(I know I’m not supposed to post from work…but…)
The absurdity of decrying the conditional/relative privilege that Asians have while simultaneously pointing out one of the biggest… just. Gets me.
Because how does your brain process something so absurd?
For all the problems that Asians do have and experience, the fact that we are not criminalized for existing, that police don’t harass, stalk, and attack us, that we aren’t put into prisons, means that we clearly enjoy a certain level of privilege that Black and/or Latin@ and/or Indigenous people don’t.
Because for all that I don’t trust the police in their function as a tool of white supremacy, I have never, ever feared for my life because of them. I will not be shot for walking while Asian, even if my hand is near my waistband. I wouldn’t even be stopped and frisked, if I lived in New York.
If this is not a privilege, I’m not really sure the word as meaning anymore.
Like the characters Katara and Sokka from the original series, Korra clearly has darker skin than many of her counterpart characters. It is very rare for a woman character to be the titular character of an action show; even rarer to see a woman of color with dark skn doing so, given the colorist society we live in.
A number of fan fiction stories, fan arts, and blog posts have described or depicted Korra as “tan,” “tan-skinned,” “tan-colored,” or even “with a tan.” To fans who care about diversity in media and in the Avatar fandom, this is really hurtful and painful to see. It’s a callback to when Jackson Rathborne, the white actor cast to play Sokka in the film adaptation The Last Airbender, joked to press who had brought up fan concerns that he would simply “get a tan” to darken his skin to play Sokka.
Beyond Rathborne’s words is the context behind the word “tan.” Once used simply to describe a pale brown color (tannin from oak trees), it is now colloquially used to refer to darkening the skin by sunbathing (“getting a tan.”) As a result, the word tan is not usually used to describe people of color (or women of color like Korra) since she does not need to “get a tan” to get her naturally darker-than-pale-brown skin. The proess of tanning remains the purview (some would say privilege) of people with very light skin—primarily people who are racialized as white. In contrast, almost universally across the world, people who are not light skinned do not want to tan, cannot benefit from tanning, and instead concentrate their efforts on lightening their skin—through skin bleaching using poisonous chemicals, hiding from the sun, putting toxic products in their hair, etc. in an attempt to escape the oppression of colorism.
It’s much simpler to call Korra “brown” than “tan.” It shakes off the connection to Rathbone’s ignorant statement and avoids insulting fans of color since the word “tan” implies her skin color was acquired, not natural.I’ll stop when the whitewashing in the fandom stops.
KORRA IS BROWN. NOT “TAN”.
Stop… I beg of you. Don’t start this shit again. Both you and I will regret it.
Here, a tumblr poster voices her frustration about the numerous times she has seen Korra called “tan.” Another poster responds “begging” her not to “start this,” lest both of them “regret it”
This response implies two things: a) That avatarluffy has to “beg” marikunin to not raise the issue (or suffer regret) implies that marikunin is in a position of power and that her raising this issue is actively harmful. b) that by raising the issue, marikunin is the one to “start” it, even though marikunin is being reactional and the people who actually triggered the debate were the ones who chose a connotation-loaded word to describe Korra’s skin color.
The reality is that fans who care about the use of the word “tan” or about cultural competence in fandom are not in a position of power. If they are upset by the word “tan” they choose between silent acceptance and what they see as a dilution of Korra’s significance as a protagonist of color, or speaking out and being blamed for causing a problem, even if they are simply responding to a conversation started by someone else.
Begging fans who are impacted by the word choice of “tan” to stop speaking out is begging them to accept marginalization. Blaming them for “starting shit” takes accountability away from the people who chose to use a term with an offensive connotation behind it (tan implies that Korra is not really dark skinned.) And the threat that “both you and I will regret it” doesn’t take into account that staying silent comes with its own regrets already—with the burden placed on fans of color.
While there are likely people out there who deliberately chose to use the word “tan” to describe Korra with the intention of deemphasizing her brownness, it is more likely that most fans who used “tan” are not aware of the context behind the word, or that use of the word could have a racist impact.
Hopefully, when this hurtful impact is pointed out to them, most of these fans will opt to drop the word tan in favor of brown or another more accurate descriptor. That would certainly be easier than defending the use of the word “tan” by guilt-tripping (“I beg of you”), blame (“you’re starting shit”) and threats (“or you and I will regret it.”) By respecting that one of the many facets that makes Korra groundbreaking is her skin tone, we better recognize the production of Legend of Korra’s accomplishments in breaking down glass ceilings in entertainment.
One evening in August of 2006, I was celebrating my 18th birthday with my cousin and a friend. We were staying at my sister’s house on 96th Street and Amsterdam Avenue in Manhattan and decided to walk to a nearby place and get some burgers. It was closed so we sat on benches in the median strip that runs down the middle of Broadway. We were talking, watching the night go by, enjoying the evening when suddenly, and out of nowhere, squad cars surrounded us. A policeman yelled from the window, “Get on the ground!”
I was stunned. And I was scared. Then I was on the ground — with a gun pointed at me. I couldn’t see what was happening but I could feel a policeman’s hand reach into my pocket and remove my wallet. Apparently he looked through and found the ID I kept there. “Happy Birthday,” he said sarcastically. The officers questioned my cousin and friend, asked what they were doing in town, and then said goodnight and left us on the sidewalk.
Less than two years later, in the spring of 2008, N.Y.P.D. officers stopped and frisked me, again. And for no apparent reason. This time I was leaving my grandmother’s home in Flatbush, Brooklyn; a squad car passed me as I walked down East 49th Street to the bus stop. The car backed up. Three officers jumped out. Not again. The officers ordered me to stand, hands against a garage door, fished my wallet out of my pocket and looked at my ID. Then they let me go.
I was stopped again in September of 2010. This time I was just walking home from the gym. It was the same routine: I was stopped, frisked, searched, ID’d and let go.
These experiences changed the way I felt about the police. After the third incident I worried when police cars drove by; I was afraid I would be stopped and searched or that something worse would happen. I dress better if I go downtown. I don’t hang out with friends outside my neighborhood in Harlem as much as I used to. Essentially, I incorporated into my daily life the sense that I might find myself up against a wall or on the ground with an officer’s gun at my head. For a black man in his 20s like me, it’s just a fact of life in New York.
“The failure of Indians and African Americans to join together to battle Jim Crow was a legacy of European imperialism. Europeans had fostered and exploited divisions between African and Indians in the colonial period. With the removal of most southern Indians in the 1830s, southerners no longer needed to promote hostility. After the Civil War, when slavery had ceased to regulate race relations, elite white southerners turned instead to the segregation of white and “colored”. Classifying Indians and African Americans together as members of a “colored” underclass provoked Indian resistance, which they expressed not so much by assailing Jim Crow as by demanding their own separate institutions. In doing so, Indians transformed the racism they had learned under European tutelage into a nationalist struggle for sovereignty.”
— Excerpt from Theda Perdue’s essay, “Native Americans, African Americans, and Jim Crow”, which is included in “indiVisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas”.
As a white person applying to teach in Korea- I’ve been reading about this issue and heard from two friends of mine, one Australian of Vietnamese decent and Filipino girl who can’t get jobs in Korea. They are both excellent teachers. Unfortunately all blogs on teaching in Korea are mostly run by white people so no one has a good perspective on why this actually is. I’ve also talked to black and dark-skinned teachers and they have had a whole slew of problems directly related to their appearance. I think I had a related question at the beginning of this reply but I’ve completely forgotten it. Sorry…
note: i am a diasporic korean living in the US, so my experiences aren’t those of a korean living in korea. i can’t speak for all koreans and this is just a product of various conversations and experiences i’ve had with other diasporic koreans, my family (in both places), koreans in korea, and white people (in both places). i am not an “authentic” or “objective” source by any means, and especially not in the ways that white people often need POC to be for them to care. the parts on ethnic/racial discrimination towards minority groups in korea, though, is pretty much fact, i could give books/sources if people were curious.
your friends who are viet and pilipina probably can’t get jobs teaching english in korea because they aren’t white enough. black and dark-skinned teachers in korea probably have a shit time in korea because they aren’t white enough. all blogs on teaching in korea are probably mostly run by white people because…. they’re white, and not only have better access to teaching english in korea but also have more power in korea than other asians and people of color do.
korea is a place that has been deeply colonized by the US, even if it’s coded in the terms of “intervention,” “support,” and “partnership.” due to this, korea also has some terrifying racial logics that almost exactly mirror those of the US and other western or european countries. pilipin@ (and i believe other southeast asian) people are marginalized against and exploited because they aren’t the good, civilized, modernized kind of asian that koreans often imagine themselves to be. pilipin@ (and other asian and brown) migrants in korea are often relegated to the worst of the worst jobs, receive little or no protection from exploitation, live under the threat of deportation (ex: a number of migrant labor organizers and union leaders have been deported back to the PI to silence dissent), and so on. because they are racialized as being exploitable/expendable, their worth is incredibly devalued. how they are survielled, exploited and live under threat of deportation is parallel to how the US treats its own migrant worker population and the tactics used in the fight against “illegal immigrants.”
black and darker-skinned people are marginalized against in similar ways. i think that korean antiblackness is something that follows and reproduces white antiblackness… it can be pretty vile. i know less about its particulars in korea (more about it in korean american contexts) but i know it exists. especially towards mixed race black koreans because of associations with US soldiers and korean women sex workers post-korean war/US occupation (strong stigma of being borne of GI and prostitute).
english is the language of the colonizer, the language of those in power. english is the language of white people and white america. learning english is like a gateway towards accessing that mythical power of the colonizer, whiteness. even if a korean/an asian person/a non-asian person of color could speak and teach english JUST as well as a white person could, it’s still not as good as white people speaking it because english is seen as being the rightful property of white people. i feel like the mentality is like, oh, if an actual authentic white person can teach english to us, then why have a second-class non-white person teach it? so even bilingual koreans who probably have way more cultural competency are seen as less valuable than a monolingual white person, which… makes absolutely no sense and demonstrates some profound racism in the entire “teach english in korea!” system.
most white people who teach english would probably violently disagree with me. i recently read a piece by a native korean on how she, and many other koreans, disliked white monolingual english teachers in korea. not simply because they couldn’t speak korean, but because they demonstrated a complete lack of regard for korean culture, korean people, and korean land; as well as an unwillingness to engage respectfully. they would carry their white supremacist bullshit into korea, assuming that they could do whatever the fuck they wanted and have koreans still love them (as colonizers generally assume the colonized to be okay with being shat on constantly). this person was hella jumped on and attacked by white english teachers in korea who were unbelievably racist, hostile, defensive, rude, ignorant, and obnoxious to her.
a lot of white people don’t realize that they are not as welcome in korea as they would like to believe, and when they begin to sense this, they freak out because ~why on earth would the colonized be so ungrateful~, right? even if… in the past year alone koreans found loads of napalm buried by the US military in korean soil, have witnessed one of their most beautiful islands begin to be destructed by a US naval base, have had more korean women and girls raped by US troops, and have witnessed the undemocratic, exploitative, and destructive korea-US free trade agreement pass in closed chambers (resulting in koreans demonstrating by the thousands [ongoing]). yes, many koreans are in love with the fantasy of whiteness, but there is also anger and resentment that runs deep.
if you go to korea as a white person teaching english, you’ll probably end up having a fairly nice time… you’ll get to eat amazing street food from the pojangmachas that president lee, the beloved of american corporations, is trying to wipe out of seoul to “clean up” and modernize (aka westernize) the streets. maybe you’ll go to jeju island, a breathtakingly beautiful island that is in the process of being polluted and destroyed by the US and korean militaries. you can party in hongdae or sinchon, where some clubs have banned white military men from coming into due to rapes they perpetrated against korean women while in them. you can go out in itaewon and have a blast, where my family told me not to go to at night because that’s where the american soldiers “do bad things” (citing stories and myths of US troops mistaking korean women/girls for prostitutes and raping them — a problematic narrative that reifies the notion that sex workers can’t be raped because they’re sex workers, yet is one that is also inherently connected to the legacies of sexual violence and rapes perpetrated against korean women during and after the korean war by americans). if you’re a cis white woman, maybe you’ll be able to bond with some of the cis/straight/white men who are also teaching english in korea and make friends with them, as you may be oblivious to the ways in which many of them fetishize, exoticize, objectify, stalk, and harass korean women — whether or not you notice or care, though, your whiteness will protect you from such racialized threats, allowing for such bonds to occur.
if you don’t know any korean you might have a bit of a rough time finding your way around, but luckily there are translations for everything in english and many people will know at least a bit of english to meet your needs. if you do know korean, then koreans will be amazed and fawn over you for your “great korean!” even if it’s awful (while diasporic koreans who go back will be shit on for not having a perfect accent — and mixed race and korean adoptees will forever be given the side eye or shit talk whether or not they speak korean). if you are fluent in korean as a white person, then people might treat you with awe, wonder, and love, because it’s so great when white people think so highly of us that they want to learn our culture (it almost makes it feel like we’re equals!!! even though koreans are pressured to learn english as a requirement for being successful and white people don’t have to treat any second language like that).
like many white people teaching english in korea, you may feel free to let loose like you never did before at home with no accountability, which, i would imagine, could feel very nice. i also imagine that many white people teaching english in korea haven’t thought twice about any of these things because they have the luxury of not having to care about it or feel the repercussions. white people in korea are still given jobs and respect even when they lack common decency, knowledge of conversational korean language, humility, and respect for others; even when they may be much less qualified to do things like teach english than others. it’s no wonder that there is a general sense that a white person can party hard!!! and escape from the shitty US job market while actually offering very few qualifications or strong teaching abilities — because they can.
anyway, hope this can give you more insight on some of the things you brought up — and this is written generally at obnoxious, ignorant, and racist white people who teach english in korea (not you specifically as an attack). wrote this in a rush so my bad if this is written confusingly.