South Koreans have to learn about racism from A to Z

A high school in Uijeongbu, Gyeonggi province, South Korea is famous for its students’ graduation photo album. Students parodize celebrities, from popular characters of Korean soap operas to the global sport stars, to celebrate their high school graduation. But, the school’s graduation photo album has recently provoked a controversy over racism.

A group of students parodized funerals in Ghana, which have a tradition of dancing pallbearers. But, students who paradized dancing pallbearers darkened their faces when taking their graduation photo. After the photo was circulated on social media, Sam Okyere, a Ghanaian who’s been on South Korean TV shows, criticized students’ behavior for offending Africans.

South Korean netizens, however, unashamedly demonized the Ghanaian: You are wrong to dismiss students as racist, as they just intended to mark their graduation, not racism; It’s true that Ghanaians have dark skin. I cannot understand why blackface is related to racism; You are from Ghana, which is much poorer than South Korea, and you have no right to blast South Korean students for racially bullying Africans. And, they urged Sam Okyere to offer an apology for slamming Korean students for racially mocking Africans.

Alas, South Koreans have seen blackface over a generation, mostly on comedy shows. But, none of Korean viewers have condemned blackface, let alone noticing that blackface itself is a racist behavior. A lack of education about racism is a culprit.

For generations, South Koreans have proudly made much of how Korea has thousands of years of shared history and culture. Until 3 decades ago, South Koreans could barely encounter foreigners in South Korea. While idolizing white people, Koreans looked down on non-white foreigners, particularly those from the developing countries. But, with globalization, the number of expats have skyrocketed since in the early 2000s. And, as more Koreans travel to various places outside of Korea, more people have been wary of racism. Yet, Koreans are poorly educated about racism, and few of them understand that blackface is obviously a racist behavior.

Blackface originated from the history of racism in America. It has spread through the minstrel shows in the 19th century. White American actors painted their faces black, wearing tattered clothes to ridicule Africans who’ve been enslaved, being coerced into toiling for white Americans. With blackface, white performers described African slaves as lazy, uneducated and boorish men. Most white audiences enjoyed minstrel shows and blackface, but it hurt Africans.

Started in the mid-19th century, blackface is found until in the 21st century. More frustratingly, it’s not the first time that students in the high school in Uijeongbu painted their faces dark to take their graduation photo albums. But, teachers, who have to warn their pupils against blackface and other racist behaviors, have just let students take their graduation photos with blackface.

Moreover, some netizens who defended students say that students had no intention to mock Africans, thus their behavior cannot be seen as racism. Many see Sam Okyere’s criticism is wrong, as students haven’t noticed that blackface is racist behavior, suggesting that many Koreans are ignorant about racism.

Some experts pointed out that criticism against Sam Okyere proves how South Koreans are uneducated about racism. “No one dare to think about parodizing Jews in the Nazi concentration camps, as the world is well-educated about the tragic history of Jewish people and atoricities of the Nazi. But, many South Koreans downplay blackface, which reminds Africans of their tragic history of slavery. It means South Koreans are poorly understanding human rights,” argued Yeom Woon-ok, the professor of Kyunghee University in Seoul.

Most Koreans have been outraged by the slanted-eye gesture, saying that such behavior is racially offending Asians. South Koreans, who are expressing anger over racism against Asians, are ironically turning blind eye to their racist behaviors, even justifying their racism under the name of ignorance. Ignorance, however, cannot be an excuse about racist behavior. Some Koreans are wrongfully thinking that students have to be excused for darkening their faces, without noticing that their behavior is racism. For South Koreans, education about racism is urgently needed.

Asia Times opinion writer who mostly covers politics, history and social issues of South Korea and other Asian countries

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