OK – so it must be clear by now that I've developed a pretty strong interest in following this Hines Ward business. I haven't been so piqued about something for a really long time, I think it's good for me on a lot of fronts (for example I haven't slogged through a Korean newspaper article in waaay too long), and frankly, Mr. Ward's case is one of the most interesting social experiments I'd ever be able to hope to watch. And how often is a "biracial" Korean and African-American man going to take the center of the public stage? This should be fun and intellectually – and personally – interesting.
For starters, here's the most recent article I've found thanks to the help of tracking back to the sites referring people into my blog. It's an Associated Press piece distributed through Yahoo. I must say that Mr. Ward's trip is looking like it'll be blowing the dust off this issue for the first real close inspection in Korean society – ever. A tip of the hat goes to that friend I talked about in my "Korean Folks Don't Like Black People" post – sounds like her optimism about the Hines Ward visit was well-placed; my initial pessimism is quickly fading, although I do find major problems with the media treatment of the subject.
Also, someone out there has put up a summary of the subject in a Korean blog under the title "하인스 워드는 좋아도 흑인은 싫어," which translates most accurately into "I May Like Hines Ward, But Still Don't Like Black People," along with a link to my blog post "Korean Folks Don't Like Black People" and the attached comments on the subject "worth reading" and "helpful" for "government officials, reporters, and media people." Thanks, "DonQ" – the blog's never been written up in Korean before:
"이 이야기 중에 링크된 글과 Comments도 읽어볼 만 한다. 워드나 인순이, 박일준 등에 관심있는 정부관리, 기자 등 언론인이 읽어보면 도움이 되겠다."
Let me just say that if and when this trip starts turning into something that will benefit Amerasian kids, it will happen not because but despite the Korean media's original spin direction on this issue. And as awareness of Mr. Ward's visit is now seeming to be formed with an inherent inclusion of the broader issues related to Korea's attitudes towards race, of course the media will start to cover things from that angle. If that's the way people are framing the issue, in other words, the Korean media will mirror that framing. So kudos to those Korean pundits and professors, foreign bloggers, and others who raised these issues from the git-go as Mr. Ward's name has been coming up. The more we speak out, the more we help frame this visit in a way that makes it more socially useful. Now, unlike when Alice Walker came to Seoul with me sneaking in amidst the Korean press corps to ask the sole critical question in her firs press conference, I believe that someone will be bringing this subject up fo' sho' the day Hines Ward alights off that plane. And maybe the side effects of this visit will be a bit more critical introspection and general interest in social problems in South Korean society – along with the knowledge that just because it gets exposed to the outside world doesn't mean Koreans are going to keel over and die on the spot from a chronic spasm of communal shame. Ah, what an interesting social experiment this turned out to be.
Actually, I should confess that I was briefly considering conducting a social experiment of my own. After reading about a marriage service's survey that reported that over 60% of women would consider marrying a white mixed-race person, while only .4% would consider that same with a black mixed-race person, I almost up and volunteered myself to sign up to see what happened, while recording my experience along the way. But in a way, Hines Ward's coming to Korea is a much better case to watch, and there'll be a lot of media and public reaction to monitor. And anyway, there is so much artificial attention being brought to the subject – in what's looking like a good way – that the test conditions look like they'd be tainted anyway.
And I'm also happy to report that I'm pleasantly surprised with this article from The Korea Herald, which has not only surpassed my expectations for seeing this issue in a broader context, but also even alluded to one of the most important things that usually doesn't get included in almost any conversation about race – and that is its very falsity as a category, its social construction.
That's one of the reasons that I don't like to use the words "mixed" or "biracial" or "multiracial," for it simply reinforces the idea that there are "pure" races to begin with. That's the hardest thing to get away from, because the concepts are built into the structure of the language itself. How do you refer to yourself without having to say "I'm 1/2 black, 1/2 Korean?" And if you think about what that means, it's completely ridiculous. Here's a few reasons:
1) Geneticists have been insisting since the 1960's that race is a complete social fallacy and has nothing to do with biology. We're just dividing people up according to the few meaningless and highly-variable traits that we happen to be able to see. If we wanted to make more useful categorizations, I would say – although why do we have to categorize? – why not divide up according to blood type, or genes that make us susceptible to certain diseases? Maybe people with recessive sickle-cell anemia genes could avoid each other. I'm obviously being facetious here, since I don't want to live in GATTACA, but I'm sure you get the point.
2) Has "racial purity" ever been used to support anything positive? We all know the answer to that. Even the very notion, in countries in which it's accepted that there are "pure" races, is dismissed by any serious thinker. With all the mixing and mangling going on throughout the history of this peninsula, what "pure" people are we talking about again? And even on the islands that are now called Japan, how many "native" groups – Ainu and Barakumin are just ones we focus on today – came into the many back-and-forth movements of people and cultures from the mainland? Let's not even get into the use of "race" and "purity" in Nazi Germany, or the politics of creating "pure" categories in the New World to justify the system of slavery or western expansion. To quote Salman Rushdie: "Doesn't the idea of pure cultures, in urgent need of being kept free from alien contamination, lead us inexorably toward apartheid, toward ethnic cleansing, toward the gas chamber?" Heavy.
3) Why do people – especially race-obssessed Americans – feel the constant urge to categorize and classify racially? The problem with people constantly wanting to know what you "really" are is that then people assign all kinds of automatic, assumed traits/characteristics to you that you may or may not lay claim to. If I say, "I'm Korean and Black" to someone, they usually nod and say, "Ahhh" or "That makes sense." WHAT makes sense? So do I eat kim chee and do taekwondo, while singing in Baptist choirs and stealing hubcaps? As much as many Americans place stock in being able to read one's racial resumé – and in fact are often uncomfortable unless they are told what you "are" – knowing the "race" of my parents doesn't in fact say much about me. "What are your hobbies?" would even be a better question.
So how do I answer? If I am absolutely pushed to answer the question, which I often am, if I am not in the mood to make the querier uncomfortable or even pissed off for not answering, I just give them the standard, mostly factual statement: "My mother is Korean, my father African-American." I then allow people's assumptions to fill in all the blank spots that allow me to finish my dinner or conversation in peace. Most people don't think about the fact that, upon meeting someone for the first time, it isn't standard or polite procedure to ask, "Where/how did your parents meet?" or "Are you equally close to your parents?" or "How close are you to your Korean relatives" or any number of questions that I might in fact be happy to answer once I got past the point of my level of the relationship, which, for me, is usually still at "What was your name again?"
ME: "Hi. I'm Michael."
THEM: "Hi – hey! Are you mixed/biracial/multiracial/interracial/Polynesian/Malaysian/Micronesian/Samoan/Mexican/Filipino?!"
ME, OPTION #1: "Ummm, yes." (for first four options.)
ME, OPTION #2: "Ummm, no." (for anything else)
THEM, VARIATION#1: "So, what are you?"
THEM, VARIATION#2: "So, what's your nationality?"
THEM, VARIATION#3: "So, what's your ethnic background?"
ME, DODGING ANSWER #1: "American."
ME, DODGING ANSWER #2: "American."
ME, DODGING ANSWER #3: "American."
THEM: "Noooo. You know what I mean. What are you?"
ME, SCRIPTED ANSWER: "My mother is Korean, my father African-American."
THEM, POLITE VERSION: "Oh, coooooooool."
THEM, NOSY VERSION: "Oh, coooooooool. So how did they meet?"
And with the nosy people, it goes on and on, eventually getting into facts I usually reserve for closer friends – as is natural – such as the fact that my father actually passed away a few years ago. The standard response is "Oooh. I'm sorry." At that point, even the most reasonable person tends to realize that they've sort of stepped into way more personal territory than they've earned any right to, especially since they just met me 10 minutes prior. Hopefully, the wages of nosiness is indeed embarrassment, as I would like to think. And in the case of the building "pride" of Koreans in Hines Ward, I pessimistically predicted that the visit itself would bear out my belief that the wages of quick, self-centered, national pride would be cheek-burning embarrassment in the face of a huge, ironic contradiction.
But who knows? Perhaps the wages of Koreans' sudden apparent "pride" in Hines Ward will be the betterment of some of the people who share Mr. Ward's demographically difficult disposition.