About Blackface

The K blogosphere has been up in arms about blackface. Apparently some Koreans took it upon themselves to paint their faces up to look like some cartoon character who is himself questionably offensive. If that character himself isn’t offensive, then the cartoon itself is, because it depicts Africans with bones through their noses.


But we didn’t know it was offensive!

Now, why am I writing this post? Plenty of other K-blogs have condemned the Korean media/Korean education/Koreans themselves for this action. I’m not going to do either of those things. I in no way support or condone what has happened and I am thoroughly disappointed, but this post is about the other bloggers.

My good friend Roboseyo was probably the least vitriolic of the bloggers who wrote about this issue.

Other bloggers took the chance to point out that this is proof that Koreans or Korea is racist.

I’ll have you know that this particular blackface incident was not learned from a fellow blogger or fellow expat… A Korean person who has never lived abroad and who doesn’t interact with foreign people on a regular basis pointed it out to me and was very distraught about it. “How on Earth could something like this happen!” were more or less the exact words.

So my friends, this may only be one example out of many, but we have to realize that not everyone in Korea feels that this is not a problem, and that Koreans themselves are not a hive mind.

Are there racists in Korea? Yes.
Are all Koreans racists? No, and far from it.

Express outrage over the issue and boycott the station or organize a campaign to promote awareness of this issue.. but don’t make it worse by stereotyping an entire nation of people.

12 Responses to “About Blackface”

  1. fappityfap Says:

    “Are there racists in ______? Yes.
    Are all ________ racists? No, and far from it.”

    Insert ANY COUNTRY IN THE WORLD in to the blank, and the statement remains true. Therefore, it’s absolutely useless.

    The question you should be asking about Korea are:

    How socially acceptable is casual racism in Korea?
    How do average Koreans react to casual racism around them?
    Do they accept it easily and without much pushback? Is it normally protested?
    How prevelant is it?

    Quit looking for absolutes and focus on the gray area and whether its a darker shade of grey or a lighter one.

    • Your assessment is fair. Yes that is true for every country. However it was not my point to deal in absolutes. In fact I wrote this post simply because other bloggers are dealing in absolutes.

      I don’t really have any interest in discussing the issue in length. All I can say is that there are more progressive Koreans than everyone thinks.

      • the two of you are clearly approaching the same point from opposite sides.

      • <<>>

        You are correct. Unfortunately, “everyone” includes a lot of Korean society as well. In a class discussion of the subject, I was fascinated by the huge range of opinions and perspectives on the subject. I was not surprised by the fact those who were shocked and disgusted (and there were a few) tended to keep their views to themselves in large group discussions, even as those who declared it “not racist” and made a list of excuses were eager to share their opinion.

        There are plenty of progressives here — most of the Koreans I consider friends are progressive, as a matter of fact — but they seem to me to be in hiding, with the internet being one of the few places they feel (or maybe are) safe to express such opinions.

        And not for no reason. In my experience, Koreans who insist on talking about such things, or call their “friends” on racist/sexist etc. comments/attitudes, tend to get treated like absolute crap, often losing friends or being told off for being “too serious.” My partner is Korean, and she’s pretty much given up on a lot of the [Korean] people she used to consider her friends (not all, but a lot) because talking to them about such things is less productive than talking to a brick wall… because at least a brick wall doesn’t insult you and reject your point of view without a moment’s consideration.

        She agrees with me that self-righteousness is not cool in criticizing such stuff as the blackface thing, but she also is one of the few Koreans I know who is also very active in speaking out against the constant and rampant racism she encounters in daily life. (Mostly offhand comments about Chinese people being dirty, or Southeast Asians being backwards and dirty and poor. Having spent years living in Jakarta, she knows a lot better than those around her how off-base a lot of that crap is.)

        However, there is something useful to take from all of this: it’s a distinction I learned during a discussion of race in SF literature and film. The distinction is accusing people of racism, versus pointing out that an attitude or behaviour is racist.

        When you start calling people racist, you not only essentialize, but you also make it very easy for them to derail the discussion into how not-racist they are. (A tactic we white liberals have mastered, since nearly nothing you can call us hurts us more than the word “bigot.”) But when you point out that a certain behaviour is racist, or an attitude is racist, discussion becomes possible, and the attitude or behaviour can be addressed.

        In the class where I addressed this with my students (a course where we were studying the blackface minstrel show as part of studying the roots of American popular culture) I found a very useful way of exploring the discussion was to offer analodies where the tables were turned, and see whether people were willing to accept the same thing. Like, if in some other society, where Asians are the minority, they did a performance of “Yellowface” like this, and people there said it wasn’t racist as it wasn’t intended to insult Asians… would that be okay? Nobody thought so… and that made some people reassess their previous assertion about whether intention matters in deeming whether it’s racist.

        Anyway, probably more length than you wanted. Sorry! I will have something to say about the Lennon video too, though…

        • Eek, there’s a missing quote in the first line of my comment:

          “All I can say is that there are more progressive Koreans than everyone thinks.”

        • I think what you said there was genius. It’s better to say the act was racist than the person. That’s is at least making an attempt to make discussion with people about it.

          I think also that if you are going to gauge the range of opinions Koreans have based on the people you encounter in English class then you are missing a lot.

          I’m not saying I go meet Korean friends and we converse only in Korean all the time, but it is good to engage people in their own language if possible, not in situations where they are paying to talk or listen to you.

          • Ha, I wish the genius were mine, I picked it up from a discussion of race in the science fiction community, I think. It’s apt, and also I’m sure the product of seeing the discussion derailed time and time again when the offended white liberal says, “But I’m not a racist!”

            As for gauging the range of opinions in classrooms, don’t worry, that’s not my only source, and I also often caveat things with, “A lot of these kids have lived abroad, a lot of them grew up with enough spare money to get fluent in English.” (Because most of the students I deal with are fluent and some are even kinda bicultural.) In that context, I was actually surprised how few of them were progressive, but it was heartening to hear the progressive individuals express their opinions, at least in small group discussions.

            But classrooms are not my only source: my partner is Korean, and though of course her experience is subjective too, she talks about this stuff with me a lot, as she struggles with a fairly narrow range of opinions (and openness to discussion) among people she knows personally. She has a lot of people in her life who want not to be racist, but for whom it’s hard to talk about such things without getting defensive. (So, for example, getting them to consider whether saying, “I love black people, their music is great and they’re good dancers and comedians,” is racist in how it limits and stereotypes people of African descent — getting that discussion going is a struggle.)

            Funnily enough, though, were I relying on my classroom experiences, I’d probably be more sanguine about the situation; my partner’s experiences are quite different from yours and mine, in that she’s the one person she knows who tends to be aware of and sensitive to this stuff. Nearly everyone around her dismisses that stuff with, “Why so serious?!”) It’s through her experiences that I know how basically socially acceptable it seems to be to walk around saying Korean racial slurs for Chinese, Japanese, blacks, and Southeast Asians, let alone the constant crap she takes for being in public with me, but it’s also through her eyes that I see how hard it is to be around “friends” who, though basically well-meaning, say and think the most awful, ignorant things, and won’t listen when you try to get them to rethink those attitudes.

            That’s not to say people around her are all crammed full of hate or anything. Her observation is that people seem to form insular circles and in some circles, they talk about stuff, and try to understand: they listen, and exchange ideas. Her experience (and frustration) is that those groups are not the norm, and from what I see of groups of people hanging out and talking in public — mostly gossiping or recounting (if not reenacting) what they’ve seen celebrities do on TV — she seems correct.

            Of course, this is likely true everywhere too, but it’s harder when the bar for what’s generally acceptable is set so low, and when there seems to be so little institutional effort to raise that bar.

          • I appreciate your elaboration on the situation. I’ve been on the other side of course, where in a totally Korean setting, the racial rules that I was raised with basically go out the window, and what I wouldn’t accept in a western cultural setting, I kind of have to in order not be that annoying guy you have to watch what you say around. You can find other posts on this very blog about that.

            Another time, at an old job of mine, while staying late, my boss told me that I don’t need to work like a n-gger all the time. Can I tell my boss that he’s a racist or otherwise tell him that he should not speak like that, when it was his intent to compliment me on my hard work? The power politics at play as well as Korean heirarchy make this almost an impossibility if I wanted to keep my job.

            The thing is, I guess it is because my interaction with Koreans is not limited to work and in the English language, and as a half Korean, I’ve been in contact with Koreans since early childhood, I perhaps am somewhat defensive and see some of the people who call the blackface incident out as attacking Korea or Koreans in general, when it is possibly true that they are not.

            At any rate, I think we both are in agreement about a lot of things regarding Korea, Koreans, and this particular incident..

          • No worries. I agree that we probably agree on a lot of things. Your blog is new to me, in part because I don’t read a lot of expat blogs in Korea… for reasons similar to those that prompted you to post this post in the first place.

            My biggest owch moment was when my former supervisor said something about how shocked he was when, in the original V series, the baby was born and it was half bla…, er, half-alien. He was sitting next to the half-Korean, half-black professor we worked with then. I was kind of shocked, though the biracial guy apparently didn’t hear it at the time.

            But stupid things have also slipped out of my mouth occasionally, and they’re shameful to me. Nobody is perfect. That I understand.

            I understand also not liking to hear generalizations of a whole race of people based on outrage about the actions of a few, and the reactions of others. Sometimes I also take umbrage and tell people off. Sometimes my own bitterness (having lived in a very bad neighborhood in Bucheon) drives me to the point where other people call me on my own overstatements and whatnot.

            And that, I think, is one thing I almost never hear expats here talk about: it’s very easy to call Koreans on their own racist attitudes and behaviours, but I suspect sometimes expats exult in it because they also are uncomfortable with the attitudes they develop as they spend more and more time here and experience various negative things here. That is to say, I suspect a lot of the people saying such things privately mock Koreans in much the same way, and some kind of sublimated guilt gets transferred onto Koreans who do the same thing of other races. Or something…

            Anyway, will poke around your blog a bit, but I hope you understand if it takes me forever. I’m a busy guy, too busy these days…

  2. Notgettingmymoney Says:

    Well, they clearly are “slow learners” because the Korea Times put out an article citing Tiger someone about his tweet. Only they called black ppl “colored”.


    Now, if referencing another ethnic group from another country, I would say, uhhhhh, but you are referencing Americans. No, joke I think the ROK govt is a menace (since it is funding the so-called wave) and intentionally seeking to divide ppl on this issue of skin color just because “they think” the Korean wave is that strong….

    • I don’t see how this says that Progressive Koreans are slow learners. Certainly use of the word colored is a mistake and quite possibly an innocent one that you can blame the Korean-English dictionary for. Should there be people carefully editing? Of course. Perhaps even an expat. If someone intended to demean blacks in the article then we would have seen more colorful language. Perhaps the people at Korea times are slow learners , sure. And yes, the wave would be best with no government direction at all

  3. […] it’s more because other bloggers have basically said practically everything I want to say.  But in a previous post I heavily criticized the sheer amount of condemnation for Korea or Koreans em….  I must reiterate again, that I don’t in any way approve of what happened.  I think that […]

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