The question of race, why it matters, and how it affects people’s experiences in this lifetime is jam packed with so many historical and sociological pains, as well as societal implications, that often we are afraid to have any meaningful conversations about it.
I am no expert when it comes to issues of race and discrimination, but I have spent many years looking at the way society is organized, and there are certain facts that have always been made abundantly clear when looking at inequalities that are built and man-made through societal structures that we have inadvertently created.
One such fact being that race matters, insofar as that in certain societies like my own, it is a very useful predictor of what kind of socio-economic outcome you are likely to have, where the darker your skin tone, or the less ‘white’ you are, the higher the correlative effect on your likelihood to end up towards the bottom of the heap.
I don’t wish to engage in too much detail about the issues of race and prejudice in New Zealand, as there is a very robust discussion that takes place among academics, politicians, and a much lower brow conversation going on at the “less informed” level of New Zealand society – putting it nicely, that relates specifically to our own demons that are cloaked in issues related to race.
The point is, I know racism when I see it. I’ve felt the humiliation associated with being made to feel less than you are because of the fact that you’re not of the dominant racial group. I’ve seen others around me discriminated in much worse terms, I was at least given the ability to ably communicate in Pakeha language, so I was able to negotiate my way through the institutional structures that were designed by European perspectives, of which people of my ethnic group have struggled to decipher in any meaningful form since our mass wave of migration to New Zealand in the middle of the last century.
So moving to Korea, where the population is about as homogenized as any nation on the planet, issues of race were always likely to come up. 97% of the people that live in Korea are ethnically Korean. That is a staggering number. In China, another country that people see as being ethnically homogenous, the dominant ethnic group are the Han-Chinese, and they make up about 91% of the population. There are significant minority groups in China though. As an example, the Zhuang ethnic group contribute about 16.9 million people to China’s total population, 4x the entire population of New Zealand. As you can see, Korea’s lack of ethnic diversity is much more pronounced than its larger Sino neighbour.
Koreans have also opened up to the rest of the world relatively recently. Once known as “The Hermit Kingdom”, a title that is almost exclusively used to describe North Korea these days, It wasn’t really until the late 1980s when South Korea announced its return to the world community of nations, via its big coming out party at the Seoul Olympics in 1988. Up to this point, the last meaningful interaction the international media had had with South Korea was when the international community came to its aid during the devastating fratricidal Korean War that remains today one of the bloodiest conflicts of the last century, that has seemingly slipped the consciousness of many. Aptly titled “The Forgotten War” by many historians, until the Seoul Olympics, many in the West still had notions of Seoul being a flattened completely devastated city with army tanks rolling through it, peppered with an emaciated population of which it is estimated 3 million, perhaps even more, lost their lives during the course of the brief yet, indescribably brutal conflict.
People say that Koreans are racist. I’ve heard some Korean-Americans call Koreans racist, I’ve seen African-Americans call Koreans racist, I’ve experienced racism here myself quite clearly. And I too have called Koreans racist in the past. However, after really trying to come to terms with Korea, its history, and what feeds the mindset of the ordinary Korean, I can’t help but think – they just can’t help themselves. I don’t mean this in a bad way at all. And I don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea. I’m not trying to defend racism in any shape or form. But I am trying to understand it as best I can in the locations and conditions in which it occurs.
I believe that Koreans aren’t really racist. To be racist, I think that a person needs to have been exposed to other cultures, and been educated to understand that colour doesn’t matter, but STILL make a conscious decision to discriminate against a person based on colour.
And I disagree with people who say that the reason why people are racist in our countries is because they haven’t been exposed to other ethnic groups. I don’t accept this because in our countries it simply isn’t possible to not be exposed to other cultures anymore. If you’re American, and you eat Mexican food, you have been exposed to another culture, only you have chosen not to accept that what you have in front of you was crafted by another cultural group, because you still harbour underlying notions of superiority.
That point can be debated from now until 2016, so I’ll move on. Just know that this is why I believe that Koreans are not necessarily racist.They’re just super, super proud of their nation and people. Add this to their lack of outside contact with foreigners, and their behaviour, which comes out as racist, really, is just a manifestation of this pride which many of us don’t really understand. I don’t think I fully understand it either, but I can definitely relate to it.
Feelings of nationalism and patriotism run strong in Korea. As an outsider, having studied Korean history in a little more detail since living here, it’s understandable. Just look at its thousands and thousands of years of recorded history, a sequence of devastating and neverending invasions from the Japanese and then having its territory trampled on by the Chinese who would seek retaliation. The borders of the Korean kingdom, its name, its rulers etc. have all changed so many times that the depth of Korean history is quite simply mind whirling in its detail and intricacies. It’s a miracle that the Korean state itself was able to survive for the many centuries it did before it was finally annexed in entirety by Japan in 1910. Where Japanese Imperialism united Koreans in a common struggle for emancipation, which inevitably lead to an entrenched form of nationalism.
Some would argue that these feelings of nationalistic pride are on the decline, especially with the rise of the younger more affluent and indifferent generation. But as someone who grew up in perhaps one of the most unenthusiastic populations in the world when it comes to pride in the nation. I don’t believe that’s true at all. I still see it in the way that Koreans act and respect their way of doing things.
Koreans may not be as zealous about traditional Korean culture these days, but Koreans are still obsessive about Koreanness in my opinion. The only thing that’s changed is that the focus of this Korean pride has taken new capitalist forms, care of the spread of Western economic structures and Korea’s successful ability to incorporate these structures, and adapt them to suit the Korean way of doing things. KPOP, KDramas, Hyundai, Samsung, Kim Yuna, Park Ji-Sung – Manchester United, aesthetic surgery, Korean cuisine – as they all rise in international standing and reputation, Koreans make use of the international networks it provides to further opportunities for other Koreans around the world.
Korean hierarchy in its societal makeup still governs the way in which business, social relationships and interactions take place every day. There is no shortage of Koreanness that continues to govern my workplace, my commute to places, the way I interact with my Korean friends, the way I eat food, the restaurants I frequent, and my attitude to work ethic.
Korea is well known for what is called the ‘Miracle on the Han’ – The banks of the Han River, the lifeblood of the ancient city of Seoul, saw the most dramatic rise from the ashes that the modern era has ever seen. More dramatic than the reconstruction and rise of Japan after WWII in my view, because before the complete devastation of Seoul, Korea was an impoverished nation. Japan on the other hand was perhaps one of the most advanced in the world resulting from the incredibly successful reforms during the Meiji Restoration. It had a reference point to grow from, as well as a much larger population base than Korea to draw from.
So how did Korea go from the poorest country in the world – that’s right in 1953 Korea’s GDP per capita was roughly less than $50USD, lower than the level of most sub-Saharan African countries – to today, where it is now the 13th largest economy in the world?
Well, the truth is, it did it with a lot of controversial government policies that included a spell of complete authoritarianism and denial of basic human rights to many of its citizens.
Something that we often get reminded of, is that the current President of Korea, Park Geun-hye, is the daughter of Park Chung-hee, former Korean President. But what most outsiders don’t know, is that he was a military dictator that controlled Korea with an iron-like grip, so absolutely that many would place him in a category more commonly associated with despots and autocrats. Namsan, the mountain that I frequently run up, which has a beautiful running trail today, complete with oriental gardens, rock formations, Seoul Tower, the love locks of Namsan, Hanok Village, and functions as a geographical centrepiece of the city, was once the site of brutal torture, imprisonment, and the place where people simply vanished without a trace.
Whatever your view of the Park Chung-hee era, one thing that is undeniable is that his economic reforms and unforgiving requirement that his citizens work relentlessly to rebuild the nation worked. It was during his time South Korea’s economy took off, And it was during his time, that the legend of the “Miracle on the Han” began to evolve..
Koreans know struggle like most brutalized nations do, who have been on the outside of the dominant nations for the entirety of their existence. Of course, this isn’t an excuse as to why nationalism should then lead to the exclusion of foreigners or the victimization of foreigners as being classified as outsiders and treated in discriminatory ways. But it should go some way as to explaining why feelings of national pride, and embracing one’s heritage here and ultimately Koreanness makes complete sense in this country.
In short, all these things make Koreans who they are today. This intense sense of victimization by the imperial ambition of surrounding nations, combined with its recent unfortunate history of being used as a pawn in an ideological struggle between the West and the former Soviet Union, resulting in generationally imposed suffering, the Korean mindset is naturally hardwired to believe that Korean’s are the most stoic, hardworking, resilient group of people that have been able to survive some of the world’s greatest hardships. Can you imagine what kind of effect that would have on your view of the outside world?
As a Samoan kid, one of the sources of my greatest pride is knowing that as a nation we never gave up on our political independence after we were so unwillingly subjected to the forces of colonialism. For us, we haven’t been able to be the same economic success story that Korea has, and we are beginning to drown in the greater pool of the world economic structure as our culture and way of organizing society is not thriving in the face of economic paradigms that we just cannot seem to reconcile with our own indigenous understandings of ownership and societal arrangement.
But what is particularly eyebrow-raising for me though, and I’m just gonna say it without pulling punches, without naming names, is when people who are not used to being treated differently because of their skin colour, because they are part of the dominant ethnic group where they come from finally experience racism for the first time in their lives in all its humiliating glory.
Asians, Koreans included, are among the most discriminated ethnic groups in our western societies. I know in New Zealand that it’s rather quite popular to campaign on a ticket that attempts to shut the door on migrants that come from Asia, because ‘they don’t understand our way of life.’ At least in New Zealand we don’t usually throw stones or stab Asian people in kebab shops, which is more than I can say for our Aussie cousins. And lets not get started on what it’s like to be Asian in the UK or the US.
So when my non-coloured or non-black friends complain about being discriminated against here because they are a foreigner a couple of things go through my head. The first is, well they discriminate against all foreigners, and they really do this because of their own experiences. Much like how we do this back home.
But my second thought is, welcome to the club. For the first time in your life, you’ve been able to experience what I’ve felt for the entirety of my life living in a society where my skin colour meant that I would always be pigeonholed by others into a particular role. “All Samoans can sing.” My favourite: “So which position do you play in rugby?” – Yup stereotypes of me and my ethnic group are very clear.
I still remember how it felt when John Banks went on national T.V. in NZ and said that Pacific Islanders jumped through people’s windows at night robbing hardworking New Zealanders homes while they were sleeping – or words to that effect. I have never ever heard a white person on television once in New Zealand being typecast as a criminal because of the colour of their skin. Or lets not forget how Paul Henry said that our next governor general needed to look like a real New Zealander, apparently one of Indian descent who was the incumbent didn’t look like a real New Zealander. Again, I digress, let’s get back to Korea.
The thing that gets me about people who are not of colour complaining about racism in Korea is that yes, it happens. But white privilege goes with you everywhere. Even in Korea, where foreigners are discriminated against, there are certain degrees of discrimination.
For example, I have been passed up for jobs here in favour of a white applicant who has no experience, is much less qualified than I, and is so immature that they are closer in demeanour to an adolescent than an educator, purely because of the colour of my skin.
I’ve walked on the street before and had jovial Koreans see a group of foreigners and choose to try and strike up a conversation exclusively with the white members of our entourage. Ignoring the others in the group who are so obviously not white.
Forgive me if I’m not so sympathetic to cries of racial injustice from this particular ethnic group.
I am not making excuses for racism in this country. And in fact I don’t like the idea of racism anywhere, but my thing is white people who cry racism here in Korea, and people who I have seen post on blogs about how racist Koreans are toward foreigners are the same people that often stay silent when issues of race come up in our countries. And that’s what I find completely hypocritical and what gives you no right to play the race card, ever.
Until you choose to stand in solidarity with black people who suffer racism in their own countries, and until you stand in solidarity with Asian people who suffer racism daily in your own countries, learn to turn the other cheek, Because you have no right to claim humiliation when you benefit from a genetic privilege that you did nothing to earn.
And I’m really tired of hearing about how racist Koreans are. There are racist people everywhere yes. But let’s keep things in perspective. Koreans have a reason to be suspicious of outsiders, more so than we do. As an Asian ethnic group, they are victimized where ever they go, typecast as nerds, stereotyped against as skinny and weak, even looked down and named as an undesirable race by many from other cultures. Korea, their homeland, is where they can actually be who they are without fear of this judgment. And if you’re not cut out for this kind of life, then take the experience and leave.
I have recently realized that Korea is not the place for me in the long term. and all of the bad experiences I’ve had here have been completely washed away by the incredible experiences that I have had. So when I leave in a couple of months time, I’ll be leaving with wonderful and fond memories of the place. And it’s funny, it’s not Korea the country that I’ll miss, it will be Korea the people.
This ill-informed-of-the-ways-of-the-world-people, who have a predisposition to shun outsiders, have left an indelible mark on my heart. Koreans don’t really let outsiders in, but when they do I can guarantee that they can be some of the most loyal wonderful people you can ever hope to meet.
And let’s see more articles about that, and less about our misunderstandings of a simply quite remarkable, race of people.