Monday, February 8, 2010

Racism is Taught

I posted a few days ago about the growing popularity of an extremist group called the 'Anti-English Spectrum' recently renamed the 'Citizens of Right English Education.' The latest controversy stemmed from an interview with the leader who publicly announced that he follows (not stalks) English teachers around to try to find evidence of criminal behavior.  Anyways, this article in the Global Post, Jiyeon Lee discusses the rise of racism and problems with the increased foreign population in South Korea. The article does manage to emphasize that the media tends to exaggerate the tendency of foreign teachers to break the law, that in fact only 0.5% of the population actually were persecuted by the law in 2008. In contrast, the article makes no mention of the percent of lawbreakers among Korean teachers. 

Here is my main issue with the presentation: Jiyeon Lee hypothesizes that the growing number of foreigners has led to a rise in racism. I disagree: I believe that the increased foreign population has simply made the racism more visible as there are more opportunities to express prejudices.  Racism is taught, it isn't something that just springs up. Last year when I taught at a hagwon (and thus had more opportunities to hold classroom discussions/debates) I was appalled by how many students hated the Chinese and Japanese. When I asked why, they didn't know. They tended to say that it was something their parents had said that they had learned to believe. These were elementary school students.  When the issue of racism comes up in the media, there are lots of different ideas presented about where the racism might stem from and who is bickering with whom but very little discussion about what can be done to curb the problem. Legislation has been drawn up (though it hasn't passed yet) but legislation against hate crimes won't help my students understand the diversity of humanity better. I would love to be able to teach a multiculturalism unit beside the traditional "Where are you from? I'm from America" unit. Their class that children are required to take on Korean culture is important but perhaps it is more important to have a class on different global cultures as Korea rises to the international stage. 


Rachel S said...

I read your blog, and this is all that I could think of afterwards - a folk song that I learned years ago.
You've got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You've got to be taught
From year to year,
It's got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,
You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You've got to be carefully taught!

Nancy K said...

I have to say the same thing that Rachel did. That was used in a tv campaign against racism a good many years ago. Laws can't legislate how people think, but open discussion with children can change the way they see the world.

Christian said...

I think there's a subtle difference between xenophobia and racism that you're missing a bit here.

Alex said...

@Nancy, Rachel: I think I learned that song at Eagle's Nest. Not surprising.

@Christian: Merriam Webster defines xenophobia as: "fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners or of anything that is strange or foreign." They define racism as: "1. a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race 2. racial prejudice or discrimination"

There is definitely a solid difference between the two when you look at the concrete definitions. However, I would argue that the two are inextricably linked. In the case of Korea much of the racism stems from xenophobia but more than that, there is a variety of discrimination that happens in Korea and some of it stems from more strictly xenophobic routes and some from more purely racist origins. In either case, there still tends to be a mixture of the two. Obviously, I haven't done any formal studies on the Korean psyche but I have been obsessively reading Korean newspapers and blogs for over a year, teaching, etc and the types of things I run into seem to be much more of a blend between the two than a simple black and white definition allows for.

I would of course, be interested in hearing why/how you think I should differentiate more. I tend to use racism as an all encompassing term though as you've pointed out, it might be too heavy handed...

In either case, I tend to agree with Nancy K, the way to enact social change is not through strict policy measures but rather through a mixture of legislation and social outreach programs.

Mike in Korea said...

I would argue that it really doesn't matter in general. It feels the same to me

Alex said...

Mike, I'd have to agree with you. Regardless of the semantics the results are the same.

Christian said...

Foreigners are a relatively new phenomenon for Koreans, particularly foreigners who aren't looking to steal their kimchi and rape their women. This whole diversity thing is new to them. They're learning, but it's understandable that there would be an inherent fear of the other.

Ultimately, I feel like most of the bad things you have to deal with as a foreigner in Korea are the result of a lack of understanding above all else. They don't understand who and what we are because they've never experienced anything like this before. They have an ancient culture that has remained extremely static throughout its history suddenly being pulled into a globalized world and facing the many pressures that come with that. We're the physical embodiment of those pressures and the threat to everything Korean that is embodied in those pressures. Is their antipathy because we're white/brown/black etc., or is it because we're the change they don't want to see in the world?

Alex said...

I don't think the question can be split into a dichotomy like that. The problem is much more blended and difficult to divide derivations from. Granted, for some Koreans the feeling might stem from one or the other but even antipathy toward a skin color is indicative of the limited rate of change in Korean society until very recently. Foreign colors are foreign because the culture was isolated; it's all interrelated.

Isn't racism/xenophobia/prejudice always a lack of understanding that people are all equal humans despite any differences that we might see on the surface?

Christian said...

At some point it definitely gets into semantics that mean pretty much nothing. Regardless, I'm largely willing to give Korea a pass. I really don't think they know any better half the time, and considering how small the foreigner population is here, and the fact that the only foreigners who are citizens are the ones who marry Koreans, I don't know why the government would bother to waste any legislative breath on protections for us, assuming that we didn't have the king of all xenophobes in the Blue House (which we do).

Ultimately, what makes it xenophobic and not racist to me is the fact that Koreans hate EVERYONE that's not Korean, regardless of race. Everyone that's not Korean is a diseased criminal.

But at the end of the day, I would say that my foreignness gets me more positive attention than negative in Korea. As much as I don't want drunk Korean guys asking where I'm from and talking to me about the Red Sox, they don't mean harm. They're genuinely curious, even if they don't know where to start in approaching me. They mean well. There are definitely the times where they're total bastards as a result of me being a waiguk-in, but the times they're extra nice far outnumber those.

Alex said...