Those of you that know me or that have read the blog for a while now know that I've been wanting to write a post about the racism in LA focusing on the issues between the Black community and the Korean community. I have personal reasons for doing so, because the rift between both communities has been something that has affected me personally. I could never find the time to do the research or write it, but I finally figured out how to make it work. This last semester for me in school has been mainly focused on my thesis, but I also took an Intercultural Conflict class as well. I decided to just make this conflict the subject of my final paper in the class, so I'd have the time to do all the necessary research and to put something together that would answer the questions or confirm the suspicions I've had to the origins of this conflict.
For those of you that are members of the TL;DR crowd or are simply not interested in reading academic writing, stop right here. For the rest of you, here's an edited down version of the paper I turned in.
“Intercultural sensitivity is not natural. It is not part of our primate past, nor has it characterized most of human history. Cross-cultural dialect usually has been accompanied by bloodshed, oppression, or genocide. The continuation of this pattern in today’s world of unimagined interdependence is not just immoral or unprofitable – it is self-destructive. Yet in seeking a different way, we inherit no model from history to guide us.” This quote from Milton Bennett of the Intercultural Communication Institute is a blunt and honest description of the reason behind the existence of intercultural conflict. In a city as diverse as Los Angeles, it is no surprise that there seem to be intercultural conflicts happening somewhere in the city every minute of every day. However, I must say that although the time I lived in Los Angeles was rife with conflict of people from different cultures, the one conflict that has stood out from amongst the rest for me personally has been the conflict between the Black and Korean communities. It existed prior to the 1992 Los Angeles riots, but it became a huge and painful rift during and after the riots. Much of the conflict between the two communities has arisen out of lack of cultural understanding between the two groups, which led to intolerance, hatred, and finally, violence. Understanding of the origins of the conflict as well as where the two communities seem to be clashing is the first step towards healing the rift, and here I will propose a solution that could be implemented to achieve the goal of further understanding and harmony between the two groups.
Origins of Conflict
Trying to decide which party first had issues with the other is another chicken/egg sort of discussion, but in my own personal history and from my own observations, Korean prejudice towards Blacks has been an issue for decades. Sumi K. Cho discusses the origins of this prejudice in her essay “Korean Americans vs. African Americans: Conflict and Construction”. Cho states, “The dominant U.S. racial hierarchy and its concomitant stereotypes are transferred worldwide to every country that the United States has occupied militarily. Korean women who married American GIs and returned to the United States after the Korean War quickly discovered the social significance of marrying a white versus an African-American GI. American racial hierarchies were telegraphed back home. Let us also not forget that the Korean War was also pre-civil rights movement in the United States. When Koreans immigrate to the U.S., internationalized stereotypes are reinforced by negative depictions of African Americans in U.S. films, television shows, and other popular forms of cultural production.” Assimilating this prejudice towards African Americans is not something that most Koreans would struggle with in any way. For many years in Korea, as well as in China and Japan, the darker your skin is, the lower down you are on the class hierarchy. People with darker skin have traditionally been those who spent time outdoors, most likely as farmers, and certainly not as members of the upper classes. This unconscious prejudice towards those with more melanin in their skin has existed for centuries in the Korean culture, and was further enforced with their limited exposure to American society during the Korean War. Koreans easily adapted these stereotypes, and brought them along as baggage when they immigrated to the United States. Additionally, Koreans were most likely not prepared to live in the multicultural society in the U.S., after being members of homogenous society for so long.
After assimilating these prejudices and then moving to the United States, it became a matter of course that Koreans would attribute any negative interactions that they had with members of the African American community as being due to a character defect of some sort, and the more negative interactions they had, the more these were attributed to a cultural defect. Much of the interaction between the two groups happened in the area of South Central Los Angeles, where Korean immigrants bought liquor stores or convenience stores. The negative interactions that members of each community have with each other start out as intercultural miscommunication, and quickly evolve into intercultural conflict.
African American Community Feelings/Beliefs
In the neighborhood of South Central Los Angeles, most of the members of the community are African American, and while many of the shop owners are Korean American, the Koreans do not live in the neighborhood, but rather in Koreatown or other areas of Los Angeles. When Korean immigrants come to the United States and take over stores and shops in this neighborhood, they do so because it is much cheaper to do business in this neighborhood than in other areas of Los Angeles, but they do not realize the impact this financial decision makes on the African American community. Sumi K. Cho says, “Korean Americans who open stores in the neighborhood are resented by long-deprived residents and are seen as "outsiders" exerting unfair control and power in the community. The interaction between the two racial groups is structured strictly by market relationships: one is the consumer, the other is the owner. This market structuring of group relations has influenced the Korean/Black conflict...”
This relationship of Koreans as the owners and African Americans as consumers is difficult on both sides. Benjamin Bailey’s interviews with members of the African American community shed light on their beliefs of members of the Korean community: “When I asked African-Americans in the Crenshaw neighborhood of Los Angeles, for example, about relations with Korean immigrant storekeepers, I commonly got responses such as the following, from a man in his 30s: “In my experience dealing with Korean merchants...the one basic problem is: no respect. No respect. Period.” This perceived lack of respect has been stressed in African-American accounts of tensions, and it is considered a serious offense by many.”
He further elaborates that overall, the people that he interviewed consistently brought up the issue of lack of respect, and focused instead on what the shopkeepers did not do as opposed to what they did do. The storeowners do not smile at their customers, make small talk, or maintain eye contact; essentially, they do not personally engage their customers. The lack of these actions was considered rude and disrespectful. Additionally, the shopkeepers frequently watch their customers, which is seen as even more offensive, especially after the lack of personal interaction. Unfortunately, since many African Americans have been negatively conditioned to view negative interactions as racism or discrimination, (because it frequently is) they have a tendency to perceive these negative interactions in the same light. They will not generally look past the possibility of racism and see that these negative interactions occur because of cultural differences.
Korean Community Feelings/Beliefs
While the African American community attributes these negative interactions to racism and discrimination, the Korean community sees these interactions in terms of inappropriate behavior and communication. This differing interpretation of the reasons behind negative interactions coupled with the potential for assimilation of racial prejudice causes much hostility towards African Americans as a whole. Lucie Cheng and Yen Espiritu explain, “…in the United States they [Koreans] may have further assimilated the racial prejudice against blacks – especially when these are reinforced in real life encounters, no matter how selective they may be. For example, a Korean robbed by a black would tend to interpret that experience as one that proves the rule. Koreans often refer to the physical size of blacks and “menacing” gestures as threatening.”
In consideration of the research done by Benjamin Bailey, there is an interesting conflict of thoughts between the African American community and the Korean community, for while the African American community members focus on what the shopkeepers do not do, the Korean community members focus on what the African Americans do. Koreans see African American behavior as being not educated in social graces and good manners, and of having no sense of decorum or class. They do not generally seek to establish any personal contact with their customers, since they see interactions with their customers as business transactions, where money and goods are exchanged. As a matter of course African Americans interpret this negatively as rudeness.
Sumi K. Cho makes a statement at the end of her essay that easily sums up where the two communities can move forward from intercultural miscommunication and conflict. She says, “Korean-American organizers and intellectuals must work with communities to reject prejudices and stereotypes about other people of color that have been adopted from the mainstream culture. Korean Americans must address seriously the complaints that too many storeowners are rude and disrespectful to darker skinned customers, and search for ways to improve relations. The community cannot use the reality of high crime rates that shop owners face to rationalize unacceptable behavior, but must openly communicate with the residents they serve.” What community organizers from both communities must do is get together and form a coalition, where they would meet in a “Sustained Dialogue” setting. The concept of Sustained Dialogue was developed by Hal Saunders, and is a process of changing intractable conflicts and negative relationships into positive ones. It is believed that by bringing the same group together repeatedly over a duration of time, that the relationships can change and move in a positive direction.
Another thing that could be done is offering seminars and training on how to deal with intercultural conflict at community mediation centers in South Central and in Koreatown. The training and seminars would focus on teaching members of the community about the concept of “mindfulness” would also be beneficial, as it consists of “(a) learning to see behavior or information presented in the conflict situation as novel or fresh, (b) learning to view a conflict situation from several vantage points or perspectives, (c) learning to attend to the conflict context and the person in whom we are perceiving the behavior, and (d) learning to create new categories through which this new conflict behavior may be understood.”
It is hoped that if these concepts are implemented in the African American and Korean communities that understanding could be gained by members of both communities, and perhaps both communities would move away from feelings of hostility and ethnocentrism, and towards feelings of unity and acceptance.