In comedy, there's a significant difference between laughing at someone and laughing with them. The problem is magnified when the way we classify people--sex/gender, class, and/or race--is foregrounded within comic situations. Comedy can be oppressive, even when we're just out to get a laugh. The foreigner-authored video below, from Seoul, shows exactly how oppression works in humor: if the man is the joke, and he is in this example, it's oppressive. And I'd say, in this case, racist. And that will likely piss off the people who are a part of the video because it's more than apparent that they're absolutely unaware about how offensive it actually is. And I'd say, tough, because they should be more aware and they should care about it.
I've had it with people who are incapable (because they don't care to be more responsible) of understanding how offensive and bigoted some of their behavior ends up being. There is a two-fold response from my foreign friends in these situations. First, they like to point out how they are with Koreans. "You know, we were with Koreans and they didn't have a problem with it" is a typical argument. Second, folks will point out that they weren't intending to be oppressive. (In addition, somebody is sure to write about how bigoted Koreans are in the comments following this post. So, a third response is always that the subjects are bigots, too.)
I'm tired of hearing foreigners defend offensive behavior; saying "I'm with Koreans" is just as dumb as saying "Some of my best friends are black/gay/Mexican/[insert commonly oppressed person's class.]" My UK and US friends know better: they would never be permitted to make that bullshit claim at home. Why is it permissible here?
It's embarrassing for me to watch this video and think that these folks felt that filming an old man enjoying himself in a park near his home and mocking him is funny. I say they think it was worth doing because they published the video for everyone to see. That it was something that might make people laugh, well that annoys me even more.
What is it in this video that we are supposed to laugh at or with? Why laugh at or laugh with? Well, try this. Watch the video with the sound off and then with the sound on. With the sound off, there's nothing much to find offensive. The video might seem a little intrusive. But the old guy is dancing in public. We don't know the author's intention and, I'd argue, it's not worth it to guess. With the sound on, however, the whole purpose and intent of the video become part of the viewing experience: from the exaggerated laughing and filming the people laughing to the sexual quip at the end about being turned on, the entire narrative is framed at the expense of the man. The joke is him. Not the dancing. Not something happening around him. Nothing coincidental. It's staged to show the white people laughing at and mocking the Korean man. In addition, I know that Koreans were present at this scene and with the foreigners making the video. Where are they? Why are they not shown mocking the man? (I can answer that but I don't think you need me to.)
The fact is, the folks aren't sharing a moment with the old man that is genuinely humorous; they are mocking him in order to actively and aggressively create a comic moment. And this is where racism becomes an issue. And what 할아버지 (harabeoji: grandfather) is doing isn't by any stretch of the imagination odd. It is humorous, I suppose. I'd smile and laugh, for sure. So, don't get me wrong.
I'm trying hard to make the point that the audio does something to what we're supposed to find funny, changes the innocent humor in an old man dancing in a park to a more critical humor that examines the man himself, and it laughs at his expense because of who he is.
Quite frankly, I find the video rather disturbing and unfunny. I never have been comfortable with using a video camera in this manner. Nevertheless, without the banter, the video is funny and rather candid. It captures something real, possibly poignant. The video is engaging because of what somebody did with a mundane moment. It's a 28 second primer in how photography is never innocent.
I think you'd have to be naive and precious not to understand that this clip is offensive. Yet, I see foreigners in Korea acting like this all the time: turning on a camera to capture a Korean doing something while pointing and laughing at the Korean. I have to admit that my knee-jerk reaction is to beat the shit out of the dumb white person. In the US, I'm surrounded by unconscious bigotry everyday. Not your institutionalized and structural problems that people ignore, but your outright racist behavior that your friends insist you ignore. I never have ignored it and I'm not about to start now. Fortunately, I can write. I'd hate to put my future in jeopardy simply because a couple of my foreign friends are haters.
I realize all foreigners in Korea aren't white. But it'll come as no surprise to my readers that the yelling, screaming and mocking groups of foreigners are usually white. Will it?