Friday, June 8, 2012

If it's about racism, then let's make it about racism

I've been hesitant to share my thoughts on the recent MBC video on the “shocking reality” of relationships with foreigners because so many people have offered thoughtful commentary on this issue, and because I haven't felt that I have anything specific to offer in terms of effective action. But after a couple weeks of following the response, I can't shake the feeling that we are missing something important, and I think it's worth a few minutes to try and work out (if only for myself) what's bugging me.
One of my main sources of information on this has been the Facebook page “action against MBC”, so I'll limit my thoughts to what I have read there.  To some extent, this site has come to represent “the foreign response” to the MBC piece.  I feel somewhat of a connection to this group because many of the family photos that have been posted look a bit like my family. I'm a White guy married to a Korean woman, and we just had our first child earlier this year. I'm still not fluent in Korean, but I'm working at it and I'd like to think I'm getting a little better. In short, I'm in a pretty similar situation to many of the people who are speaking out.

So, what exactly are we saying? 
The main message seems to be that news stories like the MBC piece promote the misinformed view that Korea is a racially and culturally homogenous nation. This results in the positioning of non-Korean residents as outsiders and leads to further discrimination against these individuals and their families. I can say from experience that this kind of discrimination is frustrating and painful. So it's easy to understand why group members have chosen to make racism the centerpiece of their call to action. This seems right. Racism is one of the biggest social issues that we face in an increasingly multicultural world. I should add that I feel quite lucky that my perspective and my experiences are so well represented in the website. Unfortunately, I worry that there a lot of different perspectives and a lot of different stories that are missing.

In this light, it seems important to remember that an overwhelming majority of mixed-race marriages here are between working class Korean men and women from a variety of Southeast Asian countries.  These individuals and families no doubt have stories of discrimination to share which are very different from those we hear in the “action against MBC” group. Yet they have not been mentioned because we are not making explicit connections between the discrimination and racism that they might experience and the messages conveyed in the MBC piece.  

Let me try to explain why I believe this is important....
In a more recent story, a producer at MBC stated, “I don’t understand why foreigners get angry about the issue while they are living with their spouses and having no problem. Foreigner-Korean women couples are living happily, but why are they angry over an issue that has nothing to do with them?” Obviously this has everything to do with such couples. It promotes misinformation and public paranoia and potentially incites further discrimination towards anyone who resembles the people in the video. The producer was either unwilling or unable to make the connection between the specific people represented in the piece and the consequences for a much larger community. It is my hope that our community doesn't fall into the same trap.  To avoid this, we would do well to understand that combating racism in Korea (if this is really our goal) means that we are taking up a struggle that involves people who do not look like the photos on our website, and it means that a responsible and effective response to racism must involve much more than combating discrimination against those who look like us.

It is hard to imagine that we are prepared to construct a genuine and effective movement against racism in Korea because we remain steeped in the concerns, experiences, and perspectives of a small and relatively privileged demographic, and we are failing to make connections to a wider range of events.  To make my point, two months ago, Mrs. Jasmine Lee became the first naturalized Korean citizen elected to the national assembly. Both during and after her election she became the target of nationalist,xenophobic, and even racist attacks. As Mrs. Lee has made a career of supporting multicultural families (focusing primarily on spouses of Korean husbands), this seems to be an issue that is relevant to the anti-racism message in the “action against MBC” group. Yet I have to wonder: where was our outrage while Mrs. Lee experienced repeated attacks?  Why have her experiences and the experiences of thousands of those 'other' multicultural families not been addressed in our group? Why have we not reached out to them?

Please understand that I am in no way trying to suggest that the “action against MBC” community does not have a legitimate concern. Racism is painful to anyone victimized by it. But if we are serious about confronting racism in Korea, then it is not just about 'us'. We have a responsibility to reflect the reality of multicultural Korea. Of course, coming up with practical ways of doing this might be tricky, though contacting representative Jasmine Lee might be a start. In any case, it seems important that we practice the diversity that we purport to embrace. Until that happens, I fear that this will remain a fringe issue attributed to one small and somewhat privileged demographic in Korea.


  1. right on, bro. my sentiments exactly.

  2. This is interesting on a couple of levels. First of all, you write in reference to marriages between "working class Korean men and women from a variety of Southeast Asian countries": "These individuals and families no doubt have stories of discrimination to share which are very different from those we hear in the “action against MBC” group. Yet they have not been mentioned because we are not making explicit connections between the discrimination and racism that they might experience and the messages conveyed in the MBC piece." My response to this is twofold.

    First, it is not mentioned here because 'here' is (meant to be) a response to a specific video, aired by a specific broadcasting company, at a specific time, and so on. "We" are the ones who were portrayed in that video. So, while your point is perfectly valid it is akin to asking why the members of the civil rights movement in America in the 1960s (NO, I am NOT comparing this event to that!) didn't campaign for Native American Rights, or Women's Rights, etc. In fact, they did (to a degree, at least) and many, many comments have been made on this page to the effect that 'we' have it much better than SEA migrant workers, and so on. Additionally, many have addressed the implicit attack on Korean women in the MBC video. Perhaps the posters on this page have not fully embraced all of the other forms of discrimination in Korea, but for many Westerners (especially those married, with children, etc.) this may well have been the straw that broke the camel's back.

    Second, you write: “we would do well to understand that combating racism in Korea (if this is really our goal) means that we are taking up a struggle that involves people who do not look like the photos on our website, and it means that a responsible and effective response to racism must involve much more than combating discrimination against those who look like us.” This is, of course true. But battling racism is battling racism. It’s not a pick-and-choose fight. By picking up this particular fight, we are, in fact, taking up the struggle for all. Any time injustice, intolerance, fear, and hate are battled against, the battle is in the name of all who experience it, not just “those who look like us.”

    I’m not attacking or trolling, here. This video is, indeed, the straw that broke the camel’s back for me, and this is the battle that I, and many others, are choosing to fight. And we do because it is the right thing to do, not because we stand to gain anything more than any other group experiencing similar discrimination.

  3. Sorry, I should have noted that this is a copy of my reply on the facebook page.

  4. When I step back from this a little, it's difficult for me not to notice that the Facebook-centered protest against MBC involves only those who speak English (native speakers or not) and who obviously have good knowledge of and access to Facebook in the first place. Considering that there is probably racism towards other groups in Korea, our outrage can't be the only outrage out there, it may just be the most organized and high-profile outrage.

    Whenever racism happens, and I notice it, I'm generally at least mildly shocked or outraged. But I don't need to make everyone's pain my pain. I can't fight everyone else's battles for them, especially when they're not already trying to stand up for themselves. And I think it's a little too much to require me to take up everyone else's cause before I can protest a direct offense to my group (Western English teachers), which I feel MBC has done in this case. This doesn't mean I think we should all work on our own causes in isolation or that we should exclude those less directly affected (see Gandhi in South Africa, who consciously avoided helping black Africans), especially when we have the tools to organize so easily.

    Contact Lee is a great idea. Researching other minority groups in Korea and reaching out to them is a great idea. Talking with native Korea groups sympathetic to the issues is a great idea. Racism affects all of us, and is offensive even to the group the offender belongs to, and many Korean who have chimed in on the Facebook group have been outraged and ashamed by the MBC piece.

    When things change for the better, when people are treated more equally, everyone benefits, all boats rise (see Martin Luther King Jr. who felt that both sides of the conflict must be healed for true healing to occur). I think we should be happy to join with other minority groups and share information and energy, but I don't think we should make every cause our cause before we can do anything for our own group or wait around for other groups to be outraged about a direct attack on us in order to make our voices heard. And they shouldn't wait on us either if the reverse were to happen.

    p.s. Congratulations on the newest member of your family!

  5. thanks for the replies.... it's nice to get some thoughtful feedback. timothy... i don't really have any good answer for the questions you raised. in fact, i think that you are giving me a chance to ask some really difficult questions about the nature of racism, political struggle, and identity. i don't think this is the space to really start working through those questions, but you thoughts were really helpful.
    colin, as you rightly suggest, racism does exist among and against other groups in korea. i accept that you don't feel the need to stand up for the rights of other 'groups', but i would ask you to rethink your statement, "especially when they're not already trying to stand up for themselves". that really gets at my larger concern. we have (or at least 'I' have) representation. i am part of a community that has the power to kick up a fuss. this is now national and international news. Over 8,000 people (of many different cultural and ethnic backgrounds) have joined the facebook site in opposition to the story. yet the discrimination constantly experienced by those "other" multicultural groups hasn't warranted any response. i would suggest that those people DO resist racism and bigotry on a daily basis. that there is very little acknowledgment or interest in their struggle says less about their inability or unwillingness to stand up for themselves, and more about their relative status compared to 'ours'.
    this brings me to the crucial point that i was hesitant to spell out in my post. if i'm being honest with myself, i'd have to admit that racist attitudes have benefited me in korea as much as they’ve harmed me (i’m speaking from an individual perspective, of course... collectively we are all hurt by any expression of racism). i'm thinking about my first year in korea, when i had only one year of teaching experience and an education degree- yet my salary was about 30% higher than a korean-american guy with nearly 5 years of teaching experience. native english speakers from any number of countries (other than the 'lucky 7') would never be hired as a university professor of english without first earning a doctorate. certified english teachers from india (native speakers, mind you) make less money than inexperienced teachers from the U.S., Britain, or Canada.
    your point (and the points that timothy made) are well taken: how we should handle these realities about racism in korea, and the degree to which we make all victims of racism a part of our struggle are difficult philosophical and political questions. but i have to say that the decision to overlook the ways in which racist attitudes have actually given me a certain status and a certain voice in korea means that we are always in danger of falling into “I’m claiming to fight racism but really I just want to bitch about everything that bothers me about Korea” kind of discourse. Not that we have... but I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that we COULD be interpreted in that way.

  6. racism is always wrong. and it's an easy cause to champion. who is ever going to fault you for being against racism? (except for racists)

    i think the outrage from the mbc clip is justified... it was wrong should not be tolerated. the response is interesting. it has been swift and strong. i think there is a reason for that. it has to do with the group that is experiencing racism in this particular issue... white males.

    let’s be clear who the mbc piece is attacking… it's definitely not about foreign women dating Korean men…. it’s not about africans dating korean women… it's not about mexicans dating korean women… it’s even about “western men” (what does that even mean?) dating korean women… it’s about white males dating Korean women.

    most white males have "heard" about racism throughout their lives. most agree it is wrong but many are not comfortable with talking about it since they usually share the same physical characteristics of the people who are being racist. this is why korea is such a unique venue. it's the first time for white males to experience racism firsthand. i think the reason why the response to the mbc story has so strong and swift is because experiencing racism for white males is so new and fresh. it's their chance to bring some street cred to the issue of racism.

    (what also makes this arena so unique is that it is probably one of the few instances in the world where the victims of racism still enjoy a position of privilege – this is certainly rare and would be an interesting topic to discuss further.)

    should white males champion the overall cause of racism? in a word... yes. if you don't then i think you are complicit in this evil. perhaps you have seen racism occur at some point during your stay in korea and you did nothing. in my mind this adds to the problem. we all need to speak out when we see injustice... whether we are the victims of the injustice or not.

    there is a reason why others (the real "others") who experience racism don't start a facebook page... i don't think it's because they don't have access to such social media... i think it's the reason why i never started a facebook page after the numerous times i've experienced racism in korea as an indo-canadian male... it's not my first rodeo. i have experienced racism throughout my life so being exposed to it here in korea was not a new thing for me. for those of us who have a wealth of experience with racism don't feel a need to jump to arms each time we are a victim of racism... to do so would be exhausting.

    I couldn’t agree more with criticaljunkie… if we are against the idea of racism then we need to fight racism in all its forms… not just if my particular group was targeted.

    I am a foreign male, but I don’t feel the mbc story was about me, it was about white males… but I’m more than willing to join my white male brethren and stand up to denounce this act of racism by mbc… just as I hope white males will do the next time any other group in korea is the victim of racism.

  7. Manpal is right. Many of the comments here and elsewhere presume that white males can experience racism from the role of victim, but a number of (mostly nonwhite, non-male) sources would argue that racism is a top-down phenomenon and white men occupy a position of global elite. The liberal humanist argument that we all share in the same struggle has been highly criticized as a white method for reducing the seriousness of the struggles of oppressed nonwhites and redirecting attention to back to privileged whites. As a white male, I'm pretty sure the response to the broadcast as embodied by Action Against MBC has almost everything to do with whites feeling affronted for being racialized on national TV, whilst non-white groups suffer similar racialization daily on TV in various western countries without so much a peep from whites. It is all well and good to say "we (whites and nonwhites) are in this together," but what weight does this carry when we only react to our own racialized images? And what systemically racist practices might such behavior point to? It is interesting that this conversation continues to be carried out primarily among white men. As demonstrated by Manpal and others, I think the overall response would take on a considerably different shape were more of the honest opinions of nonwhite voices included.