Survey Results – Part 10: Korean Society and Racism

ESL Teacher Perspective on Racism in Korea

The previous parts of this series can be found here: Part 1 – Dating & DownloadablesPart 2 – Lifestyle and PetsPart 3A – Teaching Resources (Hakwon vs Public School)Part 3B – Hakwon vs Public School Workplace SatisfactionPart 4 – Websites UsedPart 5 – Coworkers, Part 6: Korean Students Academic and Social Skills, Part 7: Korean Students Life Skills and Outlook, Part 8: Fixing ESL Workplace in Korea & Part 9: NEST Community

Nabunu needs people who can help out (think blogging, etc), check out what we need here:

All data in this post comes from the raw figures that can be found in part 1 of this series.

Today we’ll take a look at racism in Korea from the perspective on NESTs.  Seeing as this can be a really controversial subject I’ll try and keep it as simple as possible and leave all the speculatin’ to others.


I’ll start with question 41 which asked respondents what their race is

Shows the breakdown of NESTs by their race

So this is a predominantly caucasian, western perspective.  And just a reminder that the respondents were all of either US (strong majority), Canadian, British (UK), South African, Australian, Irish or New Zealand nationality.  So we’re talking white anglophones. (BTW, respondents could choose multiple answers above).

NESTs who have experienced racism - simple yes or no question

Question 37 was a simple yes/no question that asked: “Have you personally ever been racially discriminated against in Korea?”  With 64% saying yes and 32% saying no (the rest answered “Other” which I omitted from pie chart to keep it simple so yes, the graphic is slightly misrepresentative).

I found it surprising that more people didn’t answer in the affirmative.  Of course, determining whether someone doesn’t like you because of your race as opposed to some other reason (gender, behavior, body odour) is not a straightforward task and often it’s a subjective judgment.

I decided to compare how men and women answered this question.

A comparison of men versus women who feel that they have or haven't experienced racism

It seems as though men are more likely to perceived racism than women are.  This means that either men are more likely to jump to that conclusion or that they are actually subjected to racism more.

NESTs who have experienced positive discrimination in Korea

82% of NESTs answered the following question in the affirmative: “Have you ever, as far as you know, experienced positive discrimination because of your race in Korea? (for example, free food in restaurants, preference in the job market, gifts from strangers, etc)”.  At the very least most realise that it’s much easier for Caucasians to get jobs than for people of other races (see here).

Just to be clear though, positive discrimination doesn’t necessarily mean ‘good’.  It’s defined by the Collin’s Dictionary as: “the provision of special opportunities in employment, training, etc for a disadvantaged group, such as women, ethnic minorities”.  In this context it would mean receiving special treatment due to having a non-Korean racial status.  (Again, with the graphic, the remaining 3% answered ‘other’).

This also tells us that at least 18% of respondents don’t count positive discrimination as a form of racism (by combining the previous two graphics).

I also asked: “What impact do you believe racism in Korea has on your life?”.  The results were pretty ‘normal’ in the statistical sense with 31% saying “Somewhat Positive”,  25% saying “No Impact” (this could mean the positive and negative balance out) and 36% saying “Somewhat Negative”.

NESTs perspective of the impact that Korean racism has on their lives

This conflicts with the second graphic where 32% of respondents said they’d never experienced racism in Korea, whereas here 25% are saying no impact at all.  What about women versus men on this one?  So glad you asked.

NEST women versus men perspective of impact of racism on their life in Korea

Men are more likely to lie at the extremes but other than that it seems men generally see the race card as working in their favour more so than women do.

So what about how NESTs perceive Korean society as a whole with regards to racism? (warning: delicious fruit loop graphic ahead)

NESTs view of racism in Korean society as a whole

So just shy of 1/4 respondents felt the racism levels are pretty high in Korea, half felt Korean society is a “pretty racist” place and a quarter didn’t think there was much racism going on.  Were there big differences in how men versus women saw this?  Not so much:

NESTs view of racism in Korean society for men versus women.

I’d say there’s not such a strong difference.  Again, men seem to be more represented at the extremes.  Look at those who gave the strongest response saying that Korea is a very racist society – 7% men to 3% women.  Perhaps the open comments will shed some more light on reasons for these results.

Here are some of the comments from this section of the survey:

  • Positive racism does make me feel uncomfortable especaily if there’s a Korean behind me and they don’t get the same treatment. Sometimes it has been good because people have been more accepting that I’m different or have been generally a lot more helpful when I go to events, especially when getting free concert tickets. But it’s not right. Some of the negative things I have expected, though I don’t like that all Koreans lump everyone in with Americans as is what seems to happen in countries where there is a large population of American expats or tourists.
  • positives include free food. negatives include creepy behavior and stupid remarks from korean men of all ages because I’m western and therefore I’m akin to a whore
  • I’ve been exposed to “positive” racism but I’m disappointed every time I’m treated favorably just on principle.
  • I will certainly be more respectful to foreigners at home.
  • The only time it’s negative is when I’m with my Korean girlfriend.
  • It works both ways for me. I have received favourable treatment and attention, which I have expected to stem from my Caucasian appearance (it also helps that I have blue eyes and blonde hair, which matches the “typical” native teacher stereotype). It also works horribly against me as I find that there are many incorrect assumptions and stereotypes about Western women that much of the older generation holds (such as stereotypes about promiscuity). I have received anything from a giant grin to a dirty look from people here.
  • I have no idea, I haven’t experienced any blatant racism yet while i have been here.
  • I’m Korean, so it’s hard to say. Sometimes I feel I get treated slightly better than the average foreigner because they feel it’s easier to approach me. But also sometimes it’s harder because they expect me to be more “Korean” than they would a non-Asian foreigner.
  • Not their fault.
  • I have gotten free food and been denied service, so it’s kind of a wash.
  • I generally benefit from being a white man (less in Korea but still net positive). I have faced both positive and negative treatment as a nonkorean.
  • The good and bad probably balance each other out.
  • At times, I’ve had drunken men screaming me down and police needed to be called. At other times I am giving free products or treated like a VIP at venues like Festivals (especially in rather rural locations) or Concerts.
  • If possible, I have become more disgusted with all types of hatred based on difference of race, gender, and creed.
  • I’m sure being white makes it easier for me to find a job than it would be if I were a person of color. However, I have no way of knowing whether or not my bosses hired me over some other non-white choice.
  • Builds frustration overtime.
  • I have to do less work than Korean coworkers
  • For me, it’s great. I get all kinds of services and people go out of their way to talk to me. It lets me ignore the few people who dislike me purely because I’m white. However, my boyfriend is black and he finds it very difficult to find a job that will hire him, purely based on skin color.

This comment pretty much broke my heart:

  • I don’t want to raise my half-Korean children here, so must leave.

I found this comment pretty interesting, too:

  • The positive discrimination is bad too. I feel like their racism is wearing off on me and making me racist, even though I try to not be judgemental towards anyone.

Compared To My Country

For example, I know about 14% of Australians experience racism according to this survey (see pages 17-19 for some interesting reading) or you can watch the video on it.  That survey was of all Australian’s called at random so it includes asking people in the white majority if they feel racially discriminated against.  I would have preferred to see those results for non-whites.  I also doubt they asked people who are on student, working or non-permanent resident VISAs.  So 14% is low compared to my survey but it’s an apples and oranges comparison really.

On a more personal note, my girlfriend is mixed race (born and raised in Aus and didn’t leave the country until she was 20, which was for a holiday) and I was shocked when I discovered that she still experiences racism – only when she’s walking alone.  I live in Bondi, Sydney, which has a large Irish community and by Irish I mean Irish by nationality who are here temporarily to work or backpack.

Her mother is Korean but has been here since the 1970s and she gets comments sometimes as well.  So often the comments come to her in a lilt.  This isn’t an Aus vs Korea racism battle, I’m simply pointing out that often the comparisons we draw are based on false assumptions.  I often assumed my country to be a very open and tolerant place with a few idiots mixed in.  I still believe that to a large extent I mean, here are the languages my government will help you in.

And the survey I pointed to above is supported by the government and run by a leading university.  But when I started challenging my assumptions and asking my friends if they’d ever experienced racism I was quite surprised.  Given that 35% of Australians living in my city, Sydney, were born in another country (to say nothing of the non-Australians living in Sydney) I would have thought there’d be less racism going on than they reported.

Question: So how do you think racism in Korea compares to the country you’re from?

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1 Comment

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