Differences in Meaning of Discrimination in the U.S. and S.Korea

Left: Kim Hong-do, “Rice Threshing”, ca. 1800, Right: Image of the American Civil Rights Movement

Depending on the historical and cultural context of a country, the meaning and weight of a word can be different. Let’s examine the contextual differences in the meaning of the word discrimination in Korea and the US through the article below.

The Meaning of Discrimination in America

In the US, the concept of equality, as opposed to discrimination, came to be regarded as an important idea.

America is a country of diverse cultures and races. Americans are inevitably exposed to various kinds of discrimination. They have learned from history that discrimination can be a highly violent and divisive concept. As a result, they have created a culture that is very sensitive to discrimination. Accordingly, in the US, the concept of equality, as opposed to discrimination, came to be regarded as an important idea.

Black Americans have been demanding the end of racial discrimination through the human rights movement that began in the 1950s. (Source: Unsplash)

Mainstream Americans perceive that deliberately revealing their relative strengths is a negative behavior that causes discrimination and ignores basic human rights to equality. Therefore, they have been trying to avoid generalized and one-dimensional perspectives toward values such as success, happiness, beauty, taste, etc., and to have subjective and multi-dimensional perspectives towards the values by appreciating individual tendencies and authenticity. Based on this, nerd culture and LGBTQ culture, which are the cultures that respect individuals’ diverse inclinations and authenticity, have developed.

All that culture (ATC) _ American TV show _ The Big Bang Theory
American TV show “The Big Bang Theory

This cultural tendency is also reflected in American pop culture. One of the reasons why Korean pop culture has recently influenced American pop culture can also be found in the characteristics of American culture that seek cultural diversity. This cultural trend plays a major role in eliminating various discriminations and prejudices in American society.

All that culture (ATC) _ Korean TV show _ Squid Game
Korean TV show “Squid Game

Nevertheless, or because of such efforts, discrimination within the American society tends to be practiced within more indirect and nuanced cultural implications. Microaggressions and prejudices of mainstream Americans toward people of other races and cultures are examples of this. Also, as noted by the salad bowl theory, racial segregation still exists in the United States. It is a human instinct to form a group among people of the same identity and feel more comfortable within it. Therefore, in suburban residential areas, there are many cases where people of the same race live together. They sometimes express their uncomfortable feelings indirectly when people of different identities move to these areas.

Understanding the cultural context of words and actions of people from different cultures reduces unnecessary misunderstandings about others and helps us to create more positive relationships. This will also help resolve various discriminations within American society.

The Meaning of Discrimination in Korea

Discrimination that has to be accepted without the justification of a status system in some ways is more painful.

Koreans have long had the idea that they are a single ethnic group with unified culture. Since Korea is a united society in a broad sense, the concept of integration is not emphasized much in Korea. Rather, they have a tendency to reveal their superior social identity through discrimination. This behavioral pattern has been reproduced through Korean mass media. In Korean society, the concept of discrimination does not have as much negative or provocative meaning as in the United States.

All that culture (ATC) _ Korean movie _ Parasite
In Korea, there is a tendency to provocatively expose discrimination caused by differences in social and economic status through mass media. (Korean movie “Parasite”)

From the Dangun Dynasty to the Joseon Dynasty, for over 4000 years, Koreans had maintained the social hierarchy system. For thousands of years, the concept of discrimination stemming from the hierarchy system was used as a means of sustaining Korean society. During the Joseon Dynasty, the status system was further consolidated through the idea of Sanonggongsang, which means scholars, farmers, artisans, and tradesmen; it is a concept that divides status according to occupation. According to this, a scholar is the most important job, followed by a farmer. An artisan and merchant were despised compared to the previous two jobs.

In 1948, with the establishment of the democratic government, the Republic of Korea, the status system disappeared. It has been only about 70 years since the system disappeared. Therefore, cultural remnants of hierarchical discrimination still remain in the lives of Koreans. Nowadays Koreans have the characteristics of trying to distinguish themselves from others and discriminate the others through their social position and economic power. Also, they tend to think it is not a big deal if they happen to demean the vulnerable, low-income class, and certain professions.

Many Koreans have a mindset that, since Korea is a society that is based on the premise of class equality, all inequalities that occur under this premise must be borne by each individual. This social atmosphere has played a role in bringing about a sense of relative deprivation of the vulnerable and the low-income class, while at the same time blaming individuals for the resulting gap between the rich and the poor. Recently, as Korea’s economic growth has advanced, the concentration of wealth has intensified and the number of lower-class people is increasing. People who are economically marginalized become dissatisfied with society, which comes at a huge social cost.

Koreans, who are likely to find their identity through comparison with other people, cannot maintain their self-esteem within this discriminatory culture. Discrimination that has to be accepted without the justification of a status system in some ways is more painful. Many of these people are dissatisfied with their own social status and have antipathy for their children to inherit the status. Accordingly, in recent years, many Koreans are choosing to lead a childless life. This is one of the main causes of the ultra-low fertility rate in Korea.

Recent trends in the fertility rate in S. Korea (Source: Financial Times)

In the United States, there is a social consensus to accept differences as individuality and authenticity rather than using them as grounds for discrimination. In Korea, it is a time for a change in attitude to accept various differences such as social position and economic power as individuality rather than stigmatizing them as the basis of discrimination.

All that culture (ATC)_ the former US President Barack Obama’s fist bump greeting
Image of the former US President Barack Obama’s fist bump greeting with a White House custodian (Source:obamawhitehouse.archives.gov)

The article was written based on the author’s experience; subjectivity may be involved. If you have any different thoughts from the opinions expressed in the article, please share your thoughts with us. We welcome rich conversations on the topic.

Written on Mar. 21, 2022 (Drafted in 2020)

Contact us: kshin@allthatculture.co




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All That Culture

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Enjoy Korean American’s thoughts on American and Korean culture. Subscribe and receive newsletters: https://bit.ly/atc_landingpage_eng

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