By Casey Lartigue, Jr.
In late 2012, I wrote a Thoughts of the Times column reflecting upon some racial slights that I received in South Korea during the 1990s. Unfortunately, I have experienced a few cases recently that topped all of those.
A Korean professor who is a fan of mine has been recruiting me to join her university. She secretly let me know her colleagues pushed back. One concern: I might be too independent. She says that Korean professors typically seek colleagues who won’t challenge them, so I will need to show humility.
Two, citing my career, they worried that I might not be satisfied with their lesser known university (Harvard graduate, previously taught at Yonsei University as a young man, and have worked at high profile organizations in both the USA and South Korea). In previous job searches, I have responded to the “overqualified” point by saying: “If you think I am overqualified then you should watch me work for a week.”
She listed a few other things, but the grand finale: They needed to be sure that I am not “completely black.”
It sounded like a joke, but she was sincere, as always. She said her colleagues were worried because they “know” that black people fight with white people. That university certainly wouldn’t want to hire a one-man riot who would burn, baby burn the university. She said they concluded that I might be mixed race, and debated what percentage black I am, and wondered about the racial makeup of my parents and grandparents.
My fan apologized. She said she deeply admires and respects me, that’s why she recruited me for the job. I had the sense that if they wanted me to run across hot coals or stick my hand in fire as part of the interview that she would have given me tips, without condemning the process.
She advised me that if they invite me for an interview that I should stress that I am a team player, have white people in my family and have many white friends. Amazed, I suggested that I might be able to get racial letters of recommendation from white family members, friends and former colleagues.
I thought to add that I could include photos of myself frolicking about with white friends, but stopped myself. After all, if I went through with the interview, I wouldn’t want them to reject my application because I had failed to include such photos to bolster my case. (“He said that he had photos with white friends, but he didn’t include them as proof he won’t cause trouble, so how can we risk hiring him?”)
I imagined a faculty meeting with those respected professors with their Ph.Ds, using their expertise and experience to determine my level of blackness as part of my job qualifications. “Is he completely black? If yes, how violently black?”
As often happens in life, your enemies slander you, and your friends deliver the news. She is an inadvertent whistle blower, demonstrating evidence of what many black people in Korea complained about when I was here in the 1990s _ blacks aren’t seriously considered for many university jobs and are hired reluctantly.
I thought about my own role: Should I reveal the university? After all, black people should not waste their time applying there. But I don’t want my fan who secretly delivered the news to get into trouble for trying to help me.
Two Korean friends I discussed this with cited Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, saying those Korean academics need to learn his message. I assured them that it wasn’t just Koreans.
During one of my recent trips back to the USA, I gave a speech about my project connecting North Korean refugees with volunteer language tutors and speech coaches. Everything went well during my presentation, but that night at dinner, one of the Ivy League professors who had been singing my praises all day informed me that a few of the people at the conference were asking: “Why is a black man doing so much to help North Koreans?”
I didn’t try to catch the source, I wanted to keep focus on my activities rather than race. Those respected people had revealed their small minds, so I doubted they could understand or would believe that I am focused on individual liberty and creating learner-centered opportunities.
It was good that I didn’t debate or argue with them, it could have been disastrous. Based on what the Korean university professors said about me in their meeting, such respected white professionals are the type to write racial letters of recommendation for me.
Perhaps I should tell my Korean professor fan that I didn’t argue with them. Plus I got some great photos of white people smiling with me.
The writer is the Director for International Relations at Freedom Factory Co.in Seoul and the Asia Outreach Fellow with the Atlas Network in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at: CJL@post.harvard.edu.