Racism: Remembering Luther King’s Legacy in Korea

Published in the Korea Times, Joongang Ilbo and Yahoo-Korea January 21, 2011

Today is the third Monday of January therefore a Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Across the globe, Luther King Jr. has often regarded as a hero of civil rights in America alongside Rosa Parks and Claudette Colvin. On the same day this week, I was privileged to sit among ‘panelist of color’ to discuss a rather hot radio show topic of racism in Korea hosted by E-Busan Fm and Busan Ilbo. ( Check Busan.com)

While my four year stay in Korea does not make me an expert on the issue, it could be however sufficient to for me share my experiences as an African outside Africa. With two Black Americans English teachers, a Korean Political Scientist, and a Filipina from the Philippine-Korea cultural house, we observed that there had been little talk, if any, about racism in the Korean public domain. It was also comprehensible that no culture is free of bias, prejudice and stereotype features. In fact, it is only their degree that vary with some being particularly racist-potential. Nonetheless, whether historical, scientific, or institutional, prejudice of any kind must be condemned as demeaning, hurting and unjust to the targeted groups.

My excitement to join the discussion panel arose neither because of my expertise on the subject nor from the basis of being the most victimized individual but from the openness with which the radio station approached the issue. Effective communication must always be open, balanced and respectful. At the same breath I abhor gossip as an unfair, hurting and character assassinating tool.

In Korea, the case of Hines Ward, a son of a Black American and Korean mother is well known among Koreans. In 2009, a Korean man was fined in a first case of a racial insult to an Indian professor. It could be guessed that prejudice cases of subtle racism are neither reported nor cited yet its challenge cannot be avoided.

Many have argued that Koreans are not racists. There are those who believe that the concept of racism in Korea is foreign and was only planted from the West. Others hold the view that Korea’s case is a matter of genuine curiosity owing to the fact that, historically, Korea was not exposed to longer period of cultural diversity compared to countries say like Japan, the Philippines or even Kenya.

But curiosity or no curiosity some dark colored people have wondered why some Koreans would not sit with them in the bus seat or take the same elevator. Even with the speculations, I know of many blacks who have had a great share of hospitality among the Koreans. I personally have numerous open minded friends who have encouraged me to eat their foods, sleep on their marts, speak their language and dance their tune – and it has been exciting!

In the radio show, I particularly appreciated the discussion on the question of what factors reinforce the concept of racism among young educated Koreans. Historical nature of the Korean society notwithstanding, examples of educational materials and mass media are probable features. Picture this: One Korean English dictionary was found to contain weird connotations about the black race. For instance the definition illustrations in the dictionary included: America – American made a car, Africa – Lions live in Africa, Beautiful: She is beautiful girl (with a picture of a girl that looks Korean).

As an educationist, I argue that no educative processes are neutral. Education can serve any end – prejudice or freedom, war or peace, success or failure. Education is in fact not only informative but also formative hence shapes one’s perception of reality. Education curricula and even teachers are open for evaluation to determine worldviews they disseminate.

As for the mass media, film industry until recently has portrayed the black race as antagonists. Even to date most documentaries about Africa aired by international media still focus on poverty, disease and conflicts yet giving a wide rebuff to the continent’s achievements and aesthetic.

Thankfully, Korea is becoming multicultural society by the day thanks to the growing numbers of foreigners in the country. Such organizations as Seoul Global Centre, Busan Foundation for International Activities and others with foreigners-oriented activities deserve appreciation.

Meanwhile as Martin Luther King Jr. advised, let us hope that the dark clouds of any racial prejudice will forever pass away and the radiant stars of love and brotherhood shine with all their scintillating beauty.

5 Responses to “Racism: Remembering Luther King’s Legacy in Korea”

  1. peter Lee Says:

    impressive…
    You are always welcome to our Let’t Talk Busan, Talk show…
    If you have any subject to talk about open, email or call me..
    Stay warm…

  2. peter Lee Says:

    I put your blog on my facebook

  3. Ga Grace Says:

    Kudos my friend!
    Luckily you have this blog to continue the discussion during the radio talk show at Busan eFM.
    I happened to be part of the panellists during that great show: Let’s talk Busan, and such a hot topic of ‘Racism’ was quite delicate yet tough to discuss. Also, time was not enough to deal with the issues and make a more balanced discussion that would somehow leave consolations to all listeners, be it Koreans or foreigners. But in general, it was great and fun to openly-express our respective sentiments on air..
    More power dear friend!

  4. Vimbiso Says:

    I teach 2 to 6 year old children in our church’s kindergarten and I could not agree with you more about the influence of education. At first I wondered where the jump was made in the minds of the children I teach from almost having no understanding that people are different. They are constantly asking ‘Why is your skin brown? Did you stay in the sun for a long time?” They really see me as just funny looking Korean.
    But then I saw how the mind shift begins. I saw once a board at our kindergarten where they were learning about the world. The week’s theme was “Our friends around the world.” So we had categories of friends who live in different types of countries. Then we had “Our starving friends – how can we help them? “ Since no African countries could fit into any of the other categories I figured we were the starving friends in need of help.
    What’s been amazing though has been awareness among (some?) Koreans of their own prejudice – which gives me hope. Before I even became really aware of racism here I was warned by Koreans about it. I had Koreans asking me how I cope with the discrimination long before I fully even realized it myself. That I think is a great and wonderfully hope giving thing. I had a Korean man old enough to be my father apologize for a racist comment he made not directed at me but nonetheless hurtful. He said it’s a terrible pride that we have but please persevere with us.
    So nowadays I just wish I could speak Korean well enough to have these kinds of conversations with Koreans. Because maybe because we don’t have a shared history – maybe there is hope that we can skip all the pain and blame that fills our interracial relationships back home – and “the dark clouds of any racial prejudice will forever pass away and the radiant stars of love and brotherhood shine with all their scintillating beauty” : )

  5. Frederick Alexander Choi Says:

    Basically, it is despicable for us to be treated unfairly by the colour.
    The race discrimination have been lasted for a long time everywhere in the word and unfortunately, these ruthless behaviours
    seem to be kept on. I donot want to limit my story to black people and am so sorry to say that race discrimination are still
    prevalent around the world. I fully understand why you would like to mention racism as a black person and know that black
    people especially in the US had to fight for their freedom and their right against the white world. Although the black in the US have
    acquired their enhanced right due to their assiduous movements, I know that there are still prejudice on the black people.

    As I said before, racism is a universal phenomena in the world, in other words, most people are exposed to this unfair treatment whenever
    they stay. When I lived in Australia for three months, I heard often that Australians would regard the Asians as being trivial and they donot
    care about Asia’s life and their safety. I also heard that Asia’s life is similar to the fly’s and was very despondent to hear of this fact.
    Generally, whether or not it is true, Australians donot have any respect for the Asians. For another example, my Canadian friend who lived
    in Korea more than ten years told me that he has gone through racism in Korea. I was so surprised to know it because I have known that
    usually the westerners have treated well because of the preference of Koreans.

    I would like to say that racism have not been caused by a nation or a people, which we have perceived for a long time. What I want to say
    is that we can overcome racism by showing decent attitude. In general, the people will praise me when I show them respectful behaviours;
    the people will blame me when I show them rude behaviours. In other words, handling racism depends on people’s attitude.

    We need not to be discouraged just because we are being treated unfairly and can improve the relationship by showing them generosity and
    diligence.

    Finally, I have a very good friend who came from Kenya and his name is Lucas. If you are willing to be my friend, you will be the second-black
    friend in me. I donot care about nationality and colours. Anybody can be my friend and they are precious to me.


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