Is there racism in Korea?

Earlier this year, the sophomore class at Episcopal had a group discussion on one of our summer reading books called ‘A Lesson Before Dying’ by Ernest J. Gaines. We had an in-depth discussion on the heartbreaking novel about a young, uneducated African American who was wrongfully convicted of rubbery because of mere color of his skin. In the middle of the hour-long talk, someone in my table threw out a question that asked us if we could relate the extreme discrimination the man experienced in the book to the reality of the societies we come from. People started to talk about the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, campus racism protests at Mizzou, and a number of others that have been heatedly debated across the world. Soon, one of my classmates looked towards me and asked, “Is there racism in Korea?” People might have thought that my answer would be obviously no, as Korea is known to have a single racial group. However, my answer was different, “Yes, racism is quite serious in Korea.”

Korea, along with most other Asian nations, is known to have a homogeneous population with a single racial group. However, the country has experienced an unprecedented demographic change since the late 20th century due to the influx of foreign immigrants, mostly from Southeast Asia. This rapid change was caused by serious social problems of gender imbalance and shortage of labor that have been built up since the late 1990s. Such problems deeply entrenched in Korean society triggered massive increases of labor migration and international marriages. Nowadays, it is not uncommon to have a neighbor from Bangladesh who came to Korea for work and a classmate whose mother is from Vietnam. This massive increase of foreigners challenged the notion of homogeneity that Korea has hold as its national identity for centuries.

Korea has faced a backlash over influx of the new population in recent years. Just as how immigrants from racial minority groups such as African Americans and Asians were not welcomed in the early 20th century in the United States, evoking nationwide nativism, the new population is now harshly discriminated throughout Korea. Surrounded by anti-foreign sentiment, especially towards the Southeast Asians, people often tend to mistreat immigrants, judging them by their skin colors, appearances, and social backgrounds. Three years ago, I had an opportunity to interview two women from Vietnam at a damunhwa (다문화, referred as multiculturalism) family support center as a student reporter. I asked them what has been the greatest challenge to live in Korea. The two women burst out into tears when they started to talk about how they have been mistreated in Korea. Teachers and students judging their children by their backgrounds, patriarchal husbands suppressing them at home, and people treating them as second-class citizens made them almost impossible to survive in Korean society.

It is true that the Korean government and grassroots organizations have put an effort to improve the situation of the new population. Not only have the Korean government increased government spending for welfare programs for foreign residents, but also public and private schools have created afternoon activities that encourage the damunhwa students to be integrated in class. However, such effort has been headed to the wrong direction. Such programs have been focused on assimilating the new population to the mainstream Koreans without understanding and respecting their cultural identities. By simply ‘forcing’ them to absorb Korean cultures, the government has failed to reduce the prejudices towards foreign immigrants. In order to truly integrate the new group to Korean society, an effort to learn and respect their identities and backgrounds should take place.

It pretty much seems that the endless conflicts of prejudices have created a serious imbalance. Such desperate situation of ethnic minorities in Korea is no different than that of more diverse countries such as the United States, where racial discrimination has been constantly addressed throughout history. The only difference is that such serious social problems appeared only in recent years in Korea, unlike in the United States where the entire population is well aware of the discrimination that has developed since the ancient times. Although xenophobia in Korea has started to be exposed to the public through media recently, it has not risen awareness to all generations of people. Unlike the stories of Michael Brown who was victimized by the police brutality in Ferguson and college students at Mizzou, the detailed first-hand accounts of people suffering from prejudices prevalent in Korea are yet to be exposed to the public. More effort and should be put to spark a serious change in order to re-educate all generations about the importance of accepting the cultures of the new population and trying not to hold prejudices against them. The first step would be to raise awareness on the challenges Korea is facing regarding multiculturalism and to persuade people to be open-minded.

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