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?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.