Home 2009: 8 My tryst with racism in Korea

My tryst with racism in Korea

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After suffering racial abuse, one migrant, Bonojit Hussain, speaks out about the need for an anti-racism bill in Korea.

The recent incident of racist abuse against me that triggered off heated debates on racism in South Korea is not the first time that I experienced race-based discrimination here. But that became a moment for me when I felt enough was enough. I might not be the only one to feel so, but I definitely thought that it needs to be taken up more seriously, for better condition of living for all  migrants and colored people. Today, I stand here against “all those conditions that degrade and abase human conditions”, which stops human beings from creative work, since our minds are mostly preoccupied with experiences of injustice, inequity and discrimination. In extremely modest terms, I see myself standing in line with all those individuals, initiatives and movements, at least in the modern world, that have courageously sought to break this silence surrounding all manner of exploitation, inequity and injustice, including racism.

It is indeed an honor and a rare opportunity to be speaking in front of this gathering of alert minds. However, I must confess that I have not been able to go through the draft bill prepared by the honourable Mr Jun Byung Hun on behalf of the Democratic Party; hence I find myself not to be in a position to comment on the content of the bill itself. But I must say that a bill for an “anti-racism” law is a welcome step at least for the 1.1 million-strong migrant communities. Having said this, today I will mostly share my personal experiences of racist abuse in Korea and express some of my opinions.

Recounting my experiences

As many of you might have read in the newspapers, my companion Ms Jisun Han and I were subjected to severe racist abuse, which almost turned into a physical altercation. It was on 10 July while travelling in a public bus, when suddenly a Korean man identified as Mr Park, 41, dressed in suit and tie started yelling at me by shouting, “Dirty! You dirty son of a bitch”, “Where are you from you stinky bastard”. Then he started shouting, “You Arab! You Arab”, “You must be an Arab”. It is noteworthy that Mr. Park was sitting at least two metres away. If at all I smelled, I must have smelled strongly and extremely bad for him to smell me from two metres away.

When Ms. Han confronted Mr. Park to ask why he was behaving like this, he didn’t spare her. He shouted her down by saying, “Who are you? Aren’t you a Jocheon[1] bitch?” Mr. Park further shouted at her, “You Jocheon bitch, does it feel good to date a black bastard? Then in fact Mr Park kicked Ms Han.
Let me again tell you that this is not the first time I have been abused in Korea. Whenever people feel uncomfortable about my presence they don’t hesitate for a moment to shout me down as “bastard”. Let me give you another example. A few months ago, I was travelling in a bus after work and I felt asleep. I wound up in the bus terminal; suddenly I woke up as someone kicked me around my thighs. I saw it was the bus driver who was wiping the floor of the bus. His hands were busy; so he didn’t hesitate to use his legs to wake me up. I wonder if he would have had the courage to do that if I was a Caucasian from a western country, or for that matter, if I was a Korean.
Another very subtle discrimination faced by South Asians, Southeast Asians and Africans everyday happens in the subway. I have noticed for a couple of years that most Koreans don’t feel comfortable sitting next to these groups of people. It happens to me as well almost everyday. If there is an empty seat next to me, it often remains empty until I get up. This everyday experience might appear trivial to many people but it has a tremendous impact on the person who faces it. If you keep reminding a child for a long time that s/he is stupid, that child starts believing it. It is no different with migrants; if they are reminded all the time on the subways, buses, streets that they are not equal human beings, it has a serious impact on their physiological make-up. Sometimes I also ask myself – Am I not an equal human being as the Koreans or the Westerners?

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Male-centric ultra-nationalism

There is one aspect of the incident on that bus which has not been paid enough attention. The incident was not only racist in nature but it was also much gendered. Here it is noteworthy to mention the abusive words against Ms Han again. Mr Park said, “Who are you? Aren’t you a Jocheon bitch?” Mr Park further shouted at her, “You Jocheon bitch, does it feel good to date a black bastard?”

Why did he call Ms Han a “Jocheon bitch” and why did he ask her “does it feel good to date a black bastard?” It is because, like in many other nations, in Korea, women are seen as the repository of national honour. So, it is not tolerated when the women is perceived to be in a relationship with an “inferior” foreign man.

Whenever Ms Han and I have travelled in a public bus, most of the time we have faced hostilities from Korean men. But it is not only the experience of Ms Han; I have met numerous Korean women who have faced similar situations. In fact, after our story was published in the media, I received many emails from Korean women married to foreigners who are now living in other countries. Invariably, most of them wrote to me that when they got married, they were called ‘prostitute’ by relatives and sometimes by their own family members.

Personally, I am surprised that Mr Park has not been indicted by the prosecution on charges of sexual harassment as well. In this case, in most countries with sexual harassment laws, Mr. Park would have been undoubtedly indicted on charges of sexual harassment.

Institutional violence: racist behaviour of the police

I was disturbed and hurt by what Mr Park did on that bus. But I am more disturbed and shocked by how the police behaved. They were clearly but implicitly racist towards me, and they were totally gender insensitive towards Ms Han. Inside the police station, the police (men) didn’t have the common yet legal sense to separate Mr Park from us. I guess many of you can imagine the abusive situation inside the police station especially as it involves a young Korean woman and a middle-aged Korean man. In front of 10 or more policemen, Mr Park continued abusing Ms Han by repeatedly saying, “You dumb ass, why are doing this? Aren’t both of us Korean?” Mr Park was chasing us like a dog chases cats. And the police did absolutely nothing despite our repeated complaints.

Moreover, they did not believe my identity. I produced before them my Alien Registration Card and my University Identity Card. Then one police man commented to me, “How can you be a Professor?” and he took back my Alien Registration Card without explanation. It took the police more than one hour to verify my identity. Recently, I jokingly told a journalist that “Korean police are very diligent; they don’t even believe their own Ministry of Justice without verifying.” I didn’t make that card at home; it was issued to me by the Ministry of Justice. Why did the police suspect my identity? It is because they have deep prejudice against people of  “colour” from South Asia, Southeast Asia and Africa. They could not imagine that a person who looks like a migrant factory worker could actually be intelligent enough to be a professor.

Furthermore, whenever the police were speaking to Mr. Park or Ms Han, they were using Jondaenmal (polite Korean language) all the time. But the moment they spoke to me, they would switch to Banmal (a rude and derogatory form of Korean), the switching from Jondaemal to Banmal was so swift and natural. Some of you might think that this is too trivial, but if you think over it, it is not that trivial. The policemen shared the same mentality as Mr Park; thinking that I am a migrant worker, they thought that they could treat me as they want, the assumption being that “migrant workers” are not equal to Koreans or Americans.

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Why did I say I am more disturbed and shocked by this? Mr Park is just a citizen who hurled racial slurs at me, but the Police Department is one of the most important and prominent branches of the Korean state. If one of the most prominent branches of the State itself is racist then the argument can be put forth that the Korean Government as a structure is also racist.

Reaction towards me: Denial of right to live without fear and with dignity

After the media reported about Ms Han’s and my story, I have been getting mixed responses from various sections of Korean society. Everyday many strangers come up to me on the streets and they talk to me, apologise, sometimes buy me coffee. It is a good feeling. But, on the other hand, there is a dark side to all this. Such is the hatred towards migrants in Korea that I have been getting “threatening calls” in my office phone; the internet is full of abuse against me. In fact, on the night of 10 September, one Korean youth tried to physically assault me but he failed to do so. Since that night, I don’t feel safe anymore to walk on the streets at night. I get paranoid that someone might recognise me and that person might not like what I have been doing regarding racism in Korea. It is as if the nights have been snatched away from me.

I feel my circumstances in Korea have taken away one of my basic rights as a human being, i.e. the right to live without fear and with dignity.

Why an anti-racism law?

There are 1.1 million migrants in Korea today. Let’s ask ourselves why there are so many migrants in Korea. Is it because all these migrants have nowhere else to go? Or is it because Korea needs them? Let’s not forget Korea is a country with a very low birth rate, Korea needs all these migrants to run the small factories, to fish in the seas, to teach languages, etc.

If you allow me, I will make a bold claim here: Korea is a part of the global village today, but sadly Korea’s economic development has superseded its social development. And on the same note, let me say that, by not having an anti-racism law/provision, not only mine but also the personal rights of hundreds and thousands of migrants are infringed upon everyday, forcing us to believe that we are not equal human beings just because we come from economically poor countries and belong to a certain “skin colour”. One recent study stated that by 2040, 14 per cent of the population in Korea will be migrants. To me it seems that racist discrimination is like a “time bomb” in Korea: if nothing is done to redress it now, it will explode 30 or 40 years later. And it will be a situation of racial riots which the authorities will not be able to control very easily.

But let me tell you that I am not here to stand and speak to satisfy my “ego” as a person who has “raised some (non) pertinent questions in South Korea”. Nor do I see myself as the singular primary architect of this campaign against racism in South Korea. I am merely a trigger. I am here to raise my voice and fight against injustice, fight for my fellow human beings, to say that every act of injustice and abuse affects the entire society and makes it unhappy. I believe that all of us want to live in peace and happiness.

My presence here today is not to say that racism is a typical unacknowledged feature of Korean society; no society is homogeneous; people are different and it is for all of us to recognise that differences are the life-line of any society and need to be accepted and protected. It is not against any individual or nation that I am standing here today, but I am standing against the idea that makes us demons sometimes, very often, consciously or otherwise. It is purely contingent that I happen to be an Indian. I would have taken this up even in the land of my birth or anywhere in the world, should the need arise. The issue is important for me.

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My experience in Korea cannot be weighed only with these negative experiences; I have also received kindness and love from people here. And it is with the love of people that I have pursued the case of one abuse and tried to make it as an example for Korea, whose progress will remain stunted and farcical if it does not address this deep-rooted issue and extend a structural/legal protection of dignity, rights and love to people who are different. Korea is responsible towards it citizens and foreigners, and it is undoubtedly a happy and historic occasion for people of Korea and me to be sitting here today to acknowledge the need of an “anti-racism” law, which will surely make positive inroads into the society for a happier tomorrow. Whether our skin is black, brown, yellow or white, we share the same world, the same pains and happiness. It is our differences that make humanity so colourful and beautiful. By saying that one colour is superior to another, we can make things ugly; turn the world into mayhem of abuses. It is in our hands to keep this world beautiful, not from anyone else, but from us. A nation is truly meaningful, not by its geographical boundaries, racial populace, weapons or industries, but its efforts and systems to protect the people (citizens and guests alike), ensure their dignity, rights, freedom, equality and life.

While it is important that a law should be legislated to protect people’s differences, their dignity and freedom, it is also important that these are not important merely as values in themselves. The law is not an end but part of a longer process which will create a condition for people to become conscious of the value of civilities and choose equality and freedom, not out of fear of a law, but out of conscious choice.

Let me end with the words of Bertoldt Brecht :

“And yet we know well,
even hatred of vileness
distorts a man’s features.
Even anger at injustice
makes hoarse his voice. Ah, we
who desired to prepare the soil for kindness
could not ourselves be kind.

—B. Brecht,
translated by Michael Hamburger

[1] Jocheon refers to the name of Korea during Japanese colonialism. Today this term is seen as derogatory in Korea.

Bonojit Hussain is currently a Research Professor at SungKongHoe University, Seoul. He is also concurrently programme officer at the Asian Regional Exchange for New Alternatives. Prior to coming to Seoul, he was a political activist in India for nearly a decade where he was involved in social movements of progressive students working on environmental issues, informal sector workers’ rights, and university democrati-sation. He delivered this address at a “Consultative Public Hearing” on an anti-racism bill at the National Assembly in Korea.

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