[Letters] Martin Luther King’s legacy in Korea

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[Letters] Martin Luther King’s legacy in Korea

Monday was Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Martin Luther King Jr. is regarded as a hero of civil rights in America alongside Rosa Parks and Claudette Colvin.

On the same day this week, I was privileged to sit on a panel to discuss a rather hot topic of racism in Korea, hosted by E-Busan Fm and the Busan Ilbo.

While my four years in Korea do not make me an expert on the issue, it could be sufficient enough for me to share my experiences as an African outside Africa. With two Black American English teachers, a Korean political scientist, and a Filipina from the Philippine-Korea cultural house, we observed that there has been little talk, if any, about racism in the Korean public domain.

My excitement to join the discussion panel arose neither because of my expertise on the subject nor from the basis of being the most victimized individual - but from the openness with which the radio station approached the issue.

In Korea, the case of Hines Ward, a son of a black American and Korean mother is well known.

In 2009, a Korean man was fined for the first time for hurling a racial insult at an Indian professor. It could be guessed that cases of subtle racism are neither reported nor cited yet.

Many have argued that Koreans are not racists. There are those who believe that the concept of racism in Korea is foreign and was only planted from the West. Others hold the view that Korea’s case is a matter of genuine curiosity owing to the fact that, historically, Korea was not exposed to cultural diversity compared to countries like Japan, the Philippines or even Kenya.

In the radio show, I particularly appreciated the discussion on the question of what factors reinforce the concept of racism among young educated Koreans.

The historical nature of the Korean society notwithstanding, examples of educational materials and mass media are probable features. Picture this: One Korean English dictionary was found to contain weird connotations about the black race. For instance, the definition’s illustrations included: America - American made a car; Africa - Lions live in Africa; Beautiful - She is beautiful girl (with a picture of a girl that looks Korean).

As for the mass media, the film industry until recently has portrayed the black race as antagonists. Even to date, most documentaries about Africa aired by international media still focus on poverty, disease and conflicts - mostly ignoring the continent’s achievements and aesthetic.

Thankfully, Korea is becoming a multicultural society by the day thanks to the growing numbers of foreigners in the country. Such organizations as the Seoul Global Centre, Busan Foundation for International Activities and others with foreigner-oriented activities deserve appreciation.

Meanwhile, as Martin Luther King Jr. advised, let us hope that the dark clouds of any racial prejudice will forever pass over and the radiant stars of love and brotherhood shine with all their scintillating beauty.


Benson Kamary, a freelance journalist and a graduate student at Kosin University, Busan.
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