Sam Okyere is a South Korean entertainment personality originally from Ghana. Okyere appeared on JTBC’s yeneung talkshow program Talking Street to discuss how he dealt with ignorance and discrimination while living as a black man in Korea. [Please view the YouTube videos on the site for context. On Facebook, a shorter version of the story was uploaded on a page called “All Things K” and generated over 19,000 reactions.]
Initially blending wry humor on ironically responding to ridiculous questions such as “Do you raise lions back home?” he eventually delves into a much more painful anecdote on the time he experienced outright racism on the 2 train. When he was trying to take a seat on the subway, a middle-aged woman forced her way in and sat down instead. She then spread her legs widely, swore at him, and told him not to sit. She then confronted Okyere’s friend and asked why him he is hanging out with a black man. She turned to Okyere and told him to return to his country. While addressing the wrongness of this situation, Okyere goes onto explain that what hurt him the most was the reaction of the other Seoulites on that subway car, and how no one said a word to intervene. All they did was sit back and observe. As Okyere’s story progresses, a melancholic symphony plays in the background.
Throughout this two-minute story, the camera cuts to members of the live audience who are sitting on the floor around Okyere who is seated in a chair, looking down at the crowd like a teacher does when reading to elementary school children. The cutaways focus on audience faces that are frowning with disapproval or pain at Okyere’s story. There are also cutaways to the show’s hosts You Hee-yeol and HaHa (Ha Dong-hoon) who add small remarks such as, “I’ll apologize on her behalf,” “Oh my…” “It’s embarrassing,” and “I feel really sorry.”
Anti-blackness, racism and ignorance are certainly prevalent problems in the ROK (and arguably throughout Asia). They need to be addressed and corrected. Part of what this program does is help address the issues in Okyere’s story as problems. Asking questions based on ignorance is rude. Okyere speaks on the stresses of day-to-day microaggression while living in the ROK. And, of course, being outright hateful to a black man is completely unacceptable and hurtful. This much is obvious to everyone who is sitting on the sidelines as the show’s hosts, as well as the audience.
What’s missing from this program, however, is any comment on whiteness in the ROK. Anti-blackness is a learned racial discrimination that stems from the US’ military occupancy of the ROK since the 1950s. Historically speaking (in US terms), Koreans have no need to hate blackness (no enslavement of African bodies, no emancipation, no civil rights movement), so where does it come from? This question needs to be asked but it doesn’t appear in this anecdote at all. Instead, it goes from point A (Okyere as the subject), point B (the middle-aged Korean woman as the other subject), to point C (racism is obviously bad, and so are bystanders who don’t do anything about it).
Whiteness often goes missing from discussions of racism in the ROK probably because South Koreans are not used to addressing that either. The silence Okyere felt is more complicated than racial hatred; it involves universal urban solipsism (how often in any of the viral racial discrimination videos do we ever see bystanders helping out victims of hatred?), a disconnect from Western hatred for black bodies, a muteness that erupts from the solipsism and disconnect, and a confrontation with confusion at a sight such as that: a Korean woman hating a black man. What makes a middle-aged woman hate a black man?
In the general horizon of the public sphere, South Koreans have mixed feelings when it comes to US military occupancy. The ROK government accommodates the US’ militaristic needs as a means to stave off the DPRK’s aggression. Then again, prostitution, violence and racism are all problems that occur in military camps and camptowns. We can’t discuss South Korea’s racism without discussing prostitution, the cold war, the Korean War and the US military occupation of South Korea.
Whiteness is the hegemonic cloth that cloaks over these matters and silences South Korean programmers from ever shifting blame onto the US. Okyere is certainly a victim of racism in South Korea, but he is also a victim of US military whiteness and its hatred for blackness. Understanding how racism works in the ROK requires addressing global hierarchy.
(A longer piece on this matter is in the works.)