Monday, December 11, 2017

Foreign netizens turn on Suwon restaurant for 'blackface' caricature

[Update: I originally posted this entry based on my reading of Korea Expose's article and my noticing of the Dooly connection. Moments after posting it I read a post by a friend on Facebook who highlighted the harassment the owner of the restaurant was receiving. Not wanting to contribute to that in any way, I've altered the original post (which Google tells me was seen by 8 people) to draw attention to the way this was framed on Facebook.]

Korea Exposé has reported on a Suwon restaurant named Kkamdis Jjimdak (or "blackies jjimdak"), which, according to the owner, is the last-remaining branch of a franchise. A review of the restaurant in Korean can be found here. Attention was first drawn to the restaurant after photos of the menu, featuring the mascot below, were recently posted on Facebook.

The Facebook post in "Restaurant Buzz Seoul" reads as follows:
Ummmm...can anyone explain to me why a restaurant like this is allowed to exist? Isn't this incredibly racist? If you'd like to complain this is the number for the restaurant. [Phone number posted.] No one is asking them to close down the restaurant just remove the racist name and label. Thanks.
The photos were also uploaded at the Facebook group "Suwon Newbies" by the same person, and the post there reads as follows:
This is absolutely not acceptable! This is supposed to be a depiction of a black person for their logo. This just opened near suwon station! If you go out exit 7 and follow the road you will see it across the street. If you're in the area please go inside and let them know that this is not okay. I have recently done so. Even if the people don't know better someone should educate them. I am not one to "try and change the country" but this is unacceptable!!!!

'깜디' is a short version of  '깜뚱이' which is a derogatory word for African Americans.
So many exclamation marks!!!! Along with phone numbers, directions to the restaurant, and marching orders, which appear to have been followed, according to a friend on Facebook who contacted the store's owner, who commented on the response by the Facebook-organized netizens:
The owner of the restaurant was really scared. He said "I don't know what to do. I am so embarrassed." He said he had received a lot of threats via Facebook messenger and phone, so he deleted his Facebook account to block the disparaging comments. A reporter contacted him to get his story. He also said he didn't create the design. He just received the mural from the headquarters and applied it to his restaurant. He didn't expect that this design stir up controversy. The only thing I could do was to let him know the unfavorable post of his restaurant being unloaded in Suwon newbies. It takes a lot of time for the person who is not fluent in English, to understand what is going on in English speaking communities and compose an official apology in English.
It begs the question that has been asked since the Dog Poop Girl: When does the response to a perceived offense become worse than the original offense? The restaurant is now featured on an American website as well. (If only Korean restaurants could be more like American restaurants, right?) Responses included assertions that Koreans should know better by now, and that all the owner needs to do is change the sign. In response to the first assertion, I doubt that discussion of representations of black people seen as racist by non-Koreans has really spilled over very far beyond English-language discussions online. That this comes up frequently in these forums likely says more about their foreign users than about the degree to which it is an issue in Korean-language public discourse. As for the second assertion, a glance at the restaurant in that previously mentioned review makes it clear that not only the sign, but the tables, menus, posters, and more would need to be changed - not an easy thing for an independent business owner. Perhaps the people who are so concerned by the image could donate money to help him change the sign they find so offensive.

That the owner said the character was supposed to look like the cartoon character Dooly is interesting. Dooly, of course, is green, has no bone in his hair, and wears no loincloth. This isn't the first time Dooly has been cited as the origin of a blackface-style image, however, as I noted in this post on the history of blackface in Korea. In January 2012 an MBC show featured comedians in black face, an act that was described in an apology by the production team as a parody of Maikol, (Micheal), a character from Dooly based on Michael Jackson.

That in turn highlighted the problem with Maikol, though he was not the only one, as we can see from the characters in this Dooly clip:

The appearance of such stereotypes on a children's show suggests at least one reason why such caricatures are not considered offensive to some people in Korea, especially since they have been embedded not just in entertainment but also in dictionaries and textbooks.

While campaigns against the government or television networks to stop such practices are understandable, turning internet users against an independent business seems a bit over the top, particularly when the person who first posted this said he had already talked to the owner.

While the owner of the Kkamdis Jjimdak store was apologetic, the owner of the franchise, while disavowing any racist intentions, was less so:
"If I launched a dish called 'White Jjimdak,' all white people would throw a fit," he said over the phone. "People shouldn’t scrutinize every little thing. Foreigners who complained have an inferiority complex."
An unhelpful comment (and one reminding me of the MBC staffer's response of "why are all these foreigners making a fuss over it? Maybe because they have a guilty conscience" in response to anger over an MBC show about interracial couples in 2012), but it seems to me to be the flip side of "I am not one to 'try and change the country' but this is unacceptable!"

As for Korea Exposé citing a Hankyoreh article about a similar incident involving a restaurant, I can't think of the Hankyoreh in this context without calling to mind what is, for my money, the most racist depiction of an African I've seen in a public forum in Korea - particularly because of its 'progressive' source and because it was so unnecessary - this cartoon published by the Hankyoreh in the aftermath of Roh Moo-hyun's impeachment in March 2004, which looks at the reaction of foreign bloggers to the impeachment:

"...?" indeed. He looks about as primitive as some of those raging against peninsular racism seem to think Koreans are.