Korean xenophobia and a touch of Ebola


The Ebola epidemic in West Africa seems to have reached South Korea, but not by airplane or any other route of international travel. Rather, some sort of strange sign was posted on the window of a bar in Itaewon, the main district in Seoul frequented by expats. The sign stated that due to the Ebola virus they are unable to allow Africans in their establishment.

Also, 금연구역/non-smoking area... I'm sure it's unrelated though, but imagine being an African that smokes...

Also, 금연구역/non-smoking area… I’m sure it’s unrelated though, but imagine being an African that smokes…

The sign already unleash a storm online, as is usual in the most wired country in the world, and is still being discussed on expat forums. Of course there is widespread condemnation there. However, I don’t feel too surprised at this distasteful paranoia towards Black Africans; I am saying Black Africans as I doubt that the owners would be asking every person trying to enter whether they are from Africa.

It shows that South Korea is still rife with stereotypes regarding Africa, looking at it as this giant country where everyone is the same. No distinction is made as to anyone from this vast and diverse place. Furthermore, of course a lesson in what Ebola is and how it can be transmitted would be necessary as well, as they seem to think anyone who is African might be a danger. Then again, it is important to check this against prevailing attitudes against anyone who isn’t Korean in one of the most homogeneous countries one can encounter. Those who are not Korean, especially those who aren’t white, face harassment and discrimination, as there is a general distrust of “multiculturalism”; pretty much, this borders on, and sometimes becomes explicit, xenophobia. Several years ago, when a Filipina-Korean woman was elected to parliament (as a proportional representation candidate, not directly elected) caused a storm of anti migrant posts online.

But in this perhaps the issue is that Korea has inherited a lot of global stereotypes when it comes to Africa, often mirroring attitudes similar to those in western nations. Not all too surprising considering the strong links the country has with the west, or the influx of western (read “American”) culture that is influencing the country. It is ironic, considering the colonial period under Japanese rule that the country has faced; somehow thinking that it would foster a better understanding of power dynamics seems futile. But the post-colonial period in South Korea has not let go of the nationalism that is intrinsically linked to a “Korean identity”; initially fostering resistance to colonial rule, it turned into a paranoia towards “multiculturalism”. When considering the economic advances, and the privilege that comes with that, I am not entirely surprised at such a blatant discriminatory sign rooted in racial prejudice and racism.

In the mean time, the owner of the bar has put up an alternative sign apologising. Yet, I wonder it it has truly sunk in what the actual problem here really is…

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