(Re:)Educating Korean children about race

South Korea. -A place I’ve been happy to call home for a few years now, is at the top of its game.

From Psy to Samsung, Korea has never been more relevant to the world, and has pushed past Japan to become the ‘it’ country in terms of cultural and technological relevance in the last few years.

However, social progress is a much fickler beast, and this has sadly been an embarrassing year for Korea’s reputation as a good neighbor in the ‘global village’. To be fair, many countries are struggling with the implications of globalization and multiculturalism. Korea has always been insular, and relatively underexposed to multicultural environments.

This has led to a string of embarrassing incidents wherein a Korean company has been ousted as outright offensive in its hiring policies. In one recent instance, an Irish expat was denied employment with a private academy ‘due to the alcoholism nature of your kind’. Have a look:


Read about a Korean Pub denying ‘Africans’ due to Ebola here.

Months earlier, an article appeared on expat news social media sites like Asia Pundits and the Korea Herald regarding an alleged recruiting service ad that specifically stated “whites only” as key to their criteria. Here it is:


Outrage ensued. The company has claimed, and stated (not unfairly) that it could have been posted by anyone, as is the nature of Craigslist. The owner of the company has dubbed it the work of a disgruntled foreigner, although the same exact wording appears in other job postings for the same company.

The article disappeared as quick as you can say ‘plausible deniability’, and a short summary of the situation appeared in the Korea Times online here (I say short summary, because I prefer to think ‘news’ still means something).

Many let out a collective “How dare they!” at both of these situations, and rightly so. To see job posting is to wonder whether you were looking at a recent post on the Internet or a sign above a segregated drinking fountain in 1950’s Alabama.

Only, there’s no law on the books to prevent hiring practices based on race, sex, or sexual orientation in Korea. There almost was. Legislation was drafted by lawmakers in April 2013, but the legislation died on the floor as a result of dual opposition from large companies and Conservative Christians. These groups denounced the legislation as pro-North Korean and pro-gay’(1).

(Both of these parties’ reasons should be pretty obvious. For companies, aside from keeping lax hiring practices, discrimination lawsuits cost businesses 64 Billion annually in America. Of the religious right, we can easily see why anti-discrimination laws are harmful to their ‘ideals’)

So let’s be perfectly clear: These hiring practices are technically LEGAL.

Some will object on grounds of cultural relativism, deploying blanket apologetics for a general state of ‘racial innocence’  in Korea. The purpose of addressing this issue is to open a clear line of inquiry on who is responsible and what can be done to overcome this problem. Whether its name is racism, or ‘racial innocence’, it is time to take steps to end it. Nonetheless, let’s proceed.

The ‘Abercrombie’ argument

Regardless of the article in question’s legitimacy, this is not about an isolated incident.  This is similar to when former Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries said, among other things, “A lot of people don’t look good in our clothes, and they can’t belong”(3).

We can get outraged at the source of this sentiment all we like, but if we think that his words are the ramblings of a misguided rogue and not a pervasive opinion in an industry that quietly believes and operates as such, we may be fooling ourselves.

Likewise, this job post is a token of the ugly and reprehensible reality of a consistently documented phenomenon that has pervaded ESL teaching in Korea for years. Sentences like ‘English nationals only’,  ‘female only’, and their permutations such as ‘white teacher preferred’ are a common facet of a job search here.

Like the Abercrombie  debacle, this is an opportunity to examine the pervasive attitudes that define that exclusion. To find their sources and pull them out. That is, if we seize it as such. So let’s start with the front line:

The recruiters in 3 stories


A week or so ago, a friend from Canada of Vietnamese descent (“Bill”) had asked for help finding a new job. Bill has years of experience in the EPIK program, but decided to take a pilgrimage home to hug his parents, high five his friends and ‘have coffee’ with former lady loves. Standard fare, really.

Bill was looking to take his talents to the private field. To enter the beast known as Hagwon (private academy). Although Bill was having a rough go of it. It wasn’t long into his job search that he had noticed a pattern. After Bill provided this starters’ kit of basic info, which includes a picture, most of these recruiters just never got back to him.

Ever the optimist, Bill asked me to look over his resume. Despite not thinking much of my own, I was happy to help. Everything appeared to be in order, so I took it upon myself to refer him to some more recruiters. I sent the initial email out, mostly unbeknownst to him.

The replies I received were interesting, and because of my name, very candid. One recruiter, pictured below with personal/company name redacted, had this to say:


He’s right about EPIK. The EPIK program has a good reputation for hiring a diverse staff of English Teachers. One might even confuse their orientation photos with a university pamphlet (save the token student in a wheelchair). More to the point, there was an honest (albeit implicit) admission about racially-based hiring policies.

(In fact, one blogger did an excellent job conducting a side-by-side job search between a black and white candidate with the same qualifications here.)

However, after making an inquiry from the next agency, I received a phone call back. During this convo, he handed me this gem of an argument:

“C’mon buddy, would you go to a Chinese restaurant staffed only by white people?”

Some well-crafted rhetoric, to be sure. He went on to say that “there are expectations about certain places when you pay for an experience”. First off, I simply must start referring to my presence at work as an ‘experience’. Second of all, is this meant to imply that this the same issue as only hiring attractive females to wait tables at Hooters?

What can be gleaned from these statements and the recruiters’ attitude in general?  Well, it’s clear that some recruiters felt we should all just accept that this is just part of the natural order because –and here’s the most important bit- it is ‘just not their call’.

Let me be clear, I’m not out to vilify the recruiters. They are merely making connections for commission, and it’s a numbers racket. They are responding to request from their client, and are reluctant to play ethics commissioner. I mean, it’s not like they’d ever misrepresent peoples’ ethnicity to potential employers, right?


Ms. Grewal

Ms. Grewal is a private school teacher from Canada working in Gyeonggi-do. During her initial search for an ESL job in Korea, she recalls three separate times that she aced the phone interview, “but when I video chatted them on Skype, all of a sudden I had an ‘Indian accent'”.

On her first day at her current school, she  surprised everyone at her new school on her first day. Of course, it wasn’t her professionalism or great manners that left people in shock. The director approached her with a “Wow. the paperwork said you were white!”.

The recruiter had, accidentally or not, misrepresented her ethnicity to the school.

But that’s just ludicrous. How could you not know that someone is not Caucasian? Photos are part of the information package. It’s not like recruiters would ever jump the shark and modify photos to misrepresent someone’s race.



“Rhonda”, a friend of mine working in Busan -who wants to remain anonymous for professional reasons- claimed, and produced horrifying evidence to me over dinner, that her recruiter had used Photoshop to ‘whiten’ her face before presenting the school with their initial information. In fact, the school director, upon meeting her actually uttered, “Oh, you’re [a] black woman! I didn’t know that”. He then excitedly produced from his phone the Photoshopped picture from his email.

As it’s more prudent to protect her identity, I have fashioned a stock photo into a before and after to best reflect the actual photos in this instance. Maybe it can instill a similar horror in you.

note: this is a recreation

note: this is a re-creation with a stock photo.

“I was mortified. I could never make you understand how betrayed I felt”. Rhonda recalled to me.

This may seem shocking outside the Korean expat community, but within it, this is a sadly believable tale. In fact, just recently a Korean comedy troupe performed a skit wherein one of the members dressed in blackface (again). This was met with large scale outrage by the foreign community, and near uninterrupted indifference from the Korean community.


From passing over certain ethnic groups to insane acts of photo manipulation, recruiters are responding to the racially slanted job market. But who is really pushing this idea? All of the recruiters are responding to a demand, but from who?

The School Directors.

One step beyond the recruiters are the Hagwon owners. Hagwon owners are ultimately the ones that have this decision, and thus culpability, on their shoulders. If anyone is refusing non-white teachers, it has to be them, right?

As it turns out, this is where it gets a little murky. For some perspective on this point of view, I sat down with English speaking Hagwon owner and blogger Wangjangnim to gain some insight into possible origins of these hiring ‘preferences’.

CTD: Wangjangnim, has your hiring practice ever included race in its criteria?

WJN: My hiring process does not include a selection based on race. Regulations only allow for a limited pool of hires from a global perspective. English as a native speaker.

CTD: Are you ever encouraged by other factors to hire based on race?

WJN: Mothers will make their preferences known in no unclear way. Children do not make a distinction, apart from those where family has influenced a racist view of the world.

CTD: Have you ever received pressure or ridicule as the result of hiring non-white teachers?

WJN:. Every single time I have hired a non-caucasian or anyone older than 30, questions were raised by parents, even though I myself was older than 30 when I started my school.

CTD: Do you feel that this sort of criteria for hiring teachers is in any way justifiable as there is a certain look that is prevalent within the industry (such as pretty young women serving at upscale restaurants in Western society), or do you feel that it is an unnecessary and racist ‘quirk’ that unnecessarily restricts the job market and reflects poorly on Korea?

WJN:. The only thing (imho) that should matter is the overall presentation of the self.

For the full interview and more of Wangjangnim’s opinions visit www.wangjangnim.com.

This is by no means the only opinion on the issue, but he brings some interesting observations to the table. One of which is ageism. Although I wish to keep on task about racism, it should be noted that is is a problem that pervades all of Korea, despite there being legislation.

Obviously, every hagwon owner is different in degrees, if not in kind.

However, it should be clearly stated that private school system (like all businesses) is in part run by the consumer: The mothers.

To be fair to the mothers: You’re right to worry about what others are teaching your kids. Now, let’s take a moment to reflect on what YOU’RE teaching them.

My Last Lesson

When I worked in private schools, I had a ritual before I left a school. Call it a ‘last lesson’. I would download a picture of a muscular black guy in a casual social situation. For the final time I used this scenario, I chose to use Ronnie Coleman, a professional bodybuilder, as my fake replacement teacher.


Ronnie Coleman,  here in an apparently failed bid to join the cast of Police Academy.

I would then tell my children, for the two weeks prior to my departure, that he was to be taking over for me. This, every single time, provided me with a moment of candor that I brace for.

“Teacher, no!”

Of course, the comments that followed that were often reflective of attitudes about darker skinned people being ‘dirty’ and ‘scary’. Given where I know their information about the world comes from outside this classroom, I’d say we’ve found our main culprit.

I would engage with them. I spent a lot of time speaking well of Ronnie’s character. I said that we hung out all the time, and that he was one of the nicest, most kind people I had ever met. He loves children, and he is an excellent teacher. One by one, the children changed their mind.

Every time I had the privilege of watching them win themselves back from prejudice.

On the very last day of my old school, I was quite surprised to hear this:

“Teacher, when does Ronnie teacher get here?”

“Maybe Monday or Tuesday. Why?”

“I want to meet him. He seems fun. I’m really excited to meet him”

Just like that, the other kids jumped on board. They were ready and accepting, as they should be. All it took was for someone older in their life to speak well of someones’ personhood over the silly and harmful preconceptions that pervade these kids’ opinions.

Sadly, Ronnie never came, but the idea of him arrived better than I could have hoped.

As with much of the good left undone by previous generations, overcoming the ignorance of others is an important lesson that kids need to learn, particularly in an insular and ethnically homogenous place like Korea. It’s a shame that a lot of parents, directors, and recruiters collectively go to great lengths keep it off the curriculum.