ESL South Korea

Racism in Korea

A recent acquaintance from church was having a hard time in Korea and made a last minute decision to pack up and fly home.  “Your contract is only six months old?” I was revealing my confused curiosity with his not-so-smart decision to leave early and miss out on severance pay and a free plane ticket (since he’s breaching contract).  “Sorry man”, was his answer, “no way I can stay longer in this kind of working environment.”  One important thing about this acquaintance of mine:  He was black…

Is Korea a racist country?  Are Koreans racist towards people with dark skins?  Those are difficult questions, and most foreigners will give you different answers, but they will be different degrees of “yes”…

My experience:  My wife and I have both had different employers at different times express their fears when we were finishing a contract and there was a possibility that our replacements my be African American or, for that matter, any black person (Where they come from doesn’t really matter).  An old boss specifically told me to look for a replacement “but not a black person” were his words.  “Our parents won’t pay if we have a black teacher.”

Those are hard words and undoubtedly a difficult pill to swallow for many.  But the words reveal a underlying cultural attitude that Koreans are largely ignorant when it comes to dealing with race relations.  People are prone to fearing, judging and avoiding that which they don’t understand and that which is new to them.  And black people are really, really foreign to Koreans.

I am from a country where racism remains a big issue, years after the fall of apartheid.  People are often blatantly racist, bias and actively promote bigotry.  But that is not the case in Korea.  In fact ‘racism’ might not be the best word.  “Ignorance” might serve as a better descriptor…

So that’s the primary reason as to why Koreans are generally prejudiced to some degree towards black people:  They are not used to dealing with them. Because of this inexperience, Koreans often do not hesitate to ascribe particular characteristics to a given racial group and judge the entire race – which is of course exactly what racism is.

The boss, who blatantly admitted he didn’t want a black teacher, was a hagwon owner and it must be said that they are of course not all like that.  Of course, not all Koreans are blatant racists.  Many, especially those who have travelled internationally or have black or foreign friends, are as open and un-bias as you and me.  Public school teachers will find themselves working in a system that actively promotes diversity and exposing students to different international cultural elements and teachers representing that (not just white American college students).

Does this mean that all ESL teacher who are black, have a terrible time.  Nope, I don’t think so.  There are black foreigners who seem to fit into the system, and make it work for them.  But the vast majority of coloured people won’t be blamed for thinking Korea might not be the ideal work place for them.