Black Woman in South Korea: Life in the 97%

black women in south korea

There are a ton of blog posts that will tell you that living in South Korea while black can be a daily struggle. The challenges we face in this homogeneous society are neither unique nor unknown. Koreans have had limited exposure to other cultures and that ignorance has created deeply ingrained prejudices and acceptance of stereotypes. We often find ourselves caught between two worlds. Media representation and K-culture play significant, yet dynamically different, roles in shaping people’s perceptions as more and more black women call South Korea home.

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Black Woman in South Korea: Life in a Homogeneous Society

Strictly My Experience and My Opinions

Imagine walking down a busy street in Seoul, a city buzzing with life and energy. You’re feeling good, it’s a beautiful day. You stop at the crosswalk waiting for the light to change when you notice a little old lady staring at you. You nod, but she seems frozen, unable to take her eyes off you. That’s life here in South Korea– every single day.

Is All Asia the Same

I just returned from Singapore, which has a multicultural vibe. Singapore has been successful in blending the indigenous cultures with others. It’s truly amazing to see so many different shades of people sharing traditions and creating new ones while living side by side. After just one day there, I felt a sense of inclusivity that I’ve never been able to achieve living in South Korea. But when I got back to South Korea, it wasn’t the same. It felt like something was missing. In South Korea, nearly everyone is Korean – about 97%. This makes it difficult for me to feel like I belong. I’m not saying that Singapore is better than South Korea, but I personally prefer the diverse environment in Singapore.

Korea Over the Years

I’ve been coming to this country since the late 1970s and that has never changed. The moment I step outside my door, there is always someone close by to remind me that I am not one of them. And I never will be. And I have a lot of opinions about this topic. Let me emphasize, they are just my opinions. South Korea is known for its 97% Korean population. This can make it difficult for foreigners to feel like we belong– especially if you don’t speak the language. Despite this, sisters and brothers from all over the world flock here year after year.

You (or I) Will Never Be Korean

Unlike America, Korea is an ethnicity as well as a country. This means I will never be Korean no matter how long I stay. I will never be accepted wholeheartedly behind the wizard’s curtain. And because I have dark skin, I will always be “othered” too.

Most visitors spend the majority of their time in Seoul. Don’t get me wrong, Seoul has its cliffs too. However, there is a large ex-pat community there to provide a pillow for a softer landing .

If you are not a black female expat Seoul (Busan or Incheon), you will quickly realize it is extremely difficult navigating the complexities of the language, the social norms, and cultural integration. So some sisters don’t even try. They come to see the beautiful temples, eat some of the food, and experience the colorful festivals. They use South Korea as a convenient jump-off point to explore the more hospitable parts of Asia.

I know, I’ve lived here off and on for 7 years– analyzing, documenting, and discussing my love-hate relationship with the Land of the Morning Calm. Now add the fact that given all that, I’d still prefer to stay here a while longer instead of returning to the states. So does that say something about me, the United States or South Korea? I’m very curious.

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The Legacy of Colorism in South Korea and Its Roots in Agricultural Past

Korea was primarily an agrarian culture until after the Korean War. To prevent South Korea from falling into North Korean hands, the West invested heavily in the Korean government. The government established several industries, and Koreans gradually began moving away from agriculture to pursue white-collar jobs. This trend has only accelerated over the last 50 years. As a result, dark-skinned Koreans (and foreigners) serve as an unpleasant reminder to Koreans of their agricultural past.

The Paradox of Racial Diversity in Homogenous South Korea

South Korean industries have profited from what is widely referred to as “copy culture.” The commercialization of Black music and cultural elements–like hip-hop, R&B, and jazz, as well as dance styles, fashion trends, slang, and even “our swag”– is not even up for debate. And a lot of other things too. Unfortunately, the country’s ethnocentric-nationalist narrative and preference for pale skin requires understanding the context and history of race and culture in South Korea.

And although South Korea is primarily made up of ethnic Koreans, there has been a growing number of foreigners moving to the country in recent years, including migrant workers, international students, and naturalized citizens, bringing with them the promise of cultural exchange. However that’s not saying much since 97% of the population is still ethnic Koreans. However, even this diversity is not always welcomed with open arms, and people of color often find themselves facing discrimination and othering in various aspects of Korean society. There have been efforts to improve inclusivity and reduce discrimination. However, the country still has a long way to go in terms of accepting and celebrating its growing multicultural community.

Challenges Faced by Black Women in South Korea

Colorism, Body Shaming, and Fetishization

Colorism is prevalent in South Korea. My skin color often draws unwanted attention and stares. White women are prominently featured in mall billboards and TV shopping networks. But that too is changing. I’ve seen Beyoncé as well as other black models in marketing campaigns too. However, most cosmetics contain lightening or brightening agents. My friends apply sunblock indoors, and I’ve been given hats and umbrellas to avoid “getting darker”. Even sitting at a sunny table during lunch can lead to a playful scolding. And knowing that it’s not meant to hurt me can still be demoralizing and exhausting.

As a dark-skinned black woman, I cannot conform to an unrealistic beauty standard that favors lighter skin tones. While I know that they are not intentionally trying to make me feel uncomfortable, it still takes a upsets me. And would I be in a constant flux of weight-loss anxiety if I didn’t live here?

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Money Making Industries

The pervasive colorism is a complex issue that affects not only Black Female Expats in South Korea, but also other people of color with darker skin tones. The emphasis on “pale” skin as a beauty ideal is evident in the beauty industry, where skin-lightening products are heavily marketed and promoted. The media also perpetuates this ideal, with the overwhelming majority of models and celebrities being fair-skinned and conforming to Eurocentric beauty standards. And, don’t get me started on plastic surgery. Medical tourism may one day replace regular tourism.

This reinforces the idea that dark skin is undesirable and inferior, contributing to a culture that can be hostile and alienating for Black women and other people of color.

Black Female Expats– Need Not Apply?

I cannot be certain, but I have written for a few online and print magazines. Although my articles have been featured, my image has not been included. Despite suggesting various locations for a particular Instagram feed, none of my photos were selected, yet the locations were. While I understand their hesitance (umm preference) for showcasing Asian faces, I would value an open and candid dialogue even more.

Despite this, I have also found moments of acceptance and belonging in South Korea. There are individuals and organizations actively working towards understanding diversity and inclusivity. My hope is that as more people engage in conversations about race and identity, and as more diverse voices are amplified in the media and in other spheres of influence, there is hope for a more equitable and accepting society in South Korea.

Body Shaming and Fetishization

Upon my arrival in the country, I immediately became acutely aware of my body shape. The stares and double-takes were impossible to ignore, and it was clear that my curvier body type were not the norm. This constant scrutiny only served to highlight the deeply ingrained social norms and cultural biases that permeate South Korean society.

In addition, I also faced difficulties finding clothing that fit my body type. Many stores in South Korea cater only to slimmer body types, and the limited options for phat figures can be frustrating and disheartening. Body shaming is also a prevalent issue, as people who do not conform to narrow beauty standards may be subject to criticism and ridicule. However, it’s not just us that face this scrutiny. Koreans do it to each other too. It doesn’t make it right, it just makes you realize many of them don’t fit their own body standard.

On a side note, it’s unfortunately common for black women in Korea to be fetishized. It’s not uncommon to receive unwanted attention, both in person and online. For example, my Instagram direct messages are often filled with requests from Korean guys who are interested in me solely because of my race. They want to “get to know me” or “show me around.” Boy, bye.

It is important to acknowledge that incorporating black culture are not unique in South Korea, but are instead part of a larger global issue of beauty standards and body shaming. However, in the context of South Korea, they are amplified by the strong emphasis on conformity and homogeneity, which can leave those who deviate from the norm feeling isolated and marginalized.

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Cultural Appropriation of Black Culture

Despite the negative attitudes and biases towards our skin color and physical attributes, the commercialization of Black culture in South Korea has become a source of both celebration and potential obstacles. On one hand, how do you separate black people from the popularity of Black music and cultural elements, such as hip-hop, R&B, and jazz, has given rise to a new generation of artists, dancers, and fashion designers who are creating innovative works that draw inspiration from Black culture. This has also led to a broader appreciation for the cultural contributions of Black people around the world.

However, this celebration of Black culture is not without its challenges. South Korea’s ethnocentric-nationalist narrative and the prevalence of colorism in the country means that people of color, especially those with darker skin tones, may face discrimination and othering in various aspects of Korean society. The commercialization of Black culture may also contribute to a superficial understanding and appropriation of Black culture, without addressing the systemic issues of racism and discrimination that Black people face around the world.

The commercialization of Black culture in South Korea represents a complex and evolving relationship between Korean and Black cultures, which has the potential to be both inspiring and problematic. We can work towards a more inclusive and respectful celebration of cultural diversity. Understanding the nuances and complexities of this relationship is a great start.

How Do We Create a More Inclusive Society?

Bridging the gap between the foreigner/ immigrant community and society requires more than education, understanding, and empathy. The government, industry, and media must create a positive narrative about immigrants. This won’t happen overnight or by individual efforts alone.

As a black female expat in South Korea since the late 1970s, I’ve seen significant changes in Seoul, but living outside the city poses challenges. Communication is a hurdle, especially for non-Hangul speakers. It’s tough to connect with locals who are hesitant to engage with foreigners.

Technology can help overcome language barriers. Many rely on translation apps like Papago or Google Translate. While not perfect, it’s a step towards inclusivity and creating a bridge to the locals.

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I live in central South Korea in Daegu. It’s the 4th largest city in South Korea. The city has a population of approximately 2.2 million people. The city is by far the most conservative of the 4 largest cities in the country. I’ve lived here off and on for more than 5 years. And I really love the city. We had a choice. We could have moved back to Germany or back to Korea and we chose the latter. There is a large military community with a lot of other black women. So I have a tribe here in South Korea.

My Tribe– it’s Complicated

By actively engaging with various communities, I have found a sense of belonging in South Korea. My tribe is a diverse group of people. It includes foreign expats, local nationals, and other black women living in South Korea. Through my involvement with organizations such as the Daegu International Women’s Association, I have formed lasting relationships that have been invaluable to me. In fact, my experience with this group has been so meaningful that I even became a board member last year.

I have a Korean friend whom I consider my bestie. We hang out all the time, share secrets, and make plans to continue our friendship even after I return to the United States. And despite all that, I have never met her husband, been in her house more than once (5 years ago), or been invited to celebrate any holiday with her family. Her daughter is getting married soon. She just laughed when I fished for whether I’d receive an invitation. This made me a bit sad. I’ve only been to one wedding in Korea, and that was during the pandemic when wedding parties were limited to 50 people. My hubby and I were honored to cut and had a fabulous time.

Recently, I took a trip with a friend to her hometown on Jeju Island. We hired a professional photographer/guide to teach us some new photography skills. The trip was challenging. And we needed some time to recover afterward. It only strengthened our bond. This experience taught me an important lesson. Just because something is difficult doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. We can form deeper connections with others by pushing out of our comfort zones. Eventually finding a sense of purpose and belonging anywhere and everywhere

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  1. PB

    Being black myself, I can and will say this.

    Why are you STILL in South Korea if you feel your needs aren’t being met?

    If you feel so ‘othered,’ why are you not choosing to live in a black majority country? The sense of entitlement that other more homogenous cultures should accommodate your black American sense of ‘how you think they should be,’ is frankly, annoying and embarrassing to all of us within the black diaspora.

    You still have yet to learn as black people do in general, that if you do not honestly and truly accept yourself, how can you expect others to do so? This is a chronic psychological problem in humanity as a whole!

    You can never be put first in someone else’s culture, and you are unlikely to be seen as such or ethnically them. Black people are always telling white people and other ethnicities they can never be black or African, yet you think you shouldn’t be held to the same standard?!

    Why should they accept more immigrants just to make you feel more comfortable? In fact, mass migration is destroying Europe and is in the process of destroying North America. No other country puts up with this… and they should NOT!

    1. Stacey A. Peters

      Thank you for sharing your perspective. As a military spouse, my residence in different countries is not a choice I freely make. This unique position offers a chance to explore various cultures, including South Korea’s. My experiences and observations are shared from a place of curiosity and learning, not entitlement. South Korea has a rich culture that I deeply appreciate, and my time there has been filled with meaningful connections and discoveries. Your concerns about immigration and cultural integration are global issues, affecting many countries beyond South Korea. My intention is not to critique but to share my journey and insights as someone navigating life in a foreign land. I respect and welcome diverse viewpoints and would be interested in reading your thoughts on these matters if you have a blog or a platform where you share them.

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