I’ve just read a post on Africa is a Country, a blog I follow eagerly for its insightful comments on how Africa is seen and portrayed. However, this post in particular left me somewhat frustrated, not because the base argument – i.e. that South-Korea has race issues – but the way the author writes about it, which shows considerable ignorance with South-Korea and its myriad of issues it faces in terms of their economic success, ethnic homogeneity, its history of having either China or Japan calling the shots in their own country before the second world war, with the latter committing several incidents of genocide in the process; not to mention the issues that ignited the Korean War in the fifties when the United States decided to work out their initial issues in the Cold War on Korean soil, with Korean lives, and laying the foundation of the North-South divide that persists until today.
The article on Africa is a Country was written as a response to an ad for a new brand of cigarettes in South-Korea, called “This is Africa”, which was withdrawn after global outcry by the company. Of course, it ha some lame excuses to why they essentially portrayed Africans as monkeys, my argument would be ignorance or stupidity, probably both, flavoured by racial prejudice.
Yet, what was really frustrating was the author of the post in question purporting that there is a prevailing “whiteness” in South-Korea, implying that Koreans either have some – or simply have, full stop – white privelege. This doesn’t make sense; for sure that South-Korea has economic privelege, ironically it gained its status as an Asian Tiger during an oppressive dictatorship that saw people tortured, kidnapped, and killed; it also has an extreme sense of unity, of “Koreanness”, expressed in overzealous patriotism and nationalism (just check the youtube videos made by Koreans about Dokdo, a few rocks in the Yellow sea… I mean, they are just a few frakkin’ rocks) which is problematic for sure. However, this nationalism should be understood within a historical context, where it doesn’t stem from a “superior race” ideology, as was the excuse used by the Japanese to colonise South-Korea in the first part of the 20th century; instead, it stems from a history of struggle for independency, and later a struggle to free itself from a dictatorship.
I wouldn’t equate it to white privilege, not even when taking the desire by Koreans to emulate Western clothing, or the common bleaching of skin tone and eyelid plastic surgery; I mean, yes this is an issue, one where the Western image is considered superior, i.e. white privilege impacts Koreans adversely, as it does in other parts of the world – que: the weave-versus-natural hair debate in South Africa.
Korea’s problematic issues with race stem from its homogeneity on one side, and its desire to emulate Western culture as it is portrayed as more “cultured.” While the issue that was raised on Africa is a Country, in terms of the problematic advertisement for a pack of cigarettes, is valid; the reason why this happens in Korea is similar to why Asians are faced with racial stereotypes, often offensive, in South Africa without it being addressed within society or framed in the context of racism/racial prejudice. The “othering” of another culture, ethnicity due to ignorance and prevailing media stereotypes which are often enforced by a global media trend that formulates itself after Western culture and trends. The difference here is that South Africa has more diversity within its borders than South Korea has, which hasn’t done anything to lessen racism and racial stereotypes amongst South Africans, mind you. It cannot be called “antiblack” racism as is claimed on Africa is a Country, because the majority of Koreans are as ignorant and racially prejudiced about nearly every other country and culture apart from their own.
My point is basically that the Korean company was at fault, and what it did was part of a larger problem of ignorance and racism/racial prejudice within South-Korea which surely needs to be addressed. But it cannot be explained through a lens of positioning South-Korea as part of a “white club”, because if you take into account South-Korea’s history and contemporary issues, it just doesn’t make sense.