Ethnicity and Racism - Stirring the Pot

@1 May 2005 

Other articles dealing with cross-cultures: "Cultural Operating Systems - Thoughts on Designing Cultures", 2010; "Senate Inquiry into the Status of Australian Expatriates", 2004; "Korean, American and Other Strange Habits - You Do It Your Way - two books reviewed", 2003; Individualism or the Group", 2001; "When Is It Rude To Be Rude? - Politeness Across Cultures and Subcultures", 2001; "The Price of Freedom - an Escape from Vietnam", 1984


The topic here is ethnicity. Yet it has been posed to me by a student (below) through the medium of American culture. Maybe that is inevitable...

There is a sense in which a lot of Koreans know more about America than I ever will. It is a focus for their dreams and abominations. For my generation of Australians at least, America has mostly seemed like an extension of the suburban boredom that we know so well at home, so we are often content to leave its deeper mysteries unplumbed. Yet for both the Koreans and for me, love it or loathe it, we find that the superpower of the age becomes a measure for all things, and an unavoidable part of our discourse.

The strange thing is, as an Australian in South Korea, I find myself taken to be knowledgeable on all things American, and trapped into parading my personal narrow vision of that culture through the prism of my own. The e-mail from a student below draws me relentlessly into comparisons. Ethnicity is always a volatile topic. Well, judge it through your own prism, as you must ....


Hi, teacher can you remember me?

The reason I writing this e-mail to you is to ask you about the ethnic segregation in U.S.

As I remember you were...from Australia. Am I correct? ^^;; If you don't know about that topic and if you don't want to answer to my question for collecting some data because you're busy.....It's OK .... I'm just sending an e-mail to share some idea about unfairness for immigrants who living in some foreign countries....

The day before yesterday, I read a column which was written by a female writer. The title of the column was 'Making the Mosaic'. In her writing, she was talking about the recent situation about several problems for immigrants.

There are so many immigrants now in U.S.A. Even the female writer was born and grown up in Irish-Italian family.

In the column, one American politician mentioned about "Authentic American". Through that phrase, I could feel that (racism) ethnical discrimination still existing somewhere out there in U.S.

The writer was arguing not only about immigration boom but also about lack of educational system for early immigrant's new generation. The young kids.

What do you think Prof. May? Have you ever read that column in NY times?

Maybe you already know overall situation about immigration problems with ethnic segregation.

Anna Quindlen, the female writer emphasized to immigrants that it's foolish to forget where you come from, and the true 'authentic American' shouldn't be an American but for someone tries her/him best for each one's dream in land of liberty, America. Ethnic doesn't matter...   

Do you accept her position? If you do or not, Could you tell me why?



Hello Hong-sik,

Nice to hear from you. I hope you are well.
The ideas of ethnicity and race are very complex, and understood in many different ways by different people.
Firstly, the question of discrimination (treating one person differently from another) causes the most anger. We all discriminate between people for various personal reasons. You like some kinds of people better than others - because they smile, or are honest, or come from your town, or are clever, or rich .... and so on. It is very common to discriminate because of gender (male/ female). In every culture and country, some people always discriminate because of "race" or "ethnicity". This is true in Korea, and Australia, and America. Everywhere.
However, in some places this discrimination is more common than in others. In some places ethnic discrimination is socially accepted and in other places it is criticized. In some places governments, organizations, and even the law allow, or require discrimination because of race or ethnicity. This is called INSTITUTIONAL RACISM. The old South Africa was a terrible example of institutional racism, and so was Hitler's Nazi Germany.
Most foreigners in South Korea feel that there is some institutional racism here. For example, I cannot get a credit card in South Korea because I am a foreigner. The banks say giving credit cards to foreigners is risky because they might leave. They give credit cards to unemployed teenagers ... In Australia, anyone can get a credit card. So most foreigners in Korea believe that the Korean banks are racist. We also think that the Korean treatment of the tens of thousands of ethnic Chinese who have been born in Korea or lived here for 50 years - but who can't get Korean passports - is institutional racism.
Countries like America and Australia have a special problem managing ethnic relations because they have people from so many ethnic backgrounds. Personally, I think that Australia has been much more successful than America at integrating different people into one community. Local and state governments have more influence in America than in Australia. America has a large population, and I think institutional racism still occurs in some local regions, some states, and some companies. The discrimination is especially strong against the twelve million so-called illegal immigrants who live in America (South Korea has this problem too).
Personally, I think so-called ethnicity is not important at all when I meet people. I have worked in seven countries, and visited maybe twenty others. I have found good people and bad people in all of them, regardless of "race".
The idea of a "true" American, or a "true" Korean is about nationalism. Nationalism is a modern form of tribalism. For some people nationalism and ethnicity or race are closely connected. This is a common idea in Korea (and China) where most people have a similar ethnic background. Most Koreans would say someone of my "ethnicity" (Caucasian) could never be a true Korean. I think this is racist nonsense.

When people immigrate to a country like Australia, their hearts are always in two places : Australia and their country of origin (for example, Korea).

When Korean immigrants have children in Australia, those children will have their hearts in Australia, not Korea (unless there is bad racial discrimination in Australia and they are never socially accepted). Most children of immigrants in Australia feel that Australia is home. Among the children of recent refugee groups (e.g. Vietnamese or Somalis) there may sometimes be a certain amount of identity confusion because their parents sought refuge in Australia under great stress. If the wider Australian culture is accepting, this kind of 'otherness' should disappear in succeeding generations.

It is true that some groups of immigrants become part of the new community (e.g. become accepted as Australians) more easily than other groups. In my experience, this ability to integrate has much less to do with so-called "race" than with certain cultural beliefs, including religion. The acid test is probably intermarriage. When the people of two communities intermarry they learn tolerance. Think of the people in your own extended family. Perhaps you disapprove of some of them a bit, but they are family members so you learn to live with them. Some religions forbid their members to marry with non-believers of that religion, and some cultural groups forbid intermarriage completely, or disown their sons and daughters who try to marry outside of the cultural group. Immigrant parents who think like this, for example, often force their children to accept arranged marriages with an unknown partner from the "home" country. If you look around the world, and if you study history you will find again and again that this kind of exclusionism eventually causes conflict and even bloodshed.

What about my ancestors? Of course, I have some sentimental interest in England, because that is where my ancestors came from, but I would never consider England to be my home.  Ethnic "Koreans" born in Australia will have some sentimental interest in Korea, but they are unlikely to feel that they "belong" in Korea. I noticed in Australian universities that international Chinese students and 'ABCs' (Australian born Chinese) rarely mixed. The ABCs always joined other Australians in the dining halls. As I said, Australia may have been more successful at this integration than America (or Korea itself), so some American born ethnic "Koreans" might feel rejected in some parts of American society.

I hope this answers your questions. ^_^
cheers, Thor

All opinions expressed in Thor's Unwise Ideas and The Passionate Skeptic are entirely those of the author, who has no aim to influence, proselytize or persuade others to a point of view. He is pleased if his writing generates reflection in readers, either for or against the sentiment of the argument. Personal names are changed where they might embarrass the owners.

" Ethnicity and Racism - Stirring the Pot" copyrighted to Thor May; all rights reserved 2005

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