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Obama Visit Offers Reminder of South Korea's Own Blurring Racial Lines

  • Kurt Achin

Michael Hurt is a photographer in Seoul. He speaks fluent Korean, in part because it was the language of his mother. He inherited much of his appearance from his African-American father.

Michael Hurt is a photographer in Seoul. He speaks fluent Korean, in part because it was the language of his mother. He inherited much of his appearance from his African-American father.

Obama Visit Offers Reminder of South Korea's Own Blurring Racial Lines

President Barack Obama's historic victory created a daily reminder to Americans that success does not come in just one ethnic package. And the president's brief stop in South Korea offers people there a reminder of their own country's evolution toward a multicultural society.

One account of abuse

Michael Hurt is a photographer here in Seoul. He speaks fluent Korean, in part because it was the language of his mother. He inherited much of his appearance from his African-American father.

He is very active in Seoul city life, but one thing he tries not to do is take the subway.

"The time I really decided, O.K., I'm done with the subway, was when I was watching Battlestar Galactica on my iPod, in a full suit and coat with a professional bag, coming back from a lecture. And I looked up a little bit, and what was going on was this guy was right here, just yelling and screaming expletives in my ear. I couldn't hear him because of the high quality headphones," he explains, "I took them out, and he was just, every negative stereotype about blacks in Korean. And you know, it's completely uncalled for. It's unprovoked."

First legislation to address racial discrimination

Such incidents are not unique. A court here is set to hear a groundbreaking case about alleged harassment of a visiting Indian student and his South Korean female friend by an older Korean man aboard a bus. The case echoes the experience of many South Korean women, who say even the appearance of dating a foreign man puts them at risk for verbal abuse.

Now, South Korean politicians are drafting the country's first legislation to outlaw and punish racial discrimination. Lawmaker Jun Byung-hun says it is overdue.

"This year, the number of foreigners living in Korea increased to more than one million. There are also more than a million people from multicultural families. Korea is clearly turning into a multiethnic country," Jun said.

South Korea's attitudes toward race and ethnicity are complex. Centuries of invasion and colonization helped create a culture in which elementary schoolbooks still celebrate South Korea's "pure bloodlines" and "homogeneous society."

US President Obama offers encouragement for racial justice

South Korea's rapid modernization has helped foster popular culture that mirrors global wealth stereotypes. Movies and TV shows depict whites with envy and desire. Darker-skinned races tend to be shunned.

Lawmaker Jun says President Obama, making his first official visit to South Korea this week, has helped advance South Korean attitudes about what mixed race individuals can accomplish. "Koreans have 'colored skin' too; and yet we often have prejudice against black people. Obama's election to the presidency has helped neutralize those ideas. His presidency has offered encouragement to people in the U.S., Korea, Asia and all over the world who fight for racial justice," he said.

Jun hopes to get a racial discrimination bill passed by February, but says changing Korean mindsets will take longer.

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