Students experience new perception of racial differences in South Korea

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Photo Credit: Barba Daly | Daily Texan Staff

Experiencing a society where almost the entire population is ethnically homogeneous can be jolting for those who grew up in theUnited States.

Some black and Hispanic students studying abroad in Seoul, South Korea, said they stand out in public because of their darker skin and curly hair. American black culture has become popular in Korean media, and students such as health and society senior Dumebi Nzegwu, who is Nigerian American, receive attention from Koreans in public settings.

Nzegwu said many locals stare at her, and one woman touched and complimented her hair.

“In America, I would just tell you, ‘What are you doing? Are you crazy?’” Nzegwu said. “But it was a sense of she’s never seen a black person before, and I had to assess the situation and say, ‘She must not know that this is wrong.’ It’s blissful ignorance.”

Hyun-woo Kim, an economics senior from Seoul at the University of Iowa, said Koreans assume white and black foreigners are rich and high class, which contributes to the fascination. Black people are often stereotyped as good dancers or rappers, he said.

“(Koreans are) trying to be kind to (foreigners) to make a good reputation about Koreans,” Kim said. “We think that foreigners talk to strangers a lot and are open-minded, so Koreans think Americans wouldn’t care if strangers talk to them.”

Kim said some Koreans might dislike darker skin due to issues of racism against dark-skinned Southeast Asians. Migrants from there are seen as low-class, he said.

“Some might think (darker skin) is ugly because one of the beauty standards in Korea is pale skin,” Kim said. “But we’re really sensitive about racism to us, which is hypocritical.”

Psychology senior Brianne Richardson, who is Afro-Latina, said in addition to stares people have photographed her, which leads to discomfort.

“They take a picture and run away,” Richardson said. “It feels very secretive. I don’t know if they’re doing it for positive reasons or to make fun of me.”

Despite this, Richardson said the attention she receives stems from Seoul locals having curiosity about her big, curly hair, whereas she receives more hate in the States for it.

“That’s the biggest difference between here and the States,” Richardson said. “We have racism (in the U.S.) for different reasons, but (Seoul doesn’t) have all those years of history leading up to what (American) racism becomes.”

International relations and global studies senior William Gonzales, who is Latinx, said locals in Seoul also show interest or surprise at his appearance. Others, he said, have moved away from him on the subway.

“It’s a lack of exposure,” Gonzales said. “People don’t really know how to process (my appearance), so I don’t think it comes out of a place of malice. However, it can be interpreted that way easily.”

Nzegwu said the use of black hairstyles and culture in K-pop and other media displays her culture on a surface level.

“(Koreans) don’t want to learn about what makes my culture unique,” Nzegwu said. “I’ve seen many Koreans with dreads and braids. They call that ‘reggae hair.’ They take all the diverse hairstyles of black culture and make it into a one-word bracket here.”

Richardson said she appreciates Koreans’ interest in her culture because people in the States do the same thing with Korean culture.

“Koreans aren’t angry about it,” Richardson said. “Other cultures should be able to share their parts of pop culture with other people. That’s a beautiful thing.”

Kim said many Koreans enjoy expressing themselves through black culture, especially since K-pop idols utilize it, but are not familiar with the term “cultural appropriation.”

Confucianism, a system of philosophical and ethical teachings that also defines standards for one’s presentation and appearance, has a strong influence in Korea, Kim said. Black American culture plays a role in challenging Confucian tradition.

“Because of Confucianism, we tend to not show ourselves,” Kim said. “We are conservative and sensitive about harming others. People who (don’t like) Confucianism tend to follow that free culture.”