Ximanto Atikromi ! Kookyeong-eul Neomeo!

Musings on Migration, Labour, Politics, Dissent etc.

The Court Case and Aftermath: Coloring Discrimination in Korea

– Bonojit Hussain

First published in The Korea Herald, Seoul, December 2009. A pdf version is available here.

Herald

Photo: Matt Lamers

Since July 10th when racist and sexist remarks were launched at my colleague Han Ji-sun and I on a bus in Bucheon, the media has swarmed to the issue. Numerous newspaper articles were written in Korea and abroad. Hundreds of blog entries have been made, both supporting and condemning our case. Some criticized the steps we took. But most importantly, an anti-discrimination bill has been proposed by the Democratic Party in the National Assembly.

Finally, the case came to an end on Nov. 27 with the Incheon district court convicting the defendant and slapping him with a fine of 1 million won. While the episode dragged on for five months, there have been few things that came as surprise to me.

I didn`t expect the amount of media enthusiasm that was generated. Perhaps at the beginning, the case took hold in the media because the incident had all the elements to make it top selling news – a foreigner professor, young Korean woman, an intoxicated man, racial slurs and a bit of violence. But once Korean and migrant organizations pitched in to form the Joint Action Committee against Gendered-Racial Discrimination – and with the proposal of the Anti-Discrimination Bill – the news reports took a more serious turn, and many more analytical articles appeared.

The foreign media – including Indian and American outlets – also noticed and gave extensive coverage to the case. But it might be noteworthy to mention here that a section of Indian media had tried to appropriate the news as an Indian nationalist issue. Some tried to portray me as an Indian hero, which I reject. Since I don`t carry a placard on the streets of Seoul declaring “I am Indian” – this case has nothing to do with me being an Indian; it is more about the abuse and discrimination faced by migrant workers from different parts of Asia in Korea.

It is purely coincidence that I happen to be an Indian. I would have taken this up even in the land of my birth, or for that matter anywhere in the world, should the need have arisen. The issue is important to me.

Nonetheless, I believe that the extensive media coverage definitely had a considerably positive impact on Korean society. It is imperative for any society in order to address emerging issues of social conflict to discuss and deliberate them. The extensive media coverage has precisely prompted Korean society to do just that – to talk about racism – whether they agree or disagree is of a secondary importance. In recent months racism has been discussed in Korean society in the way it has never been before.

However, the media can`t be absolved of portraying only part of the story. The male-dominated Korean media utterly failed to show the ugly underbelly of sexism and gendered discrimination of society, which was so blatantly present in our case. Han Ji-sun was not only the victim of sexist comments, but she was also physically assaulted.

Moreover, Han was my co-complainant in both the court case and the petition to the National Human Rights Commission of Korea. Like numerous other women-related issues, the mainstream Korean media conveniently pushed her story into oblivion.

Before being kicked, Han was called a “Joseon Bitch” and was asked, “how does it feel to date a black bastard?” This is not an isolated incident. I have met numerous Korean women who had similar experiences while being with non-Korean men.

In fact, after our incident was covered by the media, I received many e-mails and letters from anonymous Korean women who are married to “other” Asians. They invariably reported the same story: When they got married, they were called “prostitutes” – sometimes even by Korean family members. Considering the seriousness and frequency of violence against Korean women in these kinds of incidents, the mainstream Korean media deserves to be strongly condemned for having failed in bringing forth the sexist dimension of the whole incident on the bus.

But one of the interesting things arising out of this case has been the response from the expat community in Korea, especially some Western ones. I mentioned in many interviews to newspapers and other media, Asian and African migrants face more discrimination than Western expats in Korea.

One blogger called me a “person with post-colonial hang-ups,” another called me “Cultural Marxist” and then still another blogger declared that “I was searching for racism” in Korea. And another blog conducted an analysis, concluding that the case was a conspiracy by SungKongHoe University, who hired a professional mercenary named Bonojit.

Of course, I paid that nonsense little attention, which had been passed off in the name of “an exchange of ideas.”

Pointing out that Asians and Africans face more serious discrimination in Korea in no way denies that Western expats also face discrimination. It is only to say that the degree and form of discrimination varies between these two groups of expats. It is important to have a dialogue on the grave abuse and discrimination the migrant laborers face on the factory floor. And if one travels to places like Pocheon or Namyangju, it is not very difficult to find that these migrant workers are often not allowed to enter restaurants.

I remember hearing some Western expats complain that they were not provided with chopsticks – and instead were given a fork and spoon in a Korean restaurant – and they felt discriminated against. Now, being given a fork and spoon instead of chopsticks and not being allowed to enter the restaurant are completely different, not only in form but also in degree. Again, getting stared all the time on public transport and in public places is also different in form and degree than getting kicked by a bus driver just because someone fell asleep and ended up in the bus terminal (in this case it happened to me last June). However, female Western expats do face very serious abuses and discrimination with a number of incidents of sexual abuse and rape being reported.

Let me put forth the proposition that even though we are all expats living in Korea from different backgrounds, with different color, creeds and beliefs, we can still find some common ground that will not only be mutually beneficial to us, but also to our host society. There could be bridges built between migrant factory workers and Western expats in general and English teachers in particular, wherein migrant workers` struggles don`t remain silent and Western expats don`t stop only at campaigning against Anti-English Spectrum. But to build those bridges, differences have be recognized and respected, including the difference in form and degree of discrimination faced. And the onus lies with Western expats.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent those of The Korea Herald. To comment, e-mail mattlamers@heraldcorp.com; to contact the author, e-mail h.bonojit@gmail.com – Ed.

Select media features in English on the Racism case:

1.  New York Times: South Korean Struggles with Race, November 2009

2.  Mail Today: The Consistent Crusader, October 2009

3.  Foreign Policy: The President, the Professor, and the Wide Receiver, November 2009

4.  Times Now: Prime Time interview with Arnab Goswami, October 2009

5.  Korea Herald: Setting a Precedent on Racism, March 2010

6. Hankyoreh21: Korean Reader Reacts to Bonojit Hussain, September 2009 (English translation by Asian Correspondence)

7. Yonhap News Agency: Foreign Professor Launches Battle to Raise Local Awareness of Racism, September 2009

8. India Today: Indian Pushes Korea to Right Race Wrongs, September 2009

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