I've been blogging for a long time. More than that, I've been blogging since before there was a word for it. My first blog was an attempt to write my observations on race and culture via my experience as a "mixed race" person in America and Korea on a website I maintained all by my lonesome. The idea was that since me being of Korean and Black descent means that people seem to find me "interesting," I would write something thoughtful that such people might want to read; still, from my perspective, I don't see myself as all too interesting at all. Yet, it was a good excuse to write some essays, one of which ended up getting published in the Koream Journal. A small point of pride – I got to be a published writer!
Anyway, back from the year 2000, I was publishing short, chapter-length pieces to the web – on a site that I am loathe to link to, but would rather pick and choose pieces to republish here one by one if parts become suddenly relevant – and encouraged the close friends to whom I sent the link to write back with feedback. I would wait with bated breath for any word about my writing; it encouraged me, and I pounded out quite a bit of it.
When I first returned to Korea to conduct dissertation research in 2002, I was writing a lot, as my head was simply swimming with ideas, thoughts, flashes of inspiration. Much of it ended up being read the next day as waves of embarrassment rushed over me – "inspiration" followed by hurried typing at 3 in the morning often turns into revulsion upon reading what you wrote while not high on Diet Coke and ramen. I wrote about "Why Korea Can't Be Global," and many other small pieces that arrogated themselves to being worthy of being published somewhere.
But sometimes, I wrote "letters to Korea." They were really more like healthy ways of venting anger, written for the purposes I write this blog, which is partially to spark more critical but constructive thought about Korean society, as well as partially to keep my thinking and writing sharp. When writing a letter mostly to oneself, the latter reasons are the more realistic. Still, it also felt good to say what I wanted to say, even if I only tortured my friends with them in mass emails.
Enter the Blog. Now we have these communities growing up around writers, formed out of political sympathies with the writer, his or her apparent skill in the crafting of words, and the chance to exchange ideas with members of the same community voluntary community.
I have pulled up an old "Letter to Korea" that I wrote sometime in early 2003, when I was still recovering from the negative experiences had here in Korea after the middle school girls furor had blown over. The Bubble Sisters, a music group in the spirit of Gloria Gaynor meets The Weather Girls, released a couple hits with the questionable gimmick of dressing up in black face. I posted once about this several months ago, but I never published my full-on take on this issue. Here's my piece, taken raw from early 2003 and not edited; it's a real blast in the past for me, so please excuse the rawness of the piece. I've lifted it from an old file as-as and sharing you with it now. I tried not to edit it much, because I don't want to alter this slice of my mind from three years ago, so I left things be, outside of fixing a few awkward phrases and cleaning up obvious structural mistakes. But the message is just like I left it – so I think it's pretty honest.
Although the Bubble Sisters' incident is now in the past, the issues that it raises, as we have been seeing in recent weeks, are quite relevant. So please note that this is a slice of the Metropolitician before taking on that moniker, that this "Letter to Korea" wasn't originally written with this particular audience in mind, and that I offer it here as a curious glance at my thinking on this subject, much earlier in my present stint here. If there are differences between me now and then, bring them up, ask about them. But give me the leeway to have changed stances about things over the course of three entire years living in "Dynamic Korea." Also note that I'm experimenting with the big "anchor quote" thing that magazines use to keep readers interested and not totally bored when reading long pieces, as well as a lot of links and accompanying images that weren't present in the original "Letter." Let's see how much they help with understanding my points.
And heeeeeere we go!
Blast from My Past: "Black Culture, Not Black People"
Some Koreans were surprised to hear that many Americans, upon seeing the Bubble Sisters on television,
were absolutely horrified. Blackface is arguably the most offensive and painful symbol of racism in American history. It is painful even to watch in American history classes, and it is definitely one thing Americans never joke about. Americans generally have a pretty liberal sense of humor, but no one laughs when one is shown images of the black "pickaninny" smiling and dancing for white folks. It is a remnant of post-slavery discriminatory culture, when Blacks could not look a white man in the eye without fear of being attacked, and one could disappear in the night, never to be seen alive again. For Koreans who don't know, blackface in America is associated with racism, hatred, and the legacy of slavery. Old television shows and cartoons showing blackface are never shown in public anymore; it's not illegal - it's just that no one wants to see it. It's simply not funny.
"I have to understand that Korean people's prejudices about Black people and others with dark skin come mostly out of ignorance, not a history of hatred."
So when I was standing in a Chungmuro photo store last month waiting for negatives to be developed, I was shocked to see four young women performing the Weather Sisters' song "It's Raining Men" in blackface. I have seen a lot of things in my life, but I was standing with my mouth open, in utter disbelief.
Now I have lived in Korea for a long time as a Black man, and speak Korean well enough to talk with people and get a feeling for the culture. I know that there are not many Black people in Korea, and that much of what Korean people think they know about Blacks come from mostly negative images in American movies and television. I understand that most Korean people have never talked to a Black person, even though many people think they know what Black people must be like. I have to understand that Korean people's prejudices about Black people and others with dark skin come mostly out of ignorance, not a history of exploitation, fear, and hatred.
I even have an understanding heart when I sometimes see a Black man with a Korean woman on a subway and every single person on the train stares at them, and young girls laugh and even point. Even though dark-skinned people, especially Black people, live less-than-human lives here in Korea (even as those with white skin are nearly figures of worship), I can understand Korean people and society enough to know that these reactions are largely the results of not knowing any better.
I've lived in Korea for more than three years in total, having worked as a Fulbright in Korean middle schools in Chejudo, focusing on Korean Studies in graduate school, then returning to study more of the language, and staying here this time to finish my dissertation research, and work with Korean kids in alternative schools. I have Korean friends, family, and was even able to endure the anti-Americanism of recent months. Even though I have friends, men and women, who were regularly verbally assaulted, prevented from going in some stores and restaurants, and I know of a few people who were even hit just for looking like an American, I had an understanding heart about the matter. I know Korean history and recent frustrations with Bush and the American government. Even though I and most young people voted for Gore and don't think at all highly of Bush and our conservative government, I understood why many Koreans wanted to lash out at me and people like me, even though I did not think it fair to blame individuals for the actions of their government. I certainly hope that Russians and Filipinos don't blame Korean tourists for the fact that many of these women have been tricked and forced into prostitution, and that their governments have asked the Korean government to alter the E6 "entertainment" visa, which was a thin disguise for importing cheaper sex workers for Korean cabarets, nightclubs, and other establishments. Of course many Korean people are nor even aware, nor are they responsible for their government's tacit support of exploitation of other country's women. And they should not be harrassed, spit upon, or physically attacked, no matter how angry Russian or Filipino people might become. So even though I was disappointed to hear about such things happening to Americans here - something not at all reported in the Korean media - I was able to be understanding.
But as I watched the Bubble Sisters video that day, I seriously questioned why I even bothered to be here. I really questioned how such a horrible emblem of hatred could find itself onto Korean television. Even though most Koreans are unaware of the history of blackface, surely those responsible for creating the look could not have been. The images were not just people putting on dark makeup and trying to look more like black people, as I saw Roora do in the 1990s, but it was blackface done PERFECTLY. It was not accidental - it required someone to research these images, downloading pictures, printing them, and then using them to create the makeup and hairstyles. All of the old images were there, including the "pickaninny", who is the chubby character with little sections of hair sticking out from all over the head. The red lips, dramatic looks of silly surprise or happiness, and the childish pajama costumes were all elements of the "minstrel shows" of the early 1900s. It is absolutely impossible for those who researched these images to not have known that these images are considered to be the absolute lowest expression of racism in American history. These images are not easy to find; you have to know what you're looking for, and once you find these images, they are usually a part of books and articles about the mistakes of racist Hollywood images and the history of American discrimination. For the person/people researching the topic, feigning ignorance is like trying to say that someone trying to find a recipe for kimchee on the internet, who then reproduces the look and taste of it perfectly, did not happen to notice that it is a Korean dish. "Oh, it's Korean? I didn't see that." Then how did you get the asian cabbage, 고추가루, and 쩟? It's not very plausible.
One can't really blame the performers themselves. I have heard the story about how the girls were told that they were ugly, and despite their talent, would not be able to succeed without a gimmick.
"Ugly" Korean women – The Bubble Sisters sans blackface
This makes sense, since I see so many untalented singers on M-Net who simply have no singing talent and have obviously done or given something to someone in order to be there. I know that this is a society in which appearance counts above all else for women; it makes sense that this is also the country that has, if I am not mistaken, the highest rate of plastic surgery per capita in the world. But you can't blame the women who take the surgery option to get a job, or a man, or an opportunity to sing on television. You have to look at the society that in general values women more for their bodies than their minds. So in this context, the blackface gimmick makes a certain amount of perverse sense.
But unfortunately that makes the present situation more ironic, since this makes a subtle link between blackness and ugliness. "If the Bubble Sisters are too ugly to show their true face in public, no matter how talented they are, then why not just make them look like black people? Wouldn't that be funny?" Unfortunately, few Americans would. And I would bet my firstborn that no black American would. But again, look around. Do you see any black people here?
Have you ever wondered why there are almost none, besides the few soldiers that are sent here, largely against their will? (Korea, I am told by members of the military, is the absolute bottom of the list request for newly recruited soldiers, partially because of the real military threat and also because it is known for being a very unfriendly place to GI's). Well, as MBC reported last month, although it is something that I already knew – Korean hagwons won't accept black instructors, no matter how qualified they are. Why, you ask? The answer's easy. Because we all know that moms across the country want the best possible instruction for their kids, so if they see a black instructor, they may assume that the person is less qualified. Which hagwon would you send your kid to – the one with the tall white man who looks like those people you see on TV, or the black man who might be qualified, but first we have to see his qualifications, resumes, references, etc. He just doesn't "look" as smart. From the hagwon owner's perspective, it's not his or her fault - they've got a business to run, no? They're not discriminating, but just responding to reality. It's funny that this is what real estate agents in America have always said when they refused to take black customers who wanted to move into white neighborhoods, or restaurant owners who would not allow blacks to eat there, or black children to go to schools with whites. "I'm not racist - it's just the way things are. I can't change that. I'd go out of business." It's ironic that Black Americans face the same kind of discrimination everywhere in the world, even in Korea.
"One taxi driver here I spoke with told me that he tried to make a point of picking up foreigners that night because...he had heard reports on his radio that some Americans had been beaten up."
But this isn't new to me. Korean folks, no matter how much they claim to be culturally liberated, are very much in the thrall of American ideology, especially when it comes to race. In fact, I even think this is one of the inner conflicts that fuels recent bouts of anti-Americanism among youth. Don't get me wrong - there are lots of reasons to resent the inconsistency and inherent selfishness of American policy towards the Koreas and the rest of the world. But that's not the discussion I'm having right now. I'm talking about a different thing - the long-standing relationship with the United States that did not end in the 1990s, during the time of increased consumerism, longings for reconnection with a so-called "lost" past, and increasing expressions of national pride. I wasn't here for the World Cup, and to be frank - I'm saying what few would say in public - I'm very glad I missed it. As a typical American, I don't have much interest in soccer, and personally, not much interest in spectator sports. I respect Korean national pride, but I didn't think that a true pride was being expressed there. It felt more like what it was - rooting for the home team, disguised as proud nationalism. I understand that it was fun, and I probably would have had some fun myself had I been here. But from a serious perspective, painting oneself red, cheering, praying, and even crying for the home team is simply an exaggerated love for the team. It's a place where pride in the nation happens to overlap with who you want to win the game. It's fun, but pretty meaningless.
"The flip side of national pride is ugly jingoism, and the line dividing the two a fragile and fickle one. "
I think superficial national pride masks a lot of things. Like the fact that many Americans I talked to - who were not sports fans - actually say they were relieved that Korea won the game, because they literally feared for their safety if America had. That sentiment was backed up in a news report online that noted that security had been doubled for the Korea-America game, and that the officers on duty that day were also relieved to not have to handle an unruly crowd. I have heard many stories from other Americans here at that time about Americans cheering for their team - or even those just simply walking around - being verbally harassed or physically assaulted. One taxi driver here I spoke with told me that he tried to make a point of picking up foreigners that night because he heard that many taxi drivers were refusing to do so, and also that he had heard reports on his radio that some Americans had been beaten up. So he simply felt to 미안해 to them and made an extra effort that night. And I'm sure there were many others like him. But had I been in Korea that night, I am sure that I would have stayed at home and watched it on TV. The flip side of national pride is ugly jingoism, and the line dividing the two a fragile and fickle one.
Yet Hiddink is worshipped like a god. And I don't use that word lightly. I do mean "worship." When I saw Hiddink on television around two months ago, a talk show had invited him for a retrospective on his coaching and victory, and the audience was treated to the standard slow motion shots of hugging, crying, and cheering on the field. People on the street were asked to give their greetings to Hiddink, thanking him for what he had done for Korea, while girls squealed and screamed that he was their hero, men wanted to drink with him, etc. The only thought on my mind was that he was truly Korea's perfect hero.
He was taking the place that had already been created in Korean post-war culture, but could not be occupied because of a new kind of pride that wanted to distance itself from America. But he was older, white, and reasonably good-looking. He was the new MacArthur, the great white father himself, reborn. The older generation, which is quickly dying out, has fond memories of MacArthur's fabled landing at Incheon. Now the younger generation, a little more jaded and cynical about showing any signs of 사대주의 (the Korean historical/cultural idea of "deference to the greater") to a so-called "big brother," can have a new hero arriving at Incheon, although this time on a plane and not American. But he's just as white, old, and authoritative. And he does the unexpected, taking Korea further than it ever could have gone without him, using unconventional techniques and old-fashioned wisdom. Only this time it was with a soccer ball.
But what has Hiddink really done for Korea? Before I try to address that question, I have to say something that I think all foreigners think about, but won't say in public. Koreans worship American, and by extension, white people. OK - I'm making a broad generalization, but for the sake of discussion, I'll just speak in generalities. The smell of the old colonial big brother/little relationship is as strong as it ever was. Did Korean women try to shape their faces and bodies along Western features before the arrival of the Americans? No. Korea has the highest concentration of fast food restaurants than I've ever seen, even in the United States. I've eaten more hamburgers in Korea than I have in my entire life in the States. People dress like white Americans (when dressing casually), listen to popular music that reproduces and follows the exact same popular genres in America, eagerly consume American popular culture, and generally live the same lifestyle that capitalist consumerism dictates. Korea has been a good "pupil" of the US, in that it is in many ways more devoutly Christian and anti-Communist that the US has been for years. What's so independent about Korean mass culture, besides what the state and media tells the public?
I'm not trying to denigrate Hiddink. He was a great coach and helped the Korean national team immensely. But has he done more for Korea than the hundreds of thousands of dark-skinned wage laborers that so many people won't even look in the eye on the subway? These are the people who do all the things that are too dirty and dangerous for Korean laborers. Unions have formed, wages have gone up, working conditions for Koreans have improved, and society has become highly-industrialized and information oriented. Korea has enough money now to bring in low-wage workers to do all of its dirty work. It's an inevitable fact of capitalism and development, and the same things happened in the States, although not in such a compressed period of time. But when a white man opens his mouth and stutters out an "anyoong ha sheemneekers" in public, everyone is so happy and surprised and flattered. The white American standing on the subway usually has all kinds of people come talk to him or her during the course of the day. What of the tired brown man who gets on the subway every day and has lived in this country for ten years, speaks fluent Korean, and has worked his skin to the bone keeping the labor capacity in this country cheap and efficient? An Indian man living here is absolutely invisible. Although it's possible to become a permanent resident or citizen, the standards in reality are kept so high that they are nearly impossible to meet. These people can't send their kids to Korean schools, although many of these children have been born here and have never stepped foot in their parents' country. Yet Hiddink, who has no intention of living in Korea or struggling as a member of society here is offered honorary citizenship. In fact, it's not even simply that - it's a special visa status designed to allow Korea to make the show that it is open to the outside. Although this image is a lie, it sometimes can be if you fit the role of Great White Father.
In this way, Korea is America's star pupil in its worship of whiteness. Getting back to the Bubble Sisters, the one thing that this recent incident makes clear to me is the fact that Korea has related itself to Blackness in exactly the same way whites - well-intentioned or not - have in the States. Youth culture, these days, seems to love Black culture. Gangster rap, R&B, and soul styles have been stolen from Black culture ever since Seo Taiji and the Boys took its style from Cypress Hill in its fourth album, back in 1995. Well, actually, there were cases before that, but I don't need to make a list. Turn on the TV and you can easily see young Korean "gangster" rappers mimicking and aping what they THINK black people act like and how they live, pretty girls on each arm, looking tough, sneering at the camera. The Bubble Sisters say they were praising black culture in their use of blackface. They say they had no idea it was offensive. The sad and funny this is that I actually believe them.
"Only in a culture so deeply in the thrall of whiteness, and filled with a similar animosity towards blackness, can black culture be so ignorantly insulted."
Only in a culture so deeply in the thrall of whiteness, and filled with a similar animosity towards blackness, can black culture be so ignorantly insulted. It is precisely because Korea prefers BLACK CULTURE WITHOUT ACTUAL BLACK PEOPLE that disgraces such as the recent blackface incident is possible. It is not an innocent misunderstanding, or an honest mistake. It is a sign of the deep enmity Korea has for those it considers racially inferior. The United States has always had the exact same love-hate relationship with black people. "We love their food, music, and women. We just don't like to be around them." Contrary to popular belief, many white Southerners swear that they LOVE black people, and always have. As long as they "know their place." That's the key assumption that's never stated. In Korea, people can say that Korea loves Black culture and people - as long as they don't live here. This blackface incident is just a part of the general social ignorance about black people that is actually the result of an underlying, strong distaste for people with dark skin. Part of this distaste is related to the the fact that foreign assistance and short-term labor is wanted, but foreigners are not. Not in any sizable numbers, anyway.
So - as I looked at the remaining signs from the World Cup days, that are getting ever harder to find as they get cleaned up and taken down, I am bemused. The signs that encouraged Korean people to smile at foreigners is the most amusing. The only time it's important to be concerned about Korea's treatment of foreigners is at the time when the eyes of the world are upon it, and the government and business interests are eagerly anticipaiting tourists' money. As a foreigner who can read such signs in Korean, I feel the effort was a little cheap, a little ungenuine. Has the culture really experienced "internationalization," or "globalization," or any of the other fancy catch-phrases of the last ten years? Not in any significant way. Look at the irony of the World Cup. Korea tried its hardest to make a good name for itself in the eyes of the world and attract tourists to the games it had been planning for almost 7 years. I hear people talk about how international and open Korea felt during that time. But only months later, the "Fucking U.S.A." song had been revived, 미국놈 is the word of choice at rallies and websites expressing anger at the deaths of 미선 and 효순, and Americans are being verbally and physically harassed in the streets. I read the bulletin board of antimigun.org regularly, where I had been told to go to "learn more about the 사건," and was treated to educational and informative postings such as "I'm going to kill the next 미국놈 I see," or the one that posted a picture of a black GI and a Korean woman merely standing in the same frame, with the caption "A traitor to her race" with people saying that this "slut" should be "executed" for sleeping with "animals." Even after the recent demonstrations died down, at the recent anti-war rallies, I heard the word 미국놈 in several of the speeches at the rally, even though an American was one of the invited speakers. I'm glad he couldn't speak Korean in that case. I wonder whether any Korean people mentioned the fact that he had been repeatedly insulted, even though he agreed with the cause the Koreans were fighting for.
"60 Minutes," America's longest-running news show, had a full segment about Korean anti-Americanism last month. Despite such horrible displays, I know truly hateful people are the minority here, and that anti-Americanism is not as serious as it appears on the surface. I was disappointed to hear about the 60 Minutes piece, not because it was inaccurate, but because Korea's expressions of anger towards the US, many with which I agree, were doing more to hurt the country than help it. What else does the foreign press see? What can you expect of reporters, no matter how knowledgeable, who don't live here? I had a friend planning to come visit me in May, her first trip to Asia. Along with the tensions with NK, she was concerned for her safety as an American. Despite the fact that I explained many things to her, she simply felt too uncomfortable to come. She canceled her trip, which she had been looking forward to for more than a year. This story is not unique, and many foreign tourists do not have friends trying to convince them to come to Korea.
"We know about the "ganguro" girls who darken their skin and try to make themselves look "black." But these displays are not taken as insults as much as mere expressions of how much certain Japanese youth really like Black culture."
Displays of ignorance like the Bubble Sisters' use of blackface simply hurt Korea. They prove the assumptions of the outside world that Koreans are close-minded and racist. They are not going to stop and think about whether or not the Bubble Sisters knew what they were doing. And it is wrong to blame the members of the group, who are talented young women I only wish the best of luck to, but without blackface. My only point is that in a truly internationalized and globalized culture, the people who should know better would simply know not to do things like this. In a country that actually had enough black people who were listened to and whose opinions were valued, this would never happen. In Japan, a country I rarely laud, hip hop groups have always made Tokyo a major stop on their world tours. Japanese fans of black music actually know something about it, to the extent that black DJ's and performers have always included Japan as part of the black music scene. The Source, America's monthly magazine and authority on hop hop culture, always covers the Japanese hip hop scene. We know about the "ganguro" girls who darken their skin and try to make themselves look "black."
But these displays are not taken as insults as much as mere expressions of how much certain Japanese youth really like Black culture. Even if you don't buy this, at the very least it is a true Japanese creation that "plays" with racial markers, that being dark skin, blonde hair, peach lipstick, etc. It's not hip-hop, rap, or anything American. It's undeniably – and quirkily – Japanese. As an African-American, I don't feel insulted, but rather somewhat bemused. They seem to have their own thang going on, and it's alright. To me, it feels more akin to a celebration of "ghetto fabulous" than a form of racial "slumming."
That is the context within which one can argue that such emulation can be seen as a compliment. But within a culture of complete ignorance and cultural theft of Black culture here in Korea – or the flip side, being the reproduction of white racist images of black people – the Bubble Sisters' intended "compliment" is something I can take as nothing more than an insult of the lowest and vilest degree.
But rather than excoriate the performers themselves, Korean people reading this article should take a good, honest look at the cultural attitudes and alignments that allowed such an embarrassing thing to happen. As an outsider, my perspective is the most valuable thing I can offer to people who live here. I mean this critique to be constructive; but sometimes my patience is really tested, and I wonder why I even bother. Although it may seem self-serving to say, I don't mean this to be narcissistic: in the long run, well-meaning cultural critics such as myself are exactly the ones Korea can ill afford to lose. Hopefully the response to this incident will give me more reason to maintain the optimistim that continues to allow me to believe that Korea really intends to strive for a goal of a truly "global mind." Because if they don't, burned out former-allies-turned-enemies who take home only negative things to say about this country will have much more power to shape the outside world's opinion of South Korea than any World Cup or Olympic festivals. The world is watching now, South Korea – are you ready to step up to the plate and live according to your so-far empty slogans of "globalization" and dreams of being a world leader? It's time to walk the walk or continuing to talk the talk, as they say.