“Conceivably, racial prejudice could be interpreted as an irrational generalization of a kin-selected tendency to identify with individuals physically resembling oneself, and to be nasty to individuals different in appearance.”
—Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene
According to this book, living creatures behave altruistically toward one another because their genes want to survive. If another person is fairly similar in appearance to me, or if another person is related to me by blood, there’s a fairly good chance that that person is carrying a lot of the same genes as I am, and that if I risk my life to save that other person, my genes will survive, even if I do not. Altruistic behavior isn’t altruistic at all, but rather selfish, if you look at things from the perspective of the individual genes. There may indeed be a gene somewhere in most (or even all) of humanity’s genetic makeup that basically says, if you run into a person who looks different from you, you should be cautious at the least and mean or even violent at the most.
This revelation doesn’t explain everything, because it’s possible for a person to ignore or counteract his or her genetics, and obviously only a very small number of the people I have encountered in my life were blatantly racist. While my wife and my friends and I all poke fun at each other in racist ways (since I spend almost all of my time with people who are not white (not just Koreans!)), we don’t discriminate and we try not to judge. Everybody’s at least a little racist, as the family lawyer explained to a jury many years ago—the mind generates abstractions, the brain generalizes—and the trick is just to be conscious of that fact and to do your best to suppress it.
On one of my favorite blogs, Ask A Korean, the author has written several times that he believes that although America has a long way to go, it is still the least racist nation on Earth, because a lot of Americans encounter all kinds of different races all the time, and race is a constant subject of discussion among many people. Although this may not be so true of the younger generation, older or more conservative Koreans view race and nationality as the same thing—the idea of a nation like America or India consisting of numerous different kinds of ethnicities is illogical to them—and as I think many foreigners living in Korea can attest, Koreans tend to be fairly nationalistic.
For example, I have never met a Korean who said that the Liancourt Islands Dispute is an open question, and I actually got in trouble with the parents of one of my students after I prodded her to think for herself on this issue. Back in Busan the subways were empty (except for one notable man, whom I should have photographed, who had covered himself in Korean flags) and the entire city was cheering when the Korean soccer team was battling the Japanese. On the wikipedia talk page for The History of Korea article one of my friends is currently engaged in an argument with a nationalist who insists on placing the ridiculous line, “Korea is one of the oldest countries on Earth”, right at the top of page—never mind defining what a country is (as the idea of a country was probably not a central concern for whoever inhabited this place four thousand years ago), never mind the fact that he is basing this assertion on a collection of Korean myths and fables called the Samguk Yusa, which was written about seven centuries ago. Anecdotes are not proof, nor is consensus, but—regardless.
Although I don’t have the book with me, in B.R. Myers’ The Cleanest Race, mention is made, I believe, of a somewhat famous Korean nationalist historian named Shin Chae-ho, whom according to Myers’, copied several of his most important ideas from the Japanese—that the Koreans are one people (like the Japanese), and that Mt. Baekdu is important, like Mt. Fuji. Even today, in glancing through the wikipedia page on Nihonjinron (“Discussions On Japanese People”), it’s incredible to see some of the exact same bullshit I’ve spent three years listening to in Korea—both nations appear to be remarkably unique in that they have four seasons, and the Japanese race is so ethnically pure that there are actual tangible physical differences between the Japanese and everyone else. In the article there’s some crap about how the Japanese language uniquely conditions the human brain, and in the case of my own wife we had several fights about how she had to take a shower after she gave birth to our son. Korean women typically don’t shower for a week or so after they give birth because, according to my wife, they believe that the water will break their bones, as their bodies are physically weaker (more innocent) than bodies belonging to other races. My wife did take a shower on her own without any prodding from me a few hours after she gave birth, but a month or so later she became quite furious, and fought with me several times, after I got her to wade into the ocean at Haeundae Beach—up to her ankles, in the middle of the summer. No Korean woman, she said, would ever do that; for months it seemed like every time she sneezed my wife would blame this incident for her discomfort, even though in reality the water didn’t hurt her at all.
Getting back to Shin Chae-ho, I found what looks like a fairly decent if fairly jargon-y paper on this guy after a bit of googling, one which reveals that he is not at all as foolish as I thought. Although he may be the founder of Korean nationalism—the idea of Korea probably existing only among Korean elites before Japanese colonization—it seems that he was (logically) desperate to prevent his country and his people, who are definitely culturally and linguistically distinct from the Japanese (although genetically the two peoples are almost indistinguishable), from being swallowed up and enslaved by them. Fostering hitherto nonexistent national unity may have been the only way, in his mind, to save Korea from becoming a permanent part of Japan; according to my wife he was so distraught when Japan annexed Korea that he refused to wash his face while bowing down, which reminded me of a story about Robert Guiscard, whom (I believe) had to abandon his invasion of Byzantium to put down a rebellion of some sort back in Italy or Sicily, and vowed that he would not shave his beard until he returned to the all-important project of acquiring for himself the Roman diadem.
Although many of Shin Chae-ho’s ideas seem to come straight from the mouth of Japanese fascism, not all of them are ridiculous. He argued that peace in East Asia is only maintained when Korea is strong enough to prevent Japan and China from fighting with each other, and warned the world about the dangers of Japanese Imperialism a good long while before that imperialism was affecting anyone except the Koreans—
“The many great powers of the world have permitted Japan to annex Korea, believing the loud words by which the Japanese gave themselves a self-indulgent license and failing to attain a proper handle on the situation. Japan has already crossed the sea and claimed Korea. At this point, who can stop them from just as easily crossing Duman and Yalu Rivers to swallow whole the territories of northern and southern Manchuria? Who will be able to block them from expanding their designs northward to include Mongolia and southward to occupy Shandong, thereby taking the world by surprise? Now that they already have Korea and Manchuria, how can we be sure that they will not covet China and Siberia? Who can stop them from seeking to recreate in the present the rule of might once held by Genghis Khan, and from letting their footsteps span miles and miles upon end?”
There was some poll taken awhile back, maybe by the Korean Times, where Koreans ranked the nations most dangerous to South Korea in the following order:
2) The United States
4) North Korea
I might have mixed up the order, but I do remember that Japan was on the top and North Korea was on the bottom—a pronouncement which I think most outside observers would find completely ridiculous, and a direct consequence of the race-based nationalism promulgated by Korean intellectuals like Shin Chae-ho who were writing under the influence of Japanese fascism around the turn of the last century. The North Koreans belong to the same race as the South Koreans, so obviously North Korea is not so dangerous as Japan—which desperately wants Dokdo. Interestingly, although North and South Korea are still technically at war, the North supports the South’s claim to these islands; race-based nationalism cuts both ways. Ask A Korean wrote that Korean nationalism may look ridiculous to Americans—but Americans never lost their own country to a foreign power, and cannot understand the pain and regret associated with that loss.
Racism and nationalism may have simply started in the human gene pool, although the problem seems to have gotten worse starting about five hundred years ago, when the European powers needed some kind of an excuse to justify their enslavement and subjugation of virtually everyone else on Earth—people, who most obviously, looked fairly different from them. Before that era, when Europeans were mostly fighting among themselves, people justified their conflicts based on religion, or birthright—even though in all cases it is obvious that everyone just wanted to take everyone else’s land. The Ancient Greeks and Romans were conscious of racial differences, but I don’t think they cared about them nearly as much as modern people seem to; Romans in the days of the Republic always wanted other people’s stuff, but were very tricky in the way that they always prodded the other powers into attacking them first, so that they could always claim that the act of conquering all of Europe was one of self-defense.
Regardless, both racism and nationalism, now, serve no purpose, and need to be abandoned for the betterment of the gene pool—and the species!