“If a nail sticks out, it gets hammered,” he said to me at a bar in Seoul.
It was my second time in Korea and at that stage I’d been married to a Korean lady for 8 years.
I thought I knew what he meant, but I never really, truly understood what it meant until I joined the Brothas and Sistas in Korea Facebook group.
Minority groups will tell you that they are treated differently to Koreans – they are the nails that stand out.
As a journalist, I get the occasional message that reinforces inaccurate cultural stereotypes – that blacks are scary gangster thugs, Asians are socially backward, Muslims are terrorists, America rules the world, and only white Americans speak proper English.
For some people, these stereotypes have very real meaning in their lives. They rely on these racist notions to shape their realities. These individuals actively avoid exposure to other cultural groups thereby fostering segregation which prevents new cultural exchange. They also pay attention to events that reinforce their inaccurate cultural stereotypes. With enough time, these stereotypes are then passed along to the next generation. This is the intergenerational cycle of racism.
That is, unless the youth of today are given opportunities to challenge these racist stereotypes. This is where South Korea is right now; in the early stages of transitioning from a homogenous cultural group to a multicultural society.
There is resistance in many areas of society, especially at hagwons who hire English teachers. This point is clearly made by a member of the Brothas and Sistas of South Korea group who sent the following submission to us.
The author wants to remain anonymous.
“On April 28th 2015, I came across an advertisement for a part-time position teaching at a hagwon in Seoul. The pay, work load and age group were pretty standard, but one thing in particular stood out – “only white person”.
Anybody that is loosely acquainted with the EFL/ESL industry in Korea, is well aware of the lingering mindset that only white people (or thin, white, blonde, female Americans to be more specific) can be deemed as ideal or quality teachers.
This mindset is just not confined to education either. It permeates through so many levels of society, one has to make huge efforts to find a place where lighter skin is not revered above others, but just seen equally.
Normally, the modus operandi is to come up with some theory, or excuse, as to why some people in this wonderful country still think and behave like this –
“Oh, it’s because having pale skin once meant one was of a higher class. In many parts of Asia, that still holds true”
“Aha, it’s because Koreans haven’t been exposed to non-white people, so darker skinned folks might scare the populace”
“I’ve got it! It’s because Korea has advanced so quickly, but mentally, the people haven’t been able to keep up with all the changes”
Or the infamous:
“There is racism and xenophobia everywhere. If you don’t like it, find another country”
While there is some truth to all of the above, they only act as paper tapes attempting to cover cracks the size of canyons. I used to agree with people that made these statements and gave these excuses, but then I realized how condescending the excuses are both to me and to the people they are defending.
This is an age where Korea has a 103% internet penetration rate, where 73% of the population have the world’s biggest encyclopedia in the palm of their hands via smartphones. An age where Koreans are exposed to and bombarded with positive images of darker skin people of all ethnicities on a daily basis…and yet some are somehow able to retain this ignorant and uneducated mindset that skin tone is somehow an indication of competence?
I contacted the individual that made the job posting and made an effort to explain how the school is not doing the children any favours by only exposing them to one type of teacher. I was already aware of the excuses she would make (which, ironically is almost the same as the people that would try to defend her actions).
I also made sure to explain to this individual, the message her institution is sending to the children about Native English speakers of Korean (and East Asian in general) heritage.
What hope do these children have in learning the global language if the people in charge of educating them, are sending a message that they don’t have faith in, and are willing to discriminate against people that look like them?
I also made sure to send a complaint to the National Human Rights Commission of Korea with an image of the offending advert, which was dutifully received and is currently being processed.
I was aware of the possibility that my words to the hagwon would simply fall on deaf ears, and that I would get some half-assed apology and a promise to change or remove the advertisement, but as the saying goes “if you don’t try, you’ll never know”.
The person did as expected, apologizing and promising to remove the advertisement. I ended our conversation by advising the offending individual that changing or removing the discriminatory advertisement simply wouldn’t be enough.
The toxic and destructive mindset would also need to change. It is not only the image of herself and the hagwon she is harming, but potentially the image of millions of Koreans worldwide, which is quite ironic in itself.
Unsurprisingly, two weeks after receiving the apology and a flurry of promises, the offending advertisement is STILL up on Craigslist and has been updated at least twice, with the “Only white person” requirement still intact.
I wonder what the excuse will be this time.”
The Korea Observer phoned the person who listed the Craigslist advert for white teachers Thursday. She said she thought she’d removed it already and promised to take it down – again.
Originally, she said that the presumption was the children would be scared of black people.
There is a rich irony in all of this as outlined by another member of the BSSK group, who gave permission to be quoted.
“The reason for the students being afraid of Black teachers is absurd given that Korea’s Hallyu wave, in particular K-Pop music, is based on appropriating Black American culture. In other words, how can they be afraid of Black people, yet ‘Swagger Jack’ our culture?”
This point is often overlooked in Korean circles.
More to the point, there is younger generation of Korean children eager to learn English and hear about the world. They will be the first generation of Koreans that have the capability to transform Korea into a truly accepting, multicultural society.
Whether the youth choose to hammer those nails that stick out or positively accept other cultures is dependent upon their experiences with minority cultures. A lack of experience can only be met with a perpetuation of racist stereotypes.
I implore older Koreans’ to embrace those that are different and stop trying to force perfect conformity to antiquated notions of a purebred monoculture.
After all, multiculturalism is the future of Korea and the multinational world. Being culturally aware doesn’t signify the end of Korean culture.
It is time to give the youth the exposure to people of all races. There have been enough excuses.