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A Black man stands in front of a club entrance where a sign says its K-hip hop night. Below that, a sign reads, "no foreigners, no Moroccans, Egyptias, Algerians"

Interrupting racism in Korea

Can a three-letter word help us change our approach toward discrimination?

This three-letter word compels confrontations with complexity. 

It’s no other than the word “but.” Try using it and you’ll get to understand how and why. 

For example, try to fill in the blanks – “I like _ but _.”

Now let’s imagine establishments saying the same line, say something like bars, whose overflowing booze, party atmosphere, and flickering strobe lights supposedly extend everyone the license to have fun.

 

“We like playing hip-hop music, but you came from a different racial background, so you can’t come in here.”

 

Then let’s elevate this to the government level. 

“We like having more people from other countries taking interest in our country, but there are limits to to your rights if you decide to work, live or have a family here. If you experience discrimination, for example, that’s not considered unlawful as now because we have no law against it.”

Then let’s make it more personal again.

 

“I know this seat is free, but you can’t sit beside me because the color of your skin is different from mine.”

The moment “but” gets interjected into our decision-making and thought processes, it invites a more discerning look into personal prejudices that are actually ratcheted up to the institutional level because more often than not, these prejudices are rooted in the history of a society, a people’s stigma and the framing of a hierarchy created by the Global North/South divide. 

The examples we gave above actually happened in South Korea, a country whose cultural exports of music, films, and dramas have helped turn it into a global economic and socio-cultural powerhouse. Now people of all ages, of different races, arguably know one, two, or even more Kpop groups whose songs are imbued with the influence of Black music, from rhythm and blues to hip-hop. 

While this influence has conjured hybridity that made Kpop what it is today, Korean industries, institutions, and the public, in general, have yet to challenge deeply-held misguided perceptions against Black people. This is patently wrong, but in order to change this mindset,  our story shows why it is also imperative to understand that the causes behind this kind of status quo are complex. It is intricately imbricated with ethnonationalism and a worldview that links pale skin to success and dark skin to poverty. 

The good thing about the three-letter word “but” though is that it doesn’t only suggest the perpetuation of prejudices, however – it also signals a break from them.

 

Now let’s try to fill in the blanks again and modify it a bit: “I don’t like ___ but__.”

“I don’t like foreigners but I’ll try to see where is this coming from and change this perspective.”

 

“The owner of the bar doesn’t like and trust people who have dark skin, but maybe it’s time to talk to him about it and show him why this is tantamount to discrimination.” 

“I don’t like challenging what the majority wants but there is a way of respecting our history without disrespecting those of others.”

 

This may sound too simple, but sometimes all it takes is a simple step.  And that step can come in the form of a three-letter word. 

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