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.