Sunday, February 04, 2007

Connecting the SuperBowl to the controversial issue of discrimination in Korea

Discrimination in Korea

Hines Ward, last year's SuperBowl MVP of the Pittsburgh Steelers, has used his celebrity to act as a force of social change in Korea (and for other social issues in the U.S.) bringing attention to issues of racism. Hines, the son of an African-American soldier and Korean mother, has made multiple trips to Korea and created a foundation to raise awareness about discrimination against people of multi-racial heritage.

As our class seems to represent a diverse set of experiences in Asia (and in honor of SuperBowl Sunday and Hines Ward), I thought I would put the controversial topic of discrimination in Korea on the table.

Discrimination, especially on account of race, is a contentious and multi-faceted topic steeped in the unique historical context of the particular society in question. Addressing the topic discrimination from a variety of perspectives (as Koreans, as Korean-Americans, as Americans in Korea, as Americans studying Korea, as Japanese or Chinese students with experience in Korea and in the U.S., etc.) can shed light on different aspects of the complex, tangled web of power, privilege and oppression and how these are manifested in behavior of governments, groups and individuals in the case of Korea.

Some interesting variables in the case of Korea:

-Korea's history of colonization: Korea has a complex and painful history of being discriminated against. Does a history of being part of an oppressed group (such as Korea during the Japanese Colonial period) make that group (Koreans) more prone to discriminate when they are in a position of power? Does it make a group more sympathetic to issues of subordination and discrimination?

-Continued American military presence: Is discrimination against the American military possible? Given the continued presence and power of the American military, despite prejudice and animosity felt towards the American military and Americans more generally, can we argue that Koreans still lack the power to racially discriminate against Americans?

-Recent economic development: Now that the South Korean economy has grown to such a level where workers are now being imported from countries with lesser-developed economies (primarily other Asian countries), does race serve as an indicator of class? Is race the factor that is being actively discriminated against? Is race a guise for class?

-Korea's increased international role: As Korea becomes a greater player on the world stage, as more foreign attention and business comes to Korea (bringing more foreign companies as well as workers), will Korea have to address discriminatory policies and behaviors in order to become a more prominent international player?

-White privilege: Even in society where Caucasians are in the extreme minority, can white privilege exist? What are the bounds of white privilege? Is privilege about treatment or can white privilege go so far as to include standards of beauty (seeing pictures of Caucasians on beauty products, etc.)? Is white privilege an issue just for foreigners or does it pertain to Koreans as well? As as example, in my case as a white woman in Korea (and not in the case of Hines Ward or many Korean-Americans), my national identity as an American was never questioned. Moreover, white foreigners are, overwhelmingly, treated as superstars instead of being greeted with disbelief or discrimination.

-Racial and ethnic homogeneity: Given the racial and ethnic homogeneity in Korea combined with the Confucian emphasis on bloodlines, diversity is not a part of the social reality for most Koreans (especially Koreans living outside of Seoul), nor has it been espoused as a cultural value. Should cultural awareness and acceptance be a priority on the social agenda?

Hines Ward offers an interesting case - he can't be placed into any box. Not only is he part-Korean, but he offers an example that America is multi-cultural and multi-racial. I hope that his celebrity in Korea not only brings attention to discrimination against people of multi-racial heritage, but people of color more generally, including foreign workers in Korea.



Sean said...

There are a lot of interesting thoughts here, and I can't get into all of them, but a couple things stick out to me.

First, the Hines Ward situation should be viewed with skepticism. The media like to portray it as an example of how Korean culture has evolved to be more accepting of mixed race Koreans. But honestly, this has nothing to do with acceptance and everything to do with success. Ward is a star in the most popular sport in the most prominent nation in the world. Otherwise, he would just be another black/Korean that people shake their heads at.

Others may note that there are a few mixed race Korean actors who are extremely popular in Korea right now, such as Daniel Henney. But the important distinction is that these actors are half white. If they were half black then they would not be nearly as popular. It is unfortunate but true that racism runs rampant in Korean culture, and the darker you are, the more racism you encounter (Thais and Vietnamese are viewed more favorably than Cambodians or Indonesians).

Kirk said...

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