Sunday, March 14, 2010

Racism in Korea

As part of the public school curriculum, I'm suppose to show certain video clips during my lessons to "teach" the students. They're mostly pretty bad and often unintentionally hilarious - there are some examples here, here and here - but aside from teaching poor pronunciation and awkward (and sometimes flat out incorrect) phrasing, and making me snort in the middle of class, they aren't actually harmful. Right?

Last week, I taught a lesson with a claymation fashion show. The video shows the three contestants being interviewed about where they're from and what they like, illustrating the key expression of the lesson - where are you from? I previewed the video before class and the first two contestants were all right. Nami's from Korea and she likes kimchi, gee that's original. Ann is a basketball playing cowgirl from the USA. Okay, I guess those are both facets of our cultural heritage, albeit two that rarely meet. And then I saw Miss Uganda, Jane.

6-1-4 Where Are You From?

Oh my holy hell. That's blackface. That's CLAYMATION BLACKFACE! And while there is at least the other two characters are dressed in the "native costumes" and a token reference is made to the represented cultures, Jane is stuck in some Tarzan-esque loincloth and tells the MC how she had fun visiting her uncle in Japan. I've lost count of the number of things that's wrong with this scene.

Any expat will tell you that Korea can be a racist society - against foreigners in general and people with darker skin in particular. When my former school ask my opinion on their perspective new native teachers, I was bluntly told they wanted someone white. I've even seen blackface in advertising before. Korea was a hermit country for a long time and they seem to be far behind the West in terms of race relations. (I am in no way suggesting that there isn't racism in America, just that we've reached a point where it is generally viewed as a bad thing.)

It took me a while to articulate why I am so enraged by this. I've been in Korea long enough to no longer be shocked by Korea's prejudices and it's not like I expected my sixth graders' textbook to an advocate for cultural sensitivity, but the fact still remains that this is part of the national curriculum, which means that multiple people, all of whom presumable have some passing familiarity with Western culture, saw this sketch and approved it. This isn't some one off gimmick thought up by some jackass in marketing as a tool to sell more ice cream bars. This isn't the racism of an individual person, like my old principal telling me he would only hire a white woman to replace me. This is a public institution choosing to turn an entire culture into a cheep laugh from bored students. This is an institutionalized racism that's being taught to children, and it made me pull at my hair in rage and frustration.

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