Given how homogenous South Korea is and the issue of diversity was never consciously discussed or taught, I received my first racism education after I moved to America. It was when I came across reading a passage in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail that I got to see clearly what racism was and why it was wrong:
‘It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.’
Racism was a false sense of superiority. It implied a false hierarchy among races.
In Asia, the Western culture and the white race were considered superior and more refined over the Asian culture and the Asian race. The beauty standard said everything: lighter skin, bigger eyes, and pointed nose were considered more beautiful, and mixed children — half Asian and half White — were considered more beautiful than traditionally Asian looking children. As Asian countries developed and embraced modernization, they were eager to adopt anything ‘Western’ — as a symbol of progress and modernity, and willingly throw the traces of Asian culture and civilization out the window, as 'backward' and 'inferior'. Modernization, to Asians, was synonymous with Westernization.
This ‘hierarchy among cultures and races’ that I had blindly internalized growing up in Asia fueled how I was all for assimilation upon moving to America — willingly shedding any traces of Koreanness in myself and mould myself into an ‘American’ in accent, dress and mannerisms.
It was only when my American classmates challenged me, why I would try to ‘hide’ the Korean side of me and refused to speak Korean in public, that the hierarchy inside of me started getting dismantled. They showed appreciation and respect for Korean culture and were proud to have a friend who could speak Korean.
I was finally able to exorcize the hierarchy among cultures that were deeply ingrained in me, after studying Social Anthropology in Britain. The discipline, which had started out wanting to understand the ‘colonized’ from a ‘colonizer’ perspective during Britain’s colonial history, was extra critical and cautious to not impose any hierarchy between cultures in studying other cultures, which it obviously had made a mistake of during their colonial times. It was to be made sure that all cultures were on an equal plane, not above or below the other. I could see how Korea having been colonized, Koreans, including myself, had harbored a false sense of inferiority about Korean culture, deeply buried in the collective psyche.
When I recently visited Asia after 25 years of leaving it, I could still see that ‘the hierarchy among cultures’ remained unchallenged in Asian societies. The beauty standard of regarding fairer skin and bigger eyes as more beautiful remained. There were mixed half white children on TV who were celebrities just because they were considered more beautiful than Korean children. I found it interesting that while Asia embraced the Western culture so willingly at the expense of shedding their own culture, the West felt threatened of losing their culture and civilization by the influx of people from other cultures.
At the onset of ‘white supremacy’ resurfacing across the globe, it was worth noting that it wasn’t only the ‘white supremacists’ who perpetuated the false sense of superiority of the whites, but other races and cultures that blindly uphold and support the ‘hierarchy' among cultures and races. White supremacy and hierarchy among cultures — and false sense of superiority and inferiority harbored in themselves — was to be checked and challenged across all races and cultures, not only in the whites themselves. Until then, the seed of racism won’t be uprooted, and would still remain percolating underneath the surface, waiting for the opportunity to get articulated.