Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Culturalism: Racism of the 21st Century

Dear Korean,

At the time of the 1992 Watts riots, I heard a commentator on NPR say that one source of tension between Korean shopkeepers and blacks was that in Korean culture, a shopkeeper isn't expected to be chatty with customers. Is there any truth in this?

Andrew B.

Dear Andrew,

No, there is zero truth to it. Korean shopkeepers are not different from any other shopkeepers in the world. If anything, they tend to be friendly with the neighbors so that they can boost the sale. The Mama Hong case in Los Angeles that the Korean wrote about earlier would be a good example. (It's towards the end of the post.)

But the Korean wants to point out a larger problem suggested by your question: It's the impulse to explain minority people's behavior with a "cultural difference", real or imagined. For the sake of convenience, let's call this "culturalism".

Culturalism started in a benign way. It started as "multiculturalism", in which people are supposed to understand and accept the differences of other people from a different culture. For example, a multiculturalist would not recoil at the fact that Korean people eat rancid kimchi. Instead, a multiculturalist would ask and learn about the history and the significance of the food in Korean culture. Multicuturalist would make the link between kimchi and other rancid, fermented food that she loves, such as cheese. She might even try it out herself, suppressing the gag reflex.

What does a culturalist do in contrast? He sees that strange-looking people are eating strange-smelling food, and thinks to himself, "Well that's odd, but I guess it's their culture," and walks away without doing more. Essentially, culturalism is a lazy multiculturalism; culturalism sees the cultural difference, and stops there. (For a typical culturalist attitude, see this post.)

The "acceptance" in multiculturalism comes from the fact that the more you learn about a different culture, the more you realize that it is not too different from your own after all. A friend of the Korean, after having lived many years in Japan said this: "Japan is exactly like America, except just the opposite. If you understand that, you understood Japanese culture." The Korean could not agree more.

It seems like there is "acceptance" in culturalism as well, but it's more like neglect. Instead of understanding the fundamental similarities between a different culture and that of its own, culturalism simply throws on the label of "cultural difference" -- the label might as well be "exotic", "mystical" or "incomprehensible"-- and calls it a day.

Culturalism is at least better than some alternatives. In Europe, people want immigrants to entirely lose any hint of their home country and essentially become 100 percent French or Italian, only with different skin tones. (If you'd like, refer to this as "assimilationism".) No foreign food, no foreign garb, and definitely no foreign language. Some lawmakers in France, for example, tried to require Muslim girls to take off their headscarf when they attend public school, because the hijabs were un-French. Compared to that, culturalism at least leaves the minority people alone.

But culturalism is dangerous, in the exact same way racism is dangerous. Both culturalism and racism only look at a single character about an individual or a group, and purport to know something about that individual or a group. That knowledge, of course, is either false, misleading, or unrepresentative.

(In fact, because discussing race in America became such a stroll-through-a-minefield-leading-to-easy-social-suicide, "culture" became the new code word for talking about race. There is no more discussion about "what black people do." Instead, the discussion starts with "In urban culture" or "In hiphop culture".)

The most fundamental danger of culturalism should be plain: it continues ignorance under the guise of tolerance. This is exactly how Asian Americans continue to feel that they are forever foreign in the only country that they have known and lived. The moment a culturalist senses that he is speaking to a person from a different culture, the culturalist simply stops trying to understand that person, because the "cultural difference" gives a dead end to an understanding. The "shutting down" from the culturalist is what makes Asian Americans feel foreign -- all of a sudden, the common ground between the two has disappeared.

Another danger of culturalism is that the "culture" that culturalists have in mind may be completely distorted. This is because culturalists often rely on one or two minority persons' word for what minority culture is. But often the minority people themselves do not know the full extent of their own culture. The Korean has seen many cases of the following: A second-generation Korean American, who grew up in a small town with no other Koreans and very few Asians, attributes every quirk and oddity of her parents to the Korean culture. Invariably, such a person's perception of Korean culture is completely distorted, because she is unable to sort out what is attributable to Korean culture, and what is attributable to her own parents' personalities. (See this post for an example.)

So any non-minority person hearing about a different culture by a minority who doesn't have the full grasp of his own culture will end up having the same distorted view of that culture. The trouble gets worse because of the fact that there is no good way to verify even the strangest cultural differences, since minorities are by definition not too many, so asking another minority is difficult. (And that's the reason why the Korean started this blog.)

A related problem is that a culture has many different aspects, often self-conflicting. Furthermore, in the case of a conflict, a culturalist simply chooses the most foreign aspect and writes it off as "cultural difference," without trying to understand the aspect and make it un-foreign. For example, who defines black culture -- the articulateness and strength of Colin Powell or Condoleeza Rice, or thugged-out, pimp-smacking Tupac or 50 Cent? The Korean doesn't know, but he knows this much: When most people talk about "black culture", they sure as hell are not talking about being articulate.

Lastly, culturalism is harmful for minorities themselves, because it gives an excuse for them to cover up their own shortcomings. Why can rappers go on calling women bitches and hos? Because it's the hiphop culture! Korean shopkeepers in 1992 were not in tension with black folks because their culture made them to; they were because they were racists and they hated black people. But hey, Koreans could make some shit about cultural differences, and dumb white people would buy it, just like they buy an overpriced dish at an exotic Korean restaurant that tastes like vomit.

Managing this blog has been a daily struggle against culturalism. Every day, the Korean's inbox is flooded with people who ask typically culturalist questions. What in Korean culture makes my co-worker rude? What is it about Korean culture that makes my boyfriend act in a certain way? Please, stop and think for yourselves for a change. Stop looking for a quick "cultural" answer so that you can write the question off without getting the right answer. Realize that we are all humans, and in the end, we are all the same.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@hotmail.com.


  1. best post yet, in my humble opinion. You have articulated many things that I have been unable to frame. I started reading this blog because I'm a Brit working in Korea, but am delighted to find many wider issues addressed here.

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  3. I don't usually leave comments on random blogs, but is William a troll or what?

    Simple answers don't necessarily make them false. Also, attributing everything that a person does to culture would surely negate the entire field of psychology, wouldn't it? And probably economics as well. And the other social sciences which posit that there are fundamental patterns of behaviour that humans follow no matter their race or culture.

    Anyway, thank you for such a wonderful post, Mr. Korean, I've been in and out of your blog for a while and it's been a pleasure to read.

  4. The Korean, you rock!

    William, please stop.

    "you have clearly and vastly underestimated the power of the values, beliefs and assumptions that make up a persons world view—all of which find their being in a persons cultural (and lay at the core of a person so deeply that they are not even aware of them!)"

    Academics have been pushing this poppycock for years. It doesn't trump our common humanity. The Korean for the win!

  5. The simplest answer is Koreans tends to look down on Afro-American or Blacks in general, I'm not going to deny this Coz I'm Korean too.

    Basically Koreans isn't only group of people that look down on blacks or express racist attitude towards blacks, of course there are many open minded Koreans out there too and they tends to be more reasonable and non biased against to blacks, but mostly Koreans dislike Blacks this is pretty much same for other East Asian descents. If Blacks wanted to get respects from others then they must work harder.

  6. Wow, Benon has some issues there because I work hard and I still don't get 'respects'. It's not a matter of being lazy so much as a need to change one's thinking in general.

  7. Dear Benon,

    I disagree. I don't believe that a person's race should determine how hard they have to work for respect. People's race does not determine whether they deserve respect their actions do. Deciding that every black person you meet doesn't deserve your respect because of the actions of other black people is ridiculous. It also suggests that you believe all Korean people should be respected regardless of their actions simply for being Korean. I believe all people deserve to be respected and I choose to respect people for their individual accomplishments in life.

    Your argument is a cop out. It is you simply refusing to change your way of thinking. You don't want to look past a persons race so you suggest the race its self try harder to win approval.

    Instead perhaps you could try harder to give people the respect they deserve.

    The problem is that people focus too much on race. Your race does not define you. It doesn't control your choices or make you any better or worse then anyone else. Trust me if you saw me you wouldn't be able to judge me based on my race. So how would you know whether to respect me or not?

    I'm sorry to say you don't sound like one of those "open-minded Koreans" and that's a shame.

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  10. Just couldn't resist the bait.

    To William (if you're still here): I'm sure it wasn't meant to be taken so literally when the OP said that 'we are all the same'. It's just his conversational style of writing. (I read that phrase as meaning 'we're not as different as it might seem'.)

    Also, how one's worldview is shaped by cultural factors is a different issue from the one the OP is pointing out here, i.e. many people have a tendency to exoticise, or if you prefer, 'othering' minority cultures, sometimes even their own, like the Korean restaurant that takes advantage of those they see as 'dumb white people'. And it seems pretty obvious to me that it isn't the OP himself who sees white people as dumb.

    (I have a social science degree too, for what it's worth.)

    To The Korean: Your blog amuses me to bits - looking forward to more!

  11. Best post in my opinion. Korean, you said it all. I'm from a multicultural country with a racist past, the white Australian policy. Thankfully times have changed and my Chinese wife, I'm anglo Australian, has never complained of racism or discrimination of any form. Unfortuantely that wasn't my experience in Korea where I taught english for five years after graduating in anthroplogy. I learned hangul quite fluently but I still was subjected to varying degrees of racism everyday while living in Korea. This saddened me as I was being judged purely on my DNA, which I didn't choose, not the content of my character. I understand that Korea has endured a difficult history and has been insular for centuries. However I wonder if the Korean advocates a major change in governmental and educational policy which might promote tolerance and the revolutinary concept that Koreans are not the superior, pure and chosen race spawned by Tangun. I wish more Koreans in Korea would follow the sentiments of the Korean. However the prevailing values of the Korean are American not intrinsically Korean. Sadly.

  12. "Culturalism" = Racism. There's no need to coin a new word. I'll even post the link for you


    Angelina and Young Green Crusader....(!!)

    I think you guys came down too hard on Benon, even if his answer was incomplete. His comment seemed innocent but only inarticulate.

  13. Hi! I just wanted to comment on the "french" part of this post (being French myself, he!).

    "Some lawmakers in France, for example, tried to require Muslim girls to take off their headscarf when they attend public school, because the hijabs were un-French."

    I'll answer based on those three words: "tried", "Muslim girl", "un-French".

    1, "tried": it's become a law (loi n°2004-228 du 15 mars 2004)
    2, "Muslim girls". That law is as much about Muslim girls as it is about Muslim boys, Jewish, Sikh, Catholic or whatever-religion-they-have people.
    3, "un-French". That law is NOT about nationality, it is about "conspicuous religious signs or clothing", hijab, kippa, sikh turbans, christian crosses alltogther. The law forbides any type of obvious, conspicuous religious sign at public schools, no more, no less.

    The French, and the french government cares a lot about secularism, and that's what this law is about. Secularism in France goes all the way back to the French Revolution and is one of the "great" principles of La République. With the educational system being one of the institutions of said Republic, you'd expect that principle to be followed in schools. I'm actually surprised the French government didn't make a fuss about it before 2004!

    I'm not gonna say it has nothing to do at all with the hijab: that law is the result of a series of incidents involving hijab-wearing students, those incidents themselves being the result of the complicated history between French government and immigration, wich results from.... Hum, anyway. It was more about "how to bring more secularism to school to prevent those incidents". Adding non-christian festivals like Yom Kippour and Aid el-Kabbir to the school hallidays was even considered.
    The law was well recieved by pretty much everyone, Muslims included (except of course that loud minority). Those who made the most fuss about it were in foreign countries, where it was most likely reported wrongly. As far as French people go, it was deemed reasonable enough, if unnecessary.

    Did you maybe got confused and meant to talk about the law forbidding the integral veil in public places? (edit: no you didn't, it was voted in 2010)
    Now THAT's a ridiculous, useles (it's a mere 2000 women we're speaking about!) and shameful law. And a coward one on top, desguising itself under "no hiding one's face". It caused a violent uproar, and it was (and still is) deemed, with reason, discriminatory, wrongful, dangerous and liberty killer. I still can't believe the government went with it and voted it anyway.

    And I can't believe how much I wrote, when the post is not about France and the French. (...selfcentered much?) But still, I believe assimiliationism and the law on secularism in school to be two different things.

    And I'm sorry about any spelling or grammar mistake I made, feel free to correct them if you want to.

    1. You wrote: "forbidding the integral veil in public places" (...) is a ridiculous, useless (...) and shameful law.
      You do realize that it could be a terrorist with a gun under that burqa, right? I am guessing that 2017 France finds it less ridiculous and shameful.
      Indian Muslims had been using the burqua in election time to vote as their dead grandmother or something, until a law was voted for each voter to dip his/her thumb in red ink which took at least one day to go away with washing.

  14. Let's listen a black person opinion........

    First the harder to break is the bad image that black people give ok i talk for me because i'm really a-kind-of-black-person-who-is-harder-to-find-or-you-never-tought-it-was-existing because i love kpop, manga and that asian stuff and even a lot of black people (under the ''hip-hop'' influence) say that I'm weird or that this kind of music is not for me. So sometimes I take the time to watch carefully the others black person around me:

    -A thing that everyone knows is that black people under the ''hip hop'' influence really don't care about asian people.We can say that korean people are even more foreign to black people because for them Korea don't even exist because they (not only them but a majority of people think that) think that all asian people come from China.
    -It means that korean people are not really open to cultural difference but also black person are not really open to knows about asian culture (also a lot of person are too).

    I know my goal is not to get korean friends but I think I must stay away from them because it's even more strange someone who is not from Korea who loves their stuff (I don't mean that if you're not from Korea you can't love their music,movies and all that but white people it's ok but black it' too strange for a korean)
    But what is boring is that people like me is always associated to the hip-hop's lovers and live with the judgement of bad person or with that ''culturalism'' and in my school the best way to get popular is to turn to that hip-hop influence and it seems that almost everyone around did it so I have like a forever-alone feeling.......

    1. Hey!!! Embrace your choice n liking, n it's not about being black.even In my country not many people are aware of K-pop and kdramas ( my friends find them cheesy n male actors not manly, sorry don't want to offend, it's all about perceptions)
      On the other hand I watch them n enjoy it., So people like u and me exist every where. So enjoy it. You are unique n thus hv unique liking.
      So cheers
      And koreans are awesome people, don't judge complete population n don't b scared.
      P.s. I m not Korean :)
      ( I m someone who enjoy studying about different countries n their culture)

  15. Dear The Korean,

    A land mine you should be aware of about discussing race in the USA is that not a few African-Americans take offense at being described as "articulate". In any other context anyone would take it as a compliment, but there's a history of the word being used to damn with faint praise. I don't know the politically correct way to talk about it when an African-American has exceptional verbal skills.

    I don't know if it's the same phenomenon, but it may be the same kind of reaction as some Asian-looking people have to "You speak English so well!".

    To leave nothing unsaid, everything I've seen from you says you're an honest believer in treating human beings without prejudice.

  16. I have to quibble with one detail about this post: that Korean shopowners had tensions with black people because the shopowners were racist and hated black people. Sure, there was racial animus on both sides (and ample room for misunderstanding due to language/cultural barriers), but one big issue that isn't talked about is the fact that Koreans were playing the classic "middleman minority" role.



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