When show-and-tell involves a teacher’s raceI teach in Sanbon, a suburb in Gyeonggi province where foreigners are few and far between. More to the point, including me, there are only three teachers of African descent in town that I know of. Even in such a homogeneous society, however, I believe there should be correct information about others.
To a degree, it seems that ignorance about people of African descent has substituted for knowledge here. Perhaps the education system is to blame. Perhaps some adults play a part.
Maybe we can even blame it on marketing; there are brands of chocolate cookies sold here with caricatures of my race ― jungle people, with rounded mouths ― reminiscent of those widespread in the United States during the Civil War era.
Whatever the case may be, countless times I have been the unwilling recipient of epithets and stereotypes, ranging from the obviously naive “Africa teacher” to the tasteless “gorilla” or “monkey teacher.”
Just being African American warrants explanation in Korea. My teaching transcends English, veering into courses such as history, math and social studies.
A chance to discuss my background came during a lesson on geography. We were learning directions; the 10- to 12-year olds were figuring out the position of countries in relation to one another: Korea is (west) of Japan. Mexico is (south) of the United States. Pointing to the U.S., I said, “This is where I’m from.” There was a look of disbelief. They crowed, “Reaaally?”
“Yes. Where did you think I was from?”
“Africa,” they answered.
“Well, my ancestors came from Africa a long time ago and helped build America. I am an American.”
In a more advanced class, we were learning degrees of color, things like light blue versus dark blue. The assignment was color comparisons. An 11-year-old girl wrote that Americans are white and Africans are black.
I said, “I’m an American. I am not white.”
“I know, but ??” she retorted.
“But, what?” I probed.
I told her that Africa was not a country but a continent consisting of over 50 nations ― and not all Africans are black. I brought in Justine, a South African colleague who is white. “This is Justine teacher. She is from Africa.”
They seemed perplexed. Making sure they understood, I explained that whites have lived in Africa for hundreds of years.
I use these instances as platforms to broaden the scope of their education. I once told a kid that Columbus didn’t “discover” America, because native peoples were already living there.
Finally, my students understand that the U.S. is not all white and Africa isn’t totally black. And the preschoolers now say, “Hi, Africa-America teacher,” as they run down the hall.
No doubt these lessons will have to be taught again.
My research has yielded that Korea is among the most literate nations on Earth, but my firsthand experience has shown me that literacy and education are not synonymous. Today, literacy must be accompanied by a more comprehensive education and cultural sensitivity.
After all, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan wouldn’t like to be called “Gorilla Secretary-General.”
by Jermaine Demetrius Lloyd