Friday, December 23, 2011

dagNotes: on privilege and white power in Korea

[from my tumblr blog, posted earlier today]

In my last post, I talked about the problem with white people coming to Korea and suddenly becoming conscious of race. Except, they don’t see white power and privilege, which is everywhere on display. They see racist Koreans.

Then, I received an anonymous ask shouting at me for being white and calling out white supremacists and racism. An obvious troll, but one who provides me with an opportunity to discuss why white people experiencing racism like the young woman in the former post are so misinformed.

I’m white. I argue I have a responsibility to betray my inherited privilege and unearned ambition. And not for any reward either. Simply because I, like everyone else, have an ethical obligation to fight the white power structure that constructs individuals as white subjects. White people don’t exist. Whiteness is constructed and protected and inherited. I may be able to benefit most from this racist ideological apparatus that shapes capitalist society, but I should reject it. It’s a moral obligation, in my opinion.

And as some folks are claiming, I’m not doing this to point the finger at white privilege. I’m actually trying to examine how it works for myself and in my life, and I’m writing about it. DagSeoul isn’t a “white people are privileged” blog. So, please stop sending me stupid shit in my ask-box about that.


I don’t go around claiming I’ve experienced racism in the manner most white people do. Most talk about angry black people, hateful hispanics, crazy Koreans—jealous others whose envy for power causes them to hate their whiteness so much that they act in a racist manner. Of course, that’s utter nonsense. It’s bullshit. That’s not racism. Yelling at whiteness, hating whiteness, having a problem with white people isn’t always racist. It’s a sign of white power. It’s a response to white supremacy.

I play football almost every Saturday in Korea. I live in a Korean neighborhood, so all my teammates are Koreans. They’re all men. They’re almost all younger than me. I’m bigger than all of them. Stronger than many. I’m not the most skilled footballer, but I’ve played since 1978. I’ve got skill. I can score. I’m fast. I know and love the game. And, I can run all day. When a bald (I shave my head) and bearded white guy is booking down the field with the ball, it’s intimidating. A lot of Korean guys are super-fit and strong, but smaller than me. When I run into them at full speed, I feel it, but they really feel it. And I play a much more physical style of football than Koreans do. Fans of the game will understand this. Most guys love it when I show up with my Korean teammates to play. They talk to me on the field. It’s fun. But it’s not always fun.

When I first arrived, a colleague took me around to meet various clubs in the area. Word got around rather quickly that there was a foreigner who wanted to play and he was good. I got asked to play by my team. I was invited. I considered myself lucky. I really figured I’d have to find foreigners to play with, but I wanted so much to play with Koreans. It’s one of the reasons I was excited about coming here. Anyway, I felt accepted. In a few months, I had twenty-five younger brothers. It was a wonderful feeling.

One of the teams we regularly played often got very mad at my teammates that I was playing so well. It appeared that way to me. I didn’t get it. I’ve since learned that some Korean players think its unfair that they should have to play a foreigner. I’m big and strong and can hurt them. I don’t hurt them, but we’re talking intimidation here. I had so intimidated a couple of players that they couldn’t contain their frustrations any longer. After a day of playing together, they confronted me and my team. We almost had a brawl. My teammates were standing up for me. I was pulling guys away from one another. And one player on the other team yelled, “Yankee, Go home!” Some of us laughed. Some of my teammates wanted to fight. The oldest players stepped in and yelled at everyone. My wife had showed up to watch. She was very upset.

Simple story, right? I play. I play with Koreans. I play well. A little physical, but nothing dirty. I score goals. My team wins a lot. The frustrated players on the other team blame the foreigner for fucking up the peace. One guy says something insulting. Many white people would call it racist. Dude’s a hater. It’s not even racist.

Once, I parked my scooter in front of a cafe and the owner told me to move it somewhere else. She didn’t want it in front of her shop. I told her it was legal. She yelled at me for being a spoiled foreigner. Many white people would call it racist. But. It’s not even racist.

I’ve been involved in pushy moments in the crowded subway where I’ve been yelled at in Korean, called out as a rude foreigner. Many white people would call it racist. But. It’s not even racist.

Koreans who call me out for doing things Koreans often do and explicitly scolding me as a foreigner are often referred to by white people in Korea as racist Koreans. They’re not racists.

White people love to see racism against them. And why not. White power works that way. White people are raised to feel precious and deserving of good treatment. They deserve respect. Why would anybody pick on them because of who they are?

Fact is, there are haters in Korea. The longer I live here, on the other hand, the more I recognize my white privilege is in full effect here. And the rudeness with which I’m treated at times simply requires a little patience and understanding. This might sound patronizing, but it’s not. After all, I was brought here and treated well because of who I am, treated well in a manner that the majority of Koreans will never experience.

I’m often asked, Why would you come to Korea? Koreans talk about their country being no bigger than a booger (우리나라는 코딱지 만큼…)  or no bigger than a palm (우리나라는 손바닥 만큼…). Why would I come to a place most Koreans can’t leave? Well, the answer is because I’m privileged. That’s the answer. The humiliating aspect of that answer is its correlation: I can leave whenever I want to. In other words, I can go home. I have a place to go other than here. I can return. That’s what Koreans see me as sometimes, but especially when they’re annoyed at me. They are confronted with privilege. And they sometimes take it out on me. It’s not racism. Try telling that to many white people in Korea, though.

I’d have to be a real dick to deny this privilege. That guy yelling “Yankee, go home” at me is reaching for something to say at all in the face of my belligerent presence in his life. He was being a dick, but he can’t speak English and he yelled the one insult in English he knew might hurt my feelings. The power he feels that oppresses him in a daily manner is a problem with Korean culture, centuries of oppression. Shit I don’t get. But I’ve added another element. Now he has to play soccer, on his day off, with a white guy who reminds him of a specific and painful lack of privilege and I’m going to knock him down, too. I’d be a dick not to expect some sort of response.

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