A couple of weeks ago, I went on a date to a barbecue restaurant in the south of Seoul. The waiter put the pork belly we’d ordered on the grill to cook, and returned periodically to flip it. When it was done cooking, he then cut it up for us and told us to enjoy our meal.
I dug in. My date – another foreign, white man I’d met a few weeks before – looked a bit confused. I asked him why.
“When I came here a couple of weeks ago, they didn’t cook it for us or anything,” he said.
“Were you here with Koreans or other foreigners?”
“My Korean colleagues.”
“It’s white privilege.”
White privilege is insidious in Korea, and goes much deeper than a waiter cooking your dinner for you. It’s something that I have very uncomfortably benefited from during my past three years living here – after all, I can’t exactly change my race nor the unfair favoritism I often receive due to it. There’s an ongoing joke among expats about carrying a “White Privilege Card.” It’s is even tangible in some ways, like when different businesses offer special discounts for foreigners. Sometimes, when I go out with my friends, they jokingly ask me to put the “extras” on my white privilege card. These “extras” include everything from free goods to special treatment, such as getting a nicer table or other advantages.
My white privilege card carries a greater line of credit than most, so to speak, since I’m the “right kind” of foreigner. The way I look is in line with most Korean (and, to be honest, international) beauty standards. I have the milk-pale skin that comes quite naturally with my red hair, big blue eyes, and a diminutive frame. At least five Koreans have (separately) told me that I look like a doll.
Being a doll has its perks.
You might have read studies citing the fact that ‘pretty’ people are trusted, liked, and valued more than their ‘ugly’ counterparts. In a country where fair skin and a small waist are highly prized, the privilege I receive is even greater than most of my other foreign friends. Sometimes, when we’re out together and we need something, they make me ask. It’s not because my Korean is the best; it’s because I’m the one most likely to be favored.
Furthermore, as a very visible foreigner in Korea I’m immune from most social expectations. To put it more bluntly, my “White Privilege Card” doubles as a “Get Out of Jail Free Card.” If I do something incorrectly (or even flat-out wrong), I’m let off due to my privilege. Let me illustrate.
During my first week in Korea, I was asked to go to a festival in Muju, which is a small, rural city. I was eager to see all that my new adopted country had to offer, so of course I said yes. However, when we got to an exhibition, the tickets were all sold out. My friends told me to go stand in line anyway, without having bought a ticket. When I got to the front of the line, I tried to explain that I had no ticket. The woman sighed kindly, as though I were a beloved grandchild asking for yet another piece of candy, and waved me through.
Of course, I know that I was privileged back in the US as well, though in somewhat different ways. I didn’t get in anywhere free because of my skin color like I have here, but then again, I don’t have to worry much about getting harassed – or much worse – by corrupt police officers. Still, being in Korea has really opened my eyes to how very lucky I am to have been born white – and just how messed up that sentiment is.
Have you experienced white privilege while traveling? What are your thoughts about white privilege in Asia; specifically, Korea? Let me know in the comments!