Earlier this week, KBS2 TV‘s Star Life Theater profiled Korean R&B diva Insooni. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Insooni’s work, I encourage you to read the rest of the article whilst listening to this in the background:[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kFNBm54i6lE&w=560&h=315]
A bit of background on Insooni: born in the 1950s to a Korean mother and an African-American father who served in the American military, Insooni was raised by a single mother in a Korean society that was (and still is) reluctant to accept those who are racially different. Prejudice against darker skin (often associated with poverty, since those who had to do farm labor were often suntanned as compared to their richer counterparts) made growing up especially difficult for Insooni. Against hefty odds, her outstanding voice carried her to prominence in the Korean entertainment industry, and she is considered by many to be a legendary singer.
On this episode of Social Life Theater, Insooni opens up about the difficulty of growing up both without her absentee father and growing up different in a Korean village, which spotlights many of the problems faced by biracial Koreans. Unfortunately, though things have eased, it is impossible to deny that it still isn’t easy being biracial in South Korea. People like Insooni still represent a growing and marginalized population; the “problem,” if you could even call it that, has multiplied in the South Korean countryside as farmers who find it difficult to marry Korean women increasingly take brides from Southeast Asia and produce mixed-race children. Called Kosians, these children have called attention to South Korea’s relative obsession with racial purity in that many have questioned how and where they will fit into Korean society.
However, looking strictly at the entertainment world (and particularly the glam world of idol-dom), it is very easy to underestimate the difficulties faced by biracial Koreans. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that the entertainment world glorifies mixed-race Koreans, but many besides Insooni enjoy a great deal of celebrity in their fields. Lithuanian-American-Korean musician Kolleen Park directs Korean musicals and recently participated as a judge on Korea’s Got Talent; Michelle Lee is Black-Korean and yet currently one of the most popular contestants on Survival Audition KPOP Star; Daniel Henney is beautiful for a living — oh, sorry, I meant he is an actor; and lastly, five-member girl group Chocolat is, as we pretty much all know, comprised of two Korean member(s) and
Tia three biracial girls (all of whom have white fathers and Korean mothers). Moving outside the Korean entertainment field, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward has also received acclaim from the Korean government for being both a Superbowl champion and an MVP.
But what all of these people have in common is that they are either (a) beautiful, (b) talented, or (c) some combination of the two — and though it is impossible to say, it is easy to speculate that South Korean society would care far less about them if they were not beautiful or talented. As these articles reiterate, life in South Korea is extremely difficult for mixed-race individuals; they face discrimination in schools and the workplace, and it is often difficult for them to gain acceptance by their peers, resulting in the pressure to hide one’s identity in an attempt to conform. Worse, government action to improve the situation has been slow. South Korea has yet to adequately prepare for an increasingly multi-racial future. That mixed-race celebrities are given the royal treatment says very little if such treatment does not extend to the thousands of other mixed-race children and adults struggling to define their identity in the South Korean context.
I’m happy to see Insooni’s story gaining further attention, and I’m hopeful that mixed-race celebrities working in South Korea will not simply take advantage of the fact that the system is working in their favor, but will use their fame and influence to advocate for this extremely important social issue. Though idols are often discouraged from being political or getting involved in advocacy work, I would hope that fighting for basic human rights and equality for all Korean citizens, regardless of racial background, would not be abandoned or ignored out of fear of losing popularity. Through their voices, South Korea can work to envision a future that accepts and embraces not only the mixed-race Koreans of whose accomplishments South Korea may be proud, but all mixed-race Koreans, whoever they may be.
Note: Although sometimes mistaken for being half-Korean due to her appearance and her celebrity status in Korea, Jessica Gomes is actually half-Singaporean-Chinese, half Portuguese. Thanks to our readers for pointing that out!