Teaching “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in Korea, part 2

When I asked my students about blackface performance in Korea, I got a wide range of responses. I’d been hoping for something of a cohesive discussion, but that didn’t happen, owing, I think, to the fact that some students spoke up who lacked the same level of intercultural sensitivity as other students. And if I’ve learned anything about Korean culture when it comes to speaking aloud in groups, when people sense disunity, things get quiet. People tend to like to agree, and really dislike to disagree. This is interesting considering that down at City Hall in central Seoul, protests against the Park government have been pretty much non-stop since the Sewol ferry incident. But the protest groups agree with one another, and present a unified front to their opposition.  Anyhow, I’d like to think I was prepared for the stall in discussion; as it was, I think I rolled with the punches, but that was about it. Here are some excerpts:

One woman who had obviously thought about this issue presented an idea that was truly new to me: that blackface performance in Korea is self-reflexive, that these performers are parodying Koreans who would, unthinkably, still believe that “primitives” inhabited the southern hemisphere–and therefore should not be seen as a parody of black people. She argued that these performances are aimed at older, conservative Koreans who isolate themselves from the rest of the world. I could tell that her argument was difficult for some of the other students to follow, and so I urged her to clarify her meaning, which she did. I invested so much in her expression of this reflexive analysis that I failed to ask what I wish, in retrospect, I had: “Does that make it ok?”

Another woman related a recent incident that occurred in Itaewon, the international district in town near the American military base where many Americans and Middle Easterners live. In response to the news about the spread of the Ebola virus, a pub owner had posted a sign saying that Africans were not being served at their establishment. Word of this enraged local Korean nationals and international expats alike. The woman relating this incident expressed disgust at the pub owner’s racism and ignorance, but when I prompted students to express their thoughts on the incident, things were again very quiet.

“Why are stereotypes powerful? Do you find yourself prone to stereotyping?” I purposely avoided the use of the word “racist”. For some reason, this question piqued the interest of another student who reflected that stereotypes weren’t all bad. For example, when she sees a black person, she might just think that they are a good dancer, and that’s it. …Crickets. I mentally face-palmed myself and said calmly, “So it’s clear that sometimes we unintentionally fall into the stereotyping of others.” As I gazed at the 30-odd silent faces turned respectfully toward me, I sensed the discomfort in the room, and I decided to leave this attempt at discussion behind and move on to the next section of the unit.

Should have would have could have… It’s clear that my own expectations about how a class discussion on a sensitive topic should proceed don’t yet meet the cultural needs and attitudes of my students. I’m left wondering if there was a better way to bring this up in a group context, or if the group context is just not appropriate for such a topic, and if not, then what is?

This seemed to me a pretty sound failure on my part to truly get my students connecting an important piece of American dramatic literature to their immediate context. But perhaps the one redeeming thing about it was how surprised (and also embarrassed) some students seemed to be. Perhaps this was the first time they were confronted with their peers’ thinking on such a subject and asked to consider its long-term effects on the potential community they want to live in. After class, one man came up to me to say what he’d been thinking but didn’t feel he could say aloud in front of others. “What that girl said back there; that made me so angry,” he said. “You should talk to her about it”, I said.  “People really need to open their eyes,” he said, as he was exiting the room. “Hey,” I said, before he completely disappeared, “thanks for telling me how you feel.” I was rewarded with a wry smile. “See you Monday, Professor.”