Greater than the sum of one’s many selves [3]

If you are a teacher and looking for a real-life vignette for your class on the messy intersections of identities, here is one for you.

Premises:

— A bunch of high school boys in Uijeongbu, South Korea, did a blackface parody for their graduation photoshoot. [Pictures in question can be seen in this news article among many others.]

— Sam Okyere, a Ghanaian TV personality in Korea, spoke up against it, both in Korean and in English, on his Instagram on 6 August. [The full text of his post, now deleted, has been reported here.]

— Having met with an extremely hostile backlash, in the news media and social media alike, Okyere ended up publicly apologising (!) for any offence (!!) he had unintentionally caused, on 7 August. [The apology post has been captured here and his first offline appearance since here.]

This microcosmic incident of racism in Korea (or as some call it K-racism) offers many additional layers for you, the teacher, to throw in for further discussion.

— The graduation photos of Uijeongbu High School, where students dress as individuals representing the news of that year, has become a much-anticipated annual event for a broader online audience and the stakes are higher year on year. The school publishes those photos on its Facebook and YouTube pages.

— This is not the first time its students wore blackface.

— While students of this all-boy high school in Gyeonggi Province have been celebrated for their wit and creativity, students of Jakjeon Girls’ High School were trolled and sexually harassed when their costume pictures of similar nature were shared beyond their circles of friends on Facebook in 2016.

— Okyere’s first post has attracted a variety of criticisms and hatred remarks, each of which chose to focus on certain aspects of his identity at the expense of other aspects. For example:

  • Those students are minors and he is an adult. Some argue that by re-posting their pictures and making a serious allegation of racism, he violated their privacy and placed them in potential harm.
  • He has on air made racist and sexist comments himself before.
  • He first came to the country on a Korean government scholarship and he makes a living in Korean showbiz.
  • Some, including a journalist, claim that he adopts a different ‘tone‘ when he posts in Korean and in English.

— His apology post has also attracted a wide array of responses.

  • Some sympathise with him, pushing new hashtags: #I_Stand_with_Sam_Okyere and #나는_샘_오취리와_연대합니다.
  • Some argue that blackface cannot be construed as a racist act in Korea where it is ‘imported’ without its historical and political context.
  • Some Black observers, seemingly outside Korea, have expressed their disappointment in Okyere’s backing down.
  • Some believe that the Uijeongbu students are in the clear since Benjamin Aidoo from the Ghana Dancing Pallbearers, the actual person that the boys parodied, implicitly approved it on his Instagram.

— In the meantime, educators on the ground see this as a confirmation of their long-held suspicion that the country’s curriculum is failing to prepare the next generation of global citizens. [An e-petition calling for an improved curriculum can be found here.]

— On 10 August, students of another high school in Chungnam province reportedly wore the same blackface make-up and coffin dance costume and posted pictures on social media, with Sam Okyere’s name as a hashtag.

— Deeper, more reflective articles on racism have started emerging, such as this.

— His own interview with BBC here.

— Okyere’s professional life has been affected adversely.

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