Friday, November 19, 2010

Stop the bus!

I received a flood of input on Twitter today from my sub-140-character post referring to Seoul, somewhat satirically, as a world-class racist city. If they can call it a world design capital, I can call it a world racism capital. The situation is not entirely analogous to a black man hailing a cab in America, at least not to a number of Koreans, who feel awful but empathize with drivers who are apparently afraid of speaking English.

I don't think anyone has ever had a problem getting somewhere in a taxi because the driver couldn't speak English. The problem would be with a passenger who can't speak English, but generally passengers compensate by giving general directions, saying the name of an obvious landmark and working from there. I'm not even sure why I'm taking the time to defend the idea that a university-educated adult living in a developed country can get home on their own in a taxi, but I am.

Anyway, I think I have enough responses to create a poll. Everyone who wrote was unfailingly kind, even if defending the current status quo. Apparently, it's reasonable that I can't get a taxi ride even though I speak the language, just because drivers don't speak English (an absurdity if you've ever talked to a driver, I've never had one mention it in their interrogations of me).

Of about a hundred mentions that I received today, not counting yesterday, many didn't say anything other than to repost what I said, or to offer a simple apology. If you count people that said they were embarrassed or that what happened was ridiculous as feeling that what happened was racism, then about 70% feel that it was racially motivated.

I'm not sure how those numbers compare with New Yorkers and a black man not catching a cab. The rest insisted that it was purely out of a fear of English and that I should understand. They're nice enough people, but what do I have to do short of a skin transplant?

Lest we go down the road to Korean exceptionalism, the very definition of racism is to negatively treat someone based on their race. Here we have a case where I can't catch a taxi because of the colour of my skin and everyone agrees that it's so. But apparently it doesn't count as racism because taxi drivers supposedly (no one has ever asked) have an irrational fear of taking money from English-speakers.

Yes, a significant number of people are excusing racism, and it's obviously about a lot more than taxis. Excusing prejudice due to Korean exceptionalism ("they've never seen a black person before", "parents don't like black people", "drivers don't speak English, so even though you speak Korean, you should get stiffed and not complain") is what keeps black people from getting jobs here, perpetuates the problems of factory workers and allows children and adults to act with astonishing boorishness.

We spent the last few months hearing about how great Korea is, how it's at the heart of the global economy, a leader in IT, Seoul is the city that the world wants to both see and to be, and so on. It's not asking too much from this city and this country to, in exchange for its own proclamations of its own greatness, expect it to act like something other than a global backwater.

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