The spotlight on racism in Korea is getting brighter and brighter. Like most countries in the world, Korea has unaddressed issues related to discrimination. However, it is important to understand the roots of racism in Korea and how it differs from that of our own countries. This is the only way we can progress toward understanding each other and creating a more equal society.
The issue of racism in Korea has been in the spotlight for a while now and with each passing day, it is grabbing more people’s attention internationally. This is only natural as more people have become interested in Korean culture. People all over the world study Korean cuisine, history, traditions, language, and culture. With so much interest, people also began to wonder if they can come here and be part of this society they have come to love.
However, no matter how amazing a place might seem on the internet, there isn’t a place that is perfect in this world. And so, as people dive deeper into Korean culture, they will eventually come across the bad parts as well.
Despite the propaganda that was created and is maintained by so many, this country, like any other, does social problems. There are problems here related to gender, financial inequality, hierarchy, competition, birth rate, and property ownership. However, if you are experiencing Korea from a foreigner’s perspective, the first thing you will likely come across is racism.
Today I want to address this problem because it is something every foreigner here has experienced to some degree and talks about regularly. It is a very important topic that needs to be talked about. But, in my opinion, most of the discussions are not productive or correct.
Background of Racism in Korea
When foreigners talk about racism in Korea, they tend to bring their Western history and background to the table, which is very wrong.
To be able to understand and problematize aspects of a certain group of people, you should analyze the history of its society first. Racial problems that are faced in the West are mostly, if not always, related to imperialism and slavery.
However, Korea did not have the same history of imperialism and slavery that the west had. Historically, Korea has been the victim of Japanese, Chinese, and Mongolian invasion and imperialism. They were never successfully colonized by Europeans. In fact, Joseon was known as the hermit kingdom and was one of the last countries in the world to interact with Europeans.
As for slavery, it did exist in Korea. However, it was not based on skin color or race. Instead, it was based on a caste system reinforced by Confucian ideology.
As a result, you really should not include western historical events in your explanation of racism in Korea. Instead, start by learning some East Asian countries’ histories, mainly China, Japan, Mongolia, and Korea. Once you understand these countries’ histories and the influences they had on each, you will start to understand racism in Korea in a completely new way.
The Race Issues
Although the background is different, to say that that there is no racism in Korea is a lie.
Generally, foreigners are welcome in Korea. However, they are expected to be in certain areas and fulfill certain societal roles. When you are in an unwanted place, the racism becomes clear. You can be walking down streets in big cities and suddenly some groups of people are not allowed in certain places. Or, if you try to work in Korea you will find that your application will be accepted only for certain positions, regardless of your actual qualifications.
As a result of Korea’s colonial history with neighboring countries, Koreans have created a vigorous identity based on their nationality. A lot of racism in Korea is directed toward their neighbors. Chinese and Japanese people are undoubtedly the most hated groups in Korea. Meanwhile, South Asians face a lot of negative stereotypes in their daily lives.
As for the number and division of foreigners in Korea, we are currently less than 5% of the population. And although most of the international attention is focused on racism towards foreigners from western countries, they are actually the minority and not the most discriminated against groups.
About half of all foreigners in Korea are Chinese. Next, the most populous are foreigners from Vietnam and then Thailand. The United States is at number four. Next is Uzbekistan, Russia, Philipines, Cambodia, Mongolia, and Nepal which make up the top ten nationalities of foreigners in Korea.
As you can see from the statistics, the western minority has become the leading voice on discrimination in Korea.
Koreans and Black People
I see a lot of comments on racism in Korea against black people, especially from KPOP fans. What usually starts the discussions is how Koreans don’t like tanned skin and how they are constantly having procedures to whiten their skin.
First of all, yes. That is true. Koreans will do everything in their power to prevent tanning and they value those who are paler more. Is that colorism? Yes. But, is that a result of anti-black racism? No. Many people seem to think that Koreans are whitening their skin to be like Europeans. However, the Korean obsession with pale skin predates westerners reaching the peninsula.
This way of thinking dates back hundreds, if not thousands of years. I am talking way before European imperialism even started. This is pre- African enslavement – OG colorism that never died out. People from higher classes stayed indoors and were pale while low-class people labored in fields, which caused them to tan. Korean colorism stems from hierarchy, poor hard-working laborers have and continue to be looked down on in Korean society.
The perceptions Koreans have about black people is not just about skin color. It goes much deeper than that and frankly, America is mostly to blame.
Most of the misconceptions Koreans have about the black community is a result of American media. NGO advertisements, news, and cinema all contributed to negative perceptions. American-based NGOs still show starving children in Africa on repeat with the intention of getting Koreans to donate. This has done a lot to apply domestic Korean colorism to black people as an entire race.
As far as news goes, the Los Angeles riots in the 1990s in Korea Town are still largely framed as black violence against Koreans. They played American news clips in Korea during that time. And ever since, whenever there are any instances of Black people committing crimes in America against Koreans, even minor incidents, it headlines here.
Finally, and perhaps the biggest factor in Koreans’ negative perceptions of black people comes from Holly wood. Korea’s first introduction to black people was a result of American TV shows and movies. I have met people who said that they never had any personal experience with black people but they remembered their representation in Hollywood movies as gangsters, thugs, and drug addicts.
No Anti-Discrimination Law
To make racism in Korea more complex, there are no laws prohibiting discrimination of any kind. Discrimination for anything – gender, race, disabilities, none of it is illegal. This reflects how little it has been discussed here among Koreans. And, it leaves us with no real measurement of how widespread the problem actually is.
Not having penalties for racist behaviors makes it harder to point out bad actions before they get to a point where foreigners are in danger. Bringing awareness about the topic also becomes a harder task when there is no backing up from governmental institutions.
If we want to address racism in Korea, passing an anti-discrimination law is the first step. It has been proposed several times but has never succeeded in being passed into law. Even if you are living abroad, this is the topic that you should be addressing when you discuss racism in Korea. It will never become a reality without international pressure.
Brighter Future Ahead
Although the problem exists, it is possible to see the new generations being more open to talking and fighting for foreigners’ rights. Korean society is now having exposure to people from so many parts of the world with different backgrounds, globalization is not a one-way street. We are slowly moving towards an understanding and acceptance of diversity.
If you would like to learn more about discrimination in South Korea, Click Here to read about the experiences of one queer person in Korea.