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.