Today in class while straining to get a group of four very unenthusiastic students to make suggestions in English, I projected a google image search for ugly people on the wall, and immediately all of them perked up.
I was not thinking when I asked them to comment on a particularly unfortunate-looking individual who happened to be black. One of the students told him that he “should change his skin color.” And I should have castigated him. But I tried to move on as quickly as possible because I’m still pretty nervous at that place. After all, let’s be honest, people, I’m not qualified to tie my own shoes, let alone teach English to college students.
In elementary school I segregated pictures of human beings whenever I had to use them in my lessons because I knew that someone would say something shamefully disgustingly racist if there were any non-Asian or non-Caucasian people involved. Things once got so out of control after a class watched a bunch of cute Japanese kids dance around on TV that my co-teacher and I were ready to abandon the classroom, hand in our resignations, and head for the hills. Watching the dance was not my idea. Segregating the pictures was cowardly. But trying to explain racism to a child who does not speak your language in a culture that is not really aware of the existence of the concept is, honestly, difficult.
And on at least one occasion, when I said that it was wrong to jump around around and make hooting sounds in imitation of Native Americans, or to say that a person was ugly because of her skin color, I can’t remember exactly, they actually asked me why. Racism is public and private policy here, still leftover from decades of fascism, ignorance, and homogeneity—and every foreigner here surely has reams of relevant anecdotes to back me up when I say that.
At our first face-to-face meeting an employer told me that he thought I looked Indian in one of my photographs and that he was very relieved to find that I was so white. I should have explained to him that a comment like that was inappropriate and then said goodbye to him. But not all of us can be Martin Luther King, Jr., all the time—just look at all the horrible generalizations I’ve made in this post alone.
Perhaps America and Korea are equally racist, only Americans are much better at covering their racism up, using code-words, offering excuses, denying their actions even to themselves. Here the racists are shameless because everyone is Korean and it’s probably pretty rare for someone to experience racism. The people here always complain about what the Japanese did to them, but empathy is a little hard to come across in a place that is so hierarchical, where it is acceptable and normal, for instance, for old people to talk down to young people, and for no one to care, even when a person who sells vegetables on the street addresses a computer scientist as though he is an infant. From an American’s perspective this is uncomfortable and demeaning for every party involved.
I suspect most of the folks here do not see any connection between the comfort women, the attempt at cultural genocide, dancing around while hooting, and telling a black person to change his skin color. And actually the guy looked pretty normal to me, I have no idea why he was even there—he was just wearing some stupid glasses.
I also don’t know so much about racism in America because I’m white, but here in Korea I’m part of the minority—a very small, privileged minority—and that does give me a better chance to see the world from the perspective of someone who does not belong to the ruling caste.
So, someone does something totally, blatantly racist, you tell him so, and then he asks you—why is that wrong? Why is it wrong to be racist? What do you say? How can you explain racism to someone who knows nothing about it? No one in America would ever say, why is racism wrong? They would simply deny that they had ever been racist to begin with…
But that situation presented itself to me, once, in a Korean public school classroom, and I had to think fast, and keep things simple. It was the moment one of the very white and very wealthy anti-racists at Hampshire College dreams of but never experiences.
What I wrote here was pretty good, I wish I had said that thing about the comfort women, but actually I told my students that in America everyone would think they are Chinese, and that that’s wrong, and ignorant, and doesn’t that make you feel bad? You’re not Chinese. You’re Korean! Don’t you hate being falsely judged based on your physical characteristics…? They agreed. But I doubt it did any good.
I once accidentally said the very lengthy and awkward Korean word for “racist”, in-jong-cha-byol-joo-wee-cha, which I could only remember because my wife and I have spent several hours of our lives shouting it back and forth at each other—I once said it to one of my friends after a Korean woman changed seats on the subway because she obviously didn’t want to sit next to a pair of foreigners. Whereupon she shot us a dirty look. I had struck gold. But, strangely, she made no attempt to deny my accusation, even though it was evident that I had at least some comprehension of her language.