Monday, March 19, 2007

Asian racism: from the apologetics to the reality

“James,” a commenter on an older post that contrasted racial attitudes in Korea and China, weighed in with a defense of Korea that’s familiar to most of us living in Asia:

There is no racism in Korea. Korea is NOT a multicultural country. It’s a mono-cultural country.

My first reaction is that Japan is far more “monocultural” than a Korea heavily influenced by China, Mongolia, Japan, and more recently, the US, yet no Korean would accept the claim that there’s no racism in Japan on the grounds that Japan is not a multicultural country.

That said, the notion that a society must be multicultural, that is, it must have more than one main racial group, for racism to exist is not new, but it is archaic in the age of globalization. Even if a country has no minorities living within its borders, cultural exchanges and the media have seen to it that most people will develop opinions — read: stereotypes — about races and ethnicities they have never met. How else can we explain Chinese saying to me, “Blacks are all naturally great athletes” or “Jews are all really rich and crafty”? Absent the exchanges inherent in globalization, where are the Chinese blacks, where are the Chinese Jews, for these stereotypes to emerge?

Opinions about other racial and ethnic groups can be positive or negative, and, naturally, the more negative the opinion, the greater the potential for racism. Of course, in a homogenous country like Korea or Japan, this potential racism will rarely materialize into racist acts, and if we were to judge racism according to race-motivated crimes, discrimininatory laws, and the like, the West would appear to be infinitely more racist than the countries of East Asia. (This aspect of the debate leads to another common tactic used by its Asian participants, namely, their tendency to invoke Rodney King or the KKK to distract from criticism of their own countries.)

However, racism must also be measured in terms of racist attitudes, and here, East Asia catches up to, and in some cases, overtakes the West. Racist attitudes are not only a matter of holding negative views of those unlike ourselves, but also include esteeming our own “race” above others. When a Korean, for example, is taught the uniqueness and superiority of their “race” as part of their education, it fosters the development of a value system that treats race as part of the yardstick by which to measure individuals. This runs counter to the norm of colorblindness in most Western countries. Moreover, for Americans and Europeans who have internalized the liberal values of the civil rights movement, to hear an Asian say “I’m proud of my race” can be a cringe-inducing experience, even though these words, in the context of homogeneity, sometimes mean “I’m proud of my country.”

Yet there are times when esteeming one’s race, and more disturbingly, esteeming the “purity” of said race, cannot be taken as mere patriotism. North Korea’s advocacy of Korean racial purity is extreme, so let us consider a more tangible anecdote that’s become rather infamous among some African expatriates living in Tianjin and Beijing. The following story has come to me second-hand, but I have every reason to believe its accuracy.

A few years ago, an African student studying at Beijing Foreign Studies University met and fell in love with a Korean girl who was also studying in Beijing. The girl and boy dated and stayed together for a little while, but soon some of the other Korean students caught word of their romance. The Korean boys, deeming it unseemly for a Korean girl to be with an African, began to intimidate both the girl and the boy to get them to break up. This intimidation culminated with a group of a half-dozen Koreans assaulting the African’s dormitory room, smashing his door down, and proceeding to accuse him of “taking advantage of” the Korean girl, and threatening him with physical violence. The African boy insisted that the girl was with him because she liked him, not because he had tricked her in any way. Ultimately, however, his appeal to reason did not defuse the situation; the boy had to threaten to call the cops to get the Koreans to leave his dormitory. In the end, the racists won, because the couple’s relationship could not endure the intimidation.

This scene should seem hauntingly familiar to anyone who’s studied the history of racist reactions to interracial relationships in the United States during the 20th century. All of the classic elements of racist backlash are there: (1) the “loss” of a female to a black person as a rallying point for males of the female’s race; (2) public intimidation of the mixed couple; (3) assertions that the black man has “seduced” the woman or that the relationship is otherwise illegitimate; and (4) a violent confrontation between a group of males and the black man in question. Everyone involved is lucky that the incident did not end in a lynching, but this was undoubtedly racism at work. Yet how can that be, since “there is no racism in Korea”?

A final (and I daresay unnecessary) disclaimer: East Asian racism, be it Korean, Chinese, or Japanese, is by no means the most alarming racism I’ve seen or encountered, but it deserves to be catalogued alongside white racism, black racism, and other manifestations of the phenomenon. If we are honest to history and to ourselves, we will recognize it as a social problem worthy of being analyzed and critiqued and, eventually, eliminated, for racism, in any form, is a wound in the heart of mankind.

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