(Before we begin – the AsianWeek magazine is now embroiled in a controversy because it published a column by an idiot named Kenneth Eng called “Why I hate blacks.” Since then, AsianWeek pulled the column, fired Eng, and issued an apology. The Korean can’t believe that people are pre-empting what he is about to write. The Korean hopes this post would help.)
So what is the relationship of Koreans and black people? Why the prejudice? Why do you think when a white man marries a Korean woman they are viewed as a cute couple, but if it is the same is for a black man they question the woman’s character?
Black man happily married to a Korean for 25 years, and no, I was not in the Army in Korea.
- William J.
Please explain Korean people’s strong prejudice against black soldiers (your words). My uncle, a black man, died in the Korean War. This is not an angry email, just an attempt to understand. Thank you.
Dear William and Kevin,
First, to Kevin. The Korean is deeply grateful for your uncle. The Korean is often flip in this blog, but he is most serious in this occasion. If it were not for American soldiers’ sacrifice in the Korean War, the Korean would probably be starving somewhere in communized Korea, writing for the BS website that the dictatorial government set up.
But the Korean is afraid that you misunderstood the earlier post. The Korean is certain that there was relatively less prejudice against black soldiers at the time of Korean War. But there is no question that since then, Koreans (and Korean-Americans alike) developed strong prejudice against black folks – and that is essentially why William’s question arose.
To put it bluntly, many Koreans and Korean Americans tend to be racist toward black people. The Korean wishes it were otherwise, but it is true. Below is the reason why.
Racism as a Heuristic
What is racism? As we all know, racism is broadly defined as passing a judgment upon an individual based on the individual’s race. And racism is an evil because we cannot control our race, and our race has an extremely poor correlation to our character.
However, see it from the judgment-passer’s point of view, and the reason why people become racists begins to make sense. Racism is a type of what cognitive scientists call “heuristics” – basically, making decisions based on analytical shortcuts. A simple example: our cognition tells us that “it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck.” Then our conscience concludes that “it’s a duck.”
Heuristics is a big part of the way humans deal with things, because humans don’t have the time to evaluate everything around them. It is effective to engage in heuristics because first of all, it takes too much energy to remember everything about a certain thing. Think of it from the perspective of evolutionary biology. Suppose we were out hunting, and our fellow was killed by a saber tooth tiger. Do we remember everything about that saber tooth tiger for a future reference? No, we only remember the most salient features of the animal, which would be its size, color, and the two fangs.
Heuristics is efficient because in most cases, humans don’t need a 100 percent right answer. Going back to the example, suppose while we are roaming the field hunting, we run into an animal that appears to be large, yellow-ish, and has two large fangs. Do we stay and completely evaluate whether or not this animal is in fact a saber tooth tiger and therefore dangerous? No, we run for our lives.
So heuristics work in two steps. First, when we encounter a new thing, we create a “tag” in our mind to associate with the new thing’s characteristics. Always, without fail, that tag is a highly visible and readily identifiable trait. Second, when we see that tag in another new thing, we draw conclusion that the second new thing is the same as the first thing. The process is hardly foolproof, but it’s extremely effective – it probably allowed human race to survive this long.
The application is the same in our modern life. We always create a quick tag to describe things around us, (e.g., “George W. Bush is an idiot,” “Southerners are conservative,” “Canadians are slow”) and for most things we don’t bother to learn more. We do it because we don’t need to learn everything about everything, and we can’t possibly learn everything about everything. The next step is the same too. For example, popular perception has created a heuristic statement of “blonds are dumb.” Once we have that heuristic in our head, next time we see a blond, our mind will point toward “dumb.”
So, as we consider Koreans and racism, we have to think in terms of heuristics – what the markers are, and what the conclusion is.
Racist Heuristic Step 1 – Markers
Heuristic markers are something that stands out very prominently. Then, what stands out more than how different black people’s appearances are from Korean people’s? The skin tone of a black person is something that no Korean has ever seen. But it goes beyond the skin tone. The question that the Korean gets asked most from his Korean relative and friends about black people’s appearance is: how do they manage their hair, especially if they are braided? Do they even wash it? If they do, how?
In short, black people are really, really foreign to Koreans – to a much greater degree than white people. At one point in Korean history (until shortly after Korean War,) white people were just as foreign. The Korean’s parents’ generation would talk about how white people have blond hair and a big nose. (One derogatory Korean term for a white person is ko-jaeng-i, roughly translated as a “noser” or “nosie.”) But several decades passed, American movies and TV shows steadily streamed into Korea, and Korean people got used to white people. Although white people looked different from Koreans, they seemed like a variation on a theme. (Do you now understand why colored people make such a big deal about how Friends had no black person in it?)
Racist Heuristic Step 2 – Conclusions
So when a Korean sees a black person, his/her skin tone, coarse hair, etc are the only thing that stays in mind. In some sense, it is already racist at this step because that Korean would not probe deeper into that black person’s character. But what makes Koreans really racists are the heuristic conclusions that they derive from the skin tone.
What are the conclusions? The same conclusions that the mainstream society gives to black people – lazy, dirty, prone to crime, addicted to drugs, closer to animals than humans. Why is that?
In part, it has to do with a bias within Koreans with regards to skin tone. Koreans are, being Asian, yellow. But actual skin tone of any given Korean in fact varies by a ton – nearly covering the spectrum of the whitest of the white and the blackest of the black. And among Koreans, there is a bias of favoring the light-skinned people, and disfavoring dark skin tones. Why? Because dark skin means that you are one of the peasants, out in the field and working all day under the sun. Light skinned people are the nobility – they can afford to stay at home and out of the sun.
Absurdly—evidencing that old habits die hard—this line of thinking still somewhat persists, and one standard for a Korean beauty is (in the Korean’s opinion) sickly paleness. Hot, sexy tan is fairly popular in Korea now, but that is an extremely recent phenomenon – no older than 7~8 years. (Largely thanks to this woman on the right. Her name is Lee, Hyo-ri, a very popular singer.) So between white people who are paler than noblest Korean, and black people who are darker than the commonest Korean, there is a built-in disadvantage.
Also, one cannot ignore the racism in the American mainstream. Whatever racism we have as a country, we indirectly teach it to the new immigrants to our country and to the whole world through our dominance in movies and television shows. No one in the world, and certainly no Korean, is dumb enough to not realize that in a movie, a black guy always dies. Especially in Korea where people have no chance to see a black person other than through mass media, there is no way for their racist perception to be corrected by actually knowing a black person.
But the Korean thinks it’s fair to say that, as Bill Cosby pointed out, at least some black people provide the fodder for those conclusions. (The Korean will leave the question of whether or not the mainstream society is responsible for the high rate of black crime, drug addiction, etc., to another day.) On this point, another factor to consider is that a lot of Korean Americans live in the ghetto, doing business right in the middle of it. Often they are victims of crimes, often perpetrated by black folks.
Especially in the 1992 LA Riot, the rioting black folks looted the stores in their neighborhood, most of them owned by Koreans. (The MTV documentary on the LA riot made in 2002 devotes a portion to the riot’s impact on Korean Americans.) Stories spread from Korean Americans to Koreans in Korea, and the reputation of the black folks was shot down further from the already low status.
Then again, heuristics being what it is, if there is a black robber robbing a Korean-owned liquor store, the only thing that the store owner will remember is the fact that the robber was black. And the racism perpetuates.
So, What Next?
The Korean situation is merely a mirror to the larger problem of we have as a society. Korean people are no better or worse than anyone in world – everyone in the world relies on heuristics, and racism is such a strong force even to this day because of it. Even in America, which in the Korean’s opinion the least racist country in the world, plenty of people rely on racist heuristics.
For example, Fisher DeBerry, former Air Force football coach, when asked why his team was losing, remarked that it was because his team lacked speed because Air Force team did not have enough black people on it – all the while the equally black-player-sparse Brigham Young University was putting up a 9-win season. But then again, who has not thought about whether being black makes you a better athlete as s/he watched a sporting event?
The only way to combat racist heuristics is to make people aware that they are making a snap decision that is wrong, unfair, and evil. America has been trying to do this for the last several decades, and slowly it has been making progress. We must keep this up.
The Korean will end this in a hopeful note. In 1999, a Korean grocer, Mrs. Chung-Bok Hong, was shot and killed by robbers at the parking lot next to her store in South Central Los Angeles, heart of the LA ghetto. Her funeral was held in a catholic church in South Central, and hundreds of mourners packed the church, most of them black residents of South Central. Many of the mourners did not know her real name; everyone in the neighborhood just called her “Mama.” Here is a part of the story from the LA Times:
A few blocks away, graffiti writers had covered a wall outside her store with messages revealing a tangle of emotions. "Nothing but love for you, Mama," said one. … Jerrell White, an African American resident who has lived in the neighborhood for 34 years, said Hong was accepted in South-Central because she treated people with dignity, regardless of their station in life. "She didn't take no B.S. from you," he said. "But that was all right, because she was Mama."
Now there’s a woman who did not rely on racist heuristics, but consciously decided to look past people’s colors and into their character.
(If you would like to read the whole story, it ran on Feb. 12, 1999, byline Steve Berry, headline CALLS FOR JUSTICE MARK FUNERAL OF SLAIN GROCER.)
Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at firstname.lastname@example.org.