The arrival of Europeans to the “New World” rained death and sickness upon indigenous people. In the United States, those that survived were stripped of their lands and enclosed in reservations. In the US, indigenous people suffer some of the highest rates of alcoholism, diabetes, and unemployment. They make half the per capita income of all other races and have twice the proportion of those below the poverty level. After being nearly killed off, and now marginalized in society, they suffer further indignity as the mascots of those that oppressed and killed them. Such mascot was warmly embraced by us, Koreans.
A few years ago, while Shin-Soo Choo still pitched for the Cleveland Indians, we donned Chief Wahoo’s image to display our pride and support. We were not responsible for such racist image nor the genocide and suffering of indigenous people in the US. Yet, as a Korean-American progressive that had fought racism in the United States and was fighting to build a better society in Korea, seeing other Koreans don such racist imagery was disturbing and upsetting. There is a word in Korean, 안따갑다, that loosely translated means “too bad” magnified by ten. That is what I felt each time I saw people wearing these racist images – why are my people wearing racist images manufactured in another country?
Likely, these images do not evoke or carry the same feelings or meaning as they do in the societies and cultures in which they were manufactured. They are rootless imports, vehicles for humor. In one episode of the variety show “Hot Brotherhood,” the contestants are pitted against each other with the challenge to create a situation that would disconcert the other contestants. In one of the scenarios, blackface is painted on one of the contestant’s (a Korean pop star) face leaving large lips, an afro placed on his head, and big loops on his ears. He must now act in a commercial that promotes watermelons. While the scene involves many non-racist elements of humor, as the director of the commercial throws disconcerting upon disconcerting scenarios at the actor, one wonders what a Black kid growing up and forming their identity in Korea – or even a Black adult – would feel and learn when seeing this. If the adult is a Black person from the United States, the image would likely not be a new one, as it is an import of the happy go lucky watermelon loving Sambo.
While the image of a Black boy that loves watermelon may seem harmless, it was a pernicious imaged used by white people to justify slavery: Black people were simple happy go lucky people that liked watermelon and could not be responsible for themselves. It was the white man’s burden to rule and provide for the Black slave. While the significance of this image itself was likely not imported to Korea, they are nonetheless perpetuating the image.
A mere import, blackface is taken lightheartedly in Korea. The Korean female pop group, BubbleSisters, perform a song in blackface. The song is about their professional plight: while possessing great talent, they have neither the pretty faces nor skinny bodies to succeed in the Korean music industry. The message is reinforced by their blackface: they are talented performers like Black people (a prevalent stereotype in Korea). Yet, we are left to wonder what is implied with the outlandishness of the blackface. Is the outlandish blackface supposed to reflect the second part of their message of being fat and ugly as well? It’s unclear, but what is clear is that the joke comes at the cost of Black people. It is likely done with little malice. Yet, the lack of malice does not nullify or neutralize the action.
We, Koreans, need to be more critical about the images we adopt from abroad. Not only is it ridiculous for us to perpetuate racist hateful imagery used to justify oppression, but as Korea becomes more multicultural, we must also be careful of the impact that it has on our own people who may have dark skin or resemble some of the features caricaturized. After all, the images and symbols that we see not only shape our perception of reality but also of ourselves. We learn what is pretty, what is desirable, what is intelligent, and what is not.
In 1939 and 1940, research was done on an experiment in which black and white children were asked to pick out the prettier doll. Both dolls were identical except for the color of their skin and eyes. There was a greater preference for the white doll among all the children. The message was clear: White was desirable Black was not.
The great patriot Kim Ku wrote, “I want our nation to be the most beautiful in the world. By this I do not mean the most powerful nation. Because I have felt the pain of being invaded by another nation, I do not want my nation to invade others. It is sufficient that our wealth makes our lives abundant; it is sufficient that our strength is able to prevent foreign invasions. The only thing that I desire in infinite quantity is the power of a noble culture. This is because the power of culture both makes us happy and gives happiness to others.”
Let us build such noble culture for ourselves, for our children who may not look as we do, and for the oppressed others in the world.