, I don’t know what happened. But that sounds most likely to me.

(Update: There’s one more thing. From Jennifer Flinn in the Facebook discussion:

Can somebody also please mention that the guy in the mask is an extremely well-known presence on a bunch of TV shows? It’s not random black man, it’s Sam Okyere. He’s been on SNL Korea, Masterchef, Running Man, Island Village Teacher, and the incredibly popular but obnoxious Abnormal Summit.

So there’s that. I doubt it’s necessarily relevant: I don’t think the older woman in the video is likelier to be up to date on all the crapola TV shows mentioned, but… you never know.)

Note (2 April 2015): See the comments below for a brief discussion of the identity of the masked man in the video. Apparently he isn’t Okyere after all, as commenter Twinkle points out.

Now, I don’t know about you, outraged white expats in Korea, but I can say that the few black people I’ve known in Korea, when they talked about experiencing racism in the country, didn’t talk about little momentary encounters like this. They talked about being assaulted. They talked about people spewing racist language at them. They talked about racist (No Blacks!) job advertisements. They talked about having to avoid the subway because of all the hateful encounters. They talked about bars banning all black people or all Nigerians (ie. all black people) because they were associated with drugs, or crime, or, most recently, Ebola.

If you want to get mad about that, go for it.

But there’s a point where people are going to say dumb shit, and do dumb shit, without malice, and be embarrassed about their momentary reaction. They may apologize, and they may not. They may not realize the shit was dumb, or they may realize it and be too embarrassed to own it and admit it. We can wish they would, but shrieking, “Raciste-toi!” every time you see something that makes you go “Huh?”, well… you lose perspective. You forget that there’s context. You forget that not every place in the world speaks in culturally American (or Canadian, or whatever).

There was this one time I was having lunch with a couple of colleagues: one was half-black and half-Korean, and the other was Korean. The Korean guy was telling us about this scene in V that stuck out vividly in his memory:

… and yeah, he said “When I saw that the baby was half-bla… er, half-alien.”

My eyes went wide, but I didn’t say anything. Okay, issues. He’d been weird about the mixed-race thing before. He’d asked all kinds of questions–in the job interview, no less–about which parent was Korean, and which one was black, and so on. I can’t say where the line between clueless-rude and clueless-malicious sits. And you know, my colleague wasn’t troubled by it. Water off a duck’s back.

But I can say when that line’s been crossed. Like, for example, six months later, when the mixed-race colleague inexplicably missed a few days of work, and the first thing I got asked was, “Do you think it’s drugs?” Because, you know, black people and drugs, right? (Sigh.) Turned out it was actually a stroke. That time, my colleague crossed the line from clueless to nasty.

That’s what diversity looks like: it’s a lot harder work than just singing kumbaya around a campfire while someone strums guitar. It has all kinds of rough edges, and all kinds of lines drawn in all kinds of baffling places–and you’re going to cross someone else’s line unwittingly, as surely as they will cross yours unwittingly. It’s full of has weirdly blurry boundaries that don’t match what you expect, and sometimes it bangs against you and you have to say, “Wait, huh?” instead of going straight to denunciations. It’s like what my wife describes about surfing: you need to keep your wits about you all the time, and you have to relax too. If you can’t do both at once, you’ll end up swimming more than surfing, and you’ll never get anywhere.

Which is to say: if you decide to be outraged about everything, you’ll end up being outraged about nothing… and you’ll learn nothing.

It’s also to say: like I’ve said before: Facebook feels like an outrage boosting machine. That’s how I see it these days, anyway. Don’t think: Like! Share! Snark! Do anything but actually think.

Exit mobile version