Korean on the Outside Only

Korean Flag

Photo Credit: flags.net

I was at a dinner party the other night with a longtime friend. Although his parents are first generation immigrants from South Korea, he and his siblings were never taught to speak Korean, as their parents thought it important that they assimilate to American culture as much as possible. As our conversation evolved to talk about the stereotypical markers of Korean culture with which he has little personal affiliation, his wife laughingly remarked that he’s “Korean on the outside only.” His cunning retort was quick: “So couldn’t I say the same thing about you – that you’re German on the outside only, too?”

What transpired here was something that those of us who study identity politics have seen a million times before: what counts as a noteworthy identity is visible only against the backlighting of the “normalcy” (and thus invisibility) of a dominant culture. In this case, this phenomenon was evidenced by the fact that the only non-white person among us was also the only one who had his appearance translated into a racial or ethnic category, one considered suitably interesting (i.e., different) enough to drive our conversation.

Even though he managed (through his own joke) to expose the one-sided privilege that transformed him into a curiosity, what is interesting to me is that the conversation nevertheless returned to his “Korean-ness.” In other words, once the group’s own identificatory strategies had been revealed and acknowledged, they promptly resumed as if there was nothing one-sided about them. This was particularly ironic since his wife has an extremely German-sounding last name, and yet this fact never came up, even after her husband’s pithy quip attempted to re-focus the conversation on her own ethnic identification.

On one level, I suppose we could say that her “German-ness” was avoided because it was deemed mundane enough (particularly in the part of the Midwest where we live) that its normalcy made it a dull conservation starter. But I suspect that the real dynamic at play was that it was presumed by most there that, functionally speaking, she had no ethnicity at all. In much the same way that gender studies is often presumed to be only about women, or that race and ethnic studies are thought to deal with anyone but Caucasians, so our conversation backtracked into the familiar territory of fixating on difference as defined by dominant power structures, even if benevolently intended.

In this same vein, I think of the post on this blog written by Monica Miller on how the investigation into the crash of an Asiana Airlines flight close to a year ago ultimately ended in Western investigators looking into the “Asian-ness” of the flight crew as a possible cause for the crash. While we can probably all acknowledge that one’s culture can (and does) affect one’s behavior, there are very few of us who likely spend our days analyzing the minutiae of our motives primarily through the lens of our own ethnicity.

For instance, I do not typically say things like “I really load the dishwasher like an American” or “I raised my voice at my kids too much today; it’s probably because I’m an American.” Instead, I’m more likely to point to my own daily experiments with dishwasher loading that I know maximize the cleanliness of the dishes, or on the latter point, I might point to my fatigue and need for a babysitter now and then. Someone unfamiliar with me, my culture, and my practices, however, might well say that the explanation “She’s an American” is a suitable answer to describe both phenomena, even if this seems, to me, only distantly involved (if at all) in these events. How one’s identity is rendered, then, depends largely not on individual self-perception and portrayal as much as how one is situated by others in the social network.

What this means is that one of the most powerful tools of privilege is normalcy, for the perception that one is normal creates a sort of invisibility that allows the bearer to navigate the social waters without many waves. If one’s identity is so self-evident that it completely escapes analysis, then this identity will likely never become an explanatory reference through which to explain one’s social behaviors, food preferences, driving ability, or academic performance, among others, leaving the bearer of this invisibility simply human. Others whose identities are demarcated by difference, on the other hand, often carry along these categories as the metaphorical lens through which they are forcibly detected, assessed, and, when necessary, domesticated.

3 Replies to “Korean on the Outside Only”

  1. These important points were made several decades ago in Peggy McIntosh’s article “Unpacking the Invisible Backback.”. I in no way intend to take away from the timeliness of making this point again. However, I will be tiresome enough to say that significant insights into the dynamics of identity and power were made in feminist analysis in the (19)60s, 70s, and 80s, in the teens, 20s and 30s, in the 1880s and 90s and the 00s – and I’m pretty sure elsewhere and before.. So – it’s not news. Why does it seem to get forgotten? What can be done to to break this cycle of insight and amnesia?

  2. Yes — you’re precisely right, and if anything, this has been the rallying cry of almost all movements that highlight identity-based oppressions. As you’ve pointed out, although McIntosh’s questionnaire-style interrogation of privilege might have been interesting/novel at the time because of its format, it was really saying nothing altogether different than what others had said before (and so I join them, as well).

    With that said, I really like the way that you phrase the last question — “the cycle of insight and amnesia” — because that really seems to be what it is. Our attention needs to focus, perhaps, not so much on whether the phenomenon is happening (answer: yes), but what causes us to “re-discover it anew” every so often. Does power induce amnesia? Is it that simple? Off the cuff, I’m not sure, but that’s almost certainly another blog post waiting to happen. I also wonder what happens if we actually do break that cycle — or if it’s possible to do so. If society’s role is to simply recuperate itself, to some degree, does that also mean that iterations of these questions are inevitable?

  3. The so-called cycle of insight and amnesia strikes me as an apt way to name history–i.e., that’s just the way it is, I think, so thus not something to try to overcome. Every generation invents itself anew, within whatever coerced conditions the previous generation puts in place to steer them (euphemistically called tradition or school), which ensures some things, of course, gets passed along, but likely only those that a ruling majority deem important for the reproduction of the conditions which leads to their continued dominance. (Hence school board fights over what history textbook to use…) So anything oppositional not only has (1) the inevitable happenstance of history to deal with (i.e., people who know X die and, voila, X is gone for good) but, also, (2) it swims against those better positioned who are also trying to deal with #1. So amnesia is not so much the problem, I’d say, as is the lack of social theorists’ ability to police each new generation, in the way that others are, ensuring they sing anthems, pledge oaths, learn accepted narratives of the past, etc. So I think that its not so much that some critical insights of previous generations are forgotten, they’re just not remembered (i.e., taught, reproduced, etc.) in sufficient volume to begin with…

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