Be more sensitive

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Be more sensitive

The author is the deputy cultural team editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

“It is best to respect each other’s culture. I want to have a discussion if given an opportunity,” said Ghanaian TV personality Sam Okyere. His wish seems to have been half-attained. His criticism of a parody portrayal of the dancing pallbearers in the Uijeongbu High School yearbook backfired.

After Okyere apologized, online comments argue over whether the picture was racially insensitive, as the students did not have a discriminatory intention. On Aug. 10, a petition was posted on the Blue House website that said that education on racial discrimination needs to be added to the public school curriculum.

Cultural acceptance changes with context. “Falling Down” (1993), a movie by Joel Schumacher, could not be released in Korea because of local civic groups’ protests. The white protagonist fiercely confronts an unfriendly Korean store owner, “Do you know how much money my country has given your country?” he asks. The distributer claimed that it was not racially discriminatory or anti-Korean. It took three years for the movie to be released in Korea. Even if the scene was necessary to understand American society at the time and the character, Koreans did not find it pleasing.

Some also point out that Okyere disparaged Asians by mimicking their slanted eyes on television. The creator of the original Coffin Dancers in Ghana actually celebrated the Uijeongbu High School’s parody tradition for graduation, saying he did not mind the controversy.

But what’s important is not the reaction from Okyere nor the creator of the Coffin Dancers. Too many people in Korea are not aware that “blackface” is considered racially insensitive in the multicultural era. They are oblivious of the fact that Korea is also connected in real time to societies where “simply playing” cannot serve as an excuse.

In the age of connectivity and communication, cultural mix-ups and clashes are common. Recently, BTS member Suga removed a sampling of Jimmy Jones’ speech in his mixtape, “D-2,” after learning that it was from a cult leader. It is a slice of a “globalization risk” that BTS has earned in return for its global fandom.

Cats the Musical is touring around the world, and during the audience interaction, the actors do not touch heads in Thailand. They are careful not to break the taboos of each society. It doesn’t help if you argue that in Korean society patting the bottom of somebody is not sexual harassment if people in New Zealand feel that it is. You need to be more sensitive about differences and show some respect.

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