The other day two work friends good-naturedly started teasing me about wanting to be Korean.
But it wasn’t funny to me. Here’s why.
A lot of people know I’ve been trying to learn to read and speak Korean. For the last couple of years, most TV, movies and music I watch and listen to come from South Korea. And also I have a fair amount of entertainment from Japan in that mix, too. Although actually Japan has been a long-time interest since the Shogun days, it’s just that the modern world allows an access to it I didn’t have before.
My absorption in the culture and language of South Korea is no different than while growing up I was similarly absorbed with French culture and language, and British culture and language at various times. I immersed myself in both and had there been streaming TV at the time, I would have taken advantage of that. Luckily, I didn’t have to seek out British music or TV (thanks to PBS) because the whole new wave thing of the 80s was happening and it arrived at my doorstep. Not so much with French music and TV, but I had a French pen pal and French teachers who kept me up to speed on these things.
And that is the crux of why it was offensive to me that these two white women were saying I wanted to be Korean simply because I have that interest right now. Not once in all the time I was focused on French or British culture did anyone accuse me of wanting to be French or English or Australian or Scottish. Never. It was assumed that I should be interested in learning about European culture. It was assumed I should want to travel to these countries. And, I still do want to. It is just not my top focus at the moment. Asia is.
No one ever asked me, “Well what do you want to do with the French?” “What is your end game in putting all of this effort in to learning a language?” These are the things that people always ask me about anything related to Asia when learning of my interest.
Ever since I started learning Korean the reactions from both black and white people I’m acquainted with has been, “why?” Why do you want to go there? Why do you like the sound of the language? What are you going to do with this? Why are you putting all of this effort into this? Not one person ever just accepted it as a valid interest the way my interest in France or England was accepted. Not one person ever thought, learning something for the sake of learning is valid. Learning about European culture makes an American cultured. Learning about Asian culture makes you an oddity, not cultured.
When people talk about white privilege, that was it on full display. Both of these woman are great people. I like them a lot. Still do. But their obliviousness to their bias against an interest in Asian culture being something “other” definitely colors the relationship. I’m only recounting this particular incidence here, but in actuality there have been other conversations with them individually other than just this one where I’ve noticed this bias.
While I didn’t laugh it off as I probably would have when I was younger, my response was to emphatically say, “No, I do not and I’m quite happy being a black woman,” hoping to shut down the conversation. Because sometimes at work, you just have to keep the peace. So I did what black people are expected to do all the time: not make a white person feel uncomfortable by challenging them on their biases and prejudices, and quietly hold in my annoyance and anger instead.