Feature

The President, the Professor, and the Wide Receiver

When the biracial U.S. President Barack Obama visits South Korea tomorrow, he will be visiting a country grappling with its prejudices about race.

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

This week, U.S. President Barack Obama, the son of a black father and white mother, is making his landmark visit to Asia, including a Wednesday stop in Seoul, where South Korea is in the midst of a racial reckoning. His visit could have positive repercussions for years to come. Race is a thorny issue in the country, and biracial persons especially so. Both North and South Koreans embrace pure bloodlines, untainted by non-Korean DNA. Biracial children are broadly considered unadoptable, and children and adults of mixed race endure ostracism and bullying. But in the past few years, a number of events and people have made South Koreans reconsider racism and persons of mixed race.

Last July, Bonojit Hussain, an Indian research professor at Seoul’s Sungkonghoe University, was on a bus with a female friend when a 31-year old Korean man went on a 10-minute foul-mouthed tirade, calling him a "stinking bastard" and an "Arab," and his companion a "whore."

Hussain and his friend went to a nearby police station to report the matter. The police did not believe that Hussain really was a professor and spoke to him in what Koreans call banmal, a register used when speaking to an insolent brat or a disobedient dog. The verbal assailant was at the police station also, and continued to hurl racist insults at him in front of the officers there, who did nothing to stop him.

(Maybe it’s something about buses that bring out the best and worst in people. In 1955, Alabama’s Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat for a white person on a segregated bus. She said she was "tired of giving in" and was arrested — but her actions became a turning point in the U.S. civil rights movement. It might be so for Korea, too.)

This wasn’t the first time Hussain had experienced racial abuse, and he was tired of it. With the police unwilling to do anything, he filed a petition with the National Human Rights Commission. When his story appeared in the Korean media, prosecutors arrested his harasser for "criminal insult" — the first time the charge has been used for racial hate speech. His case is still in court. In the meantime, the Korean legislature is putting together the country’s first detailed anti-discrimination laws. This would be a landmark victory for the thousands of migrant laborers from Vietnam, Pakistan, Nepal, and other Asian countries who are typically treated as South Korea’s second class citizens.

While Hussain awaits the outcome of his court case, another man of color is boldly working to improve race relations in South Korea. Hines Ward was unknown in the country until he won the 2006 Super Bowl as a player for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and was also named the game’s most valuable player. The South Korean media — which constantly trolls for news of any successful ethnic Koreans abroad — heralded him as a victor and one of Korea’s own.

Ward is half Korean and half black, and has used his fame and his heritage to shine a light on the plight of biracial children in Korea. The wide receiver visited South Korea with his mother, Kim Young-hee, shortly after the Super Bowl win, and the two of them took time to speak to the media about race.

Kim described in stark terms the discrimination she experienced before she immigrated to the United States. "What do you think would have become of us if I had kept living here with Hines? He would probably never have been able to be anything but a beggar. Do you think I would even have been able to get work cleaning houses?" she said while visiting the Pearl S. Buck Foundation in Seoul. "Koreans of the same skin color are even more racist among themselves. It doesn’t make sense. If everybody hates our children so much because their skin is a different color, then why do Koreans run around dying their hair blond and red?"

The Buck Foundation helps Asian and mixed race children deemed unadoptable in their home country. It has opened offices and orphanages throughout Asia, with Ward part of the team. He personally helps to bring biracial children from South Korea to stay with host families in Pittsburgh, where nobody gives them a second glance in regard to the color of their skin. For the past four football seasons, he has participated in the project to bolster the children’s self esteem during the arduous adoption process, giving them hope and confidence.

The Hussain case,and Ward’s activism have all brought the issue of race and biracial persons to the fore, and thus the timing of Obama’s visit could not be better. South Koreans have succeeded in advancing their country as a power in economics and industry, but meanwhile they’ve ignored the human side of globalization: the matters of love, opportunity, and passports that cause people of different races to come together.

Ultimately, they’ll have to acknowledge it. Because of South Korea’s gender imbalance, bachelors — most of them farmers from rural areas – now use matchmaking brokers to marry brides from Southeast Asia, Mongolia, and Uzbekistan. This year, the Ministry of Food, Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries found that half of children born in rural Korea will be biracial. In the coming decades, changing racial demographics will force South Koreans to re-examine their notions of pure bloodlines. But before then, they will have to grapple with isolated incidents of racial hatred. Seeing the biracial head of the world’s only superpower on Asian soil, they can decide for themselves if being of darker skin or having a heritage of mixed ethnic origin is such a big deal after all.

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