Race in Korea: bad, but better? (Korea Times, November 20, 2012)

By Casey Lartigue, Jr.

Shin Chul-ho's "Racial discrimination in hiring teachers" reminded me of a pleasant Korean-American teacher I worked with in the 1990s who said she was delighted to meet me.

The reason? She said she couldn't wait to meet "the black man who wasn't really black." Educated, good credentials and not a criminal is what she and the Korean employees in a special three-day program I had designed were told about me. "He's black, but not really black,” my recruiter friend told them and other clients. “When you meet him, you won't even remember that he's black."

Because Koreans I talk with almost automatically tell me that things are similar in other places, I gleefully concede without argument that Koreans aren't alone in tripping over racial language or of being outright prejudiced.

Back in America, I would occasionally have Caucasians tell me that I "just happen to be black." Just happen to be black? According to my birth certificate issued by the state of Texas, both of my parents are "Negroid." So I don't just happen to be black, at least according to the state of Texas. It would have been a surprise, if not a miracle, if I had been anything else.

During the 1990s, Koreans who were less certain than Texas about my racial background would tell me about how dangerous, terrible and dirty blacks are. I remember during the 1990s when newspaper ads in local English language newspapers openly sought white and blond teachers.

A Korean friend at the time was so outraged about a TV commentator repeatedly calling a black woman ugly (she was singing in Korean on the show) that he called the station numerous times to complain. Caucasian friends said that Koreans told them they would shake with fear and cross the street at the sight of a black person.

A Korean friend who was the manager of a hagwon asked me if I knew any white American teachers she could hire. She insisted she wasn't racist, said she greatly admired me. She was worried about her job because her students had been complaining about her hiring Brits, Africans and Australians.

I applied for a part-time job on a TV show seeking someone to talk about sports in English. I had been a sports editor on the Harvard Crimson and I am still a sports nut. A representative of the show called asking if it was true that I am black (I never got a call back). I received similar calls, mainly from Korean-Americans who said they didn't want me to waste my time waiting.

Of course, whenever I mention this kind of thing, I am reminded by Korean friends and talking buddies about the racial homogeneity of the country, notorious crimes committed by black soldiers ― and I remember the fury about a special on the 5th anniversary of the 1992 riots in Los Angeles in which some blacks bragged they had "won" because Koreans had abandoned their businesses.

There is enough history to justify almost anything so I don't argue. Still, I'm not sure how to answer blacks who email me, asking about Korea's current racial climate and if they should seek employment here. Terrible and great? Bad, but better?

As my own visa expires next year, I realize that I am not immune to the concerns I am emailed about sometimes. I try to keep things in perspective. Blacks I would run into during the 1990s had worse stories than my own.

One friend who was a fluent Korean speaker told me he was leaving Korea out of disgust after overhearing so many racist comments in Korean. My handful of slights didn't seem worth mentioning based on stories I heard from others, especially when I had so many many positive experiences.

In some cases, the compliments that sounded awkward were meant to be compliments, I know. I will never forget the friend of a lady I was dating in Korea years ago who, after meeting me, gushed to her lucky friend, "He's not black. He's cute!" I’m sure the state of Texas would have disagreed with the first statement, but it seems that more Koreans would agree with the second statement these days.

The writer is a Visiting Scholar at the Liberty Society in Seoul. He can be reached at caseyradio@daum.net.

The Korea Times,


Once riding in old Baltimore,   
   Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,   
I saw a Baltimorean
   Keep looking straight at me.

Now I was eight and very small,
   And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
   His tongue, and called me, “Nigger.”

I saw the whole of Baltimore
   From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
   That’s all that I remember.