Friday, April 9, 2010

Discovery Girls


I wrote about this a long time ago, so I’m not going to dwell on it here. Whenever it’s brought-up, there’s a tendency in blog-land to try and speak in grand terms in an attempt to put some kind of authoritative stamp on the thing. We tend to do that with the things we’re passionate about. Usually, when I’ve attempted the same in the past, I come off looking like a bit of a twit. Still, I feel the need to relate a happening from this week…

As I’ve been conducting English speaking tests over the past week, I have spoken to over 550 students (the other 550 will be next week) – over half of them girls, and I’ve noticed that an alarming number of them are wearing whitening make-up which is a very common thing in Asian countries. When these girls sit-down across from me, it at times seems at times that their cheeks, noses and foreheads are as unnaturally white as their lips are unnaturally red or pink. There’s a lot of makeup at my school at any rate.

During the lunchtime on Monday’s and Fridays, my classroom (the English Only Room) is open for students to come in, use the computers, play the games, and ideally check out some books from our English Library. Today, while I was arranging some material on the shelves, one of my grade 8 girl students was leafing through a “Discovery Girls” magazine – it’s a publication for tween girls talking about fashion, having crushes, being worried about a new school etc. It’s a slice of life of an “average” American teenage girl.

On nearly every cover of Discovery Girls it seems, there is an image of a white girl being BFF with a girl of colour. This student, who was sitting next to me today, decided that it could be a good idea to comment on the cover she’s now holding in her hand. Referring to the black girl on the cover, she said “Not beautiful! No! I don’t like!”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Black skin, very dirty.” Was the reply.

It’s easy to get mad at students from time to time. Certainly, if through your general teaching day you see half as many reluctant to learn students as I do, chances are you will encounter at least 3-5 who make you wish you could be as free with the stick-wielding as the Korean teachers are.

But that comment today -that just pisses me off – plain and simple. I know there’s a huge issue to discuss here, but it’s too big for tonight, and I’m sleepy. I did however manage to ask this student what colour she thought she, herself was.
“I’m white!” She said – “Very white skin and beautiful!”

I then chose to inform her that no, in fact I as a caucasian Canadian am more white than she is, and that must (by her logic) mean that her comparatively darker skin is dirty. This was of course after attempting to suggest to her that all colours are beautiful – a concept that just wasn’t making a dent in this girls whitening-cream-caked forehead. She didn’t say much to me in English, but may well have been commenting to her friend in Korean about how confused I must be. This student, I am guessing, represents more than a few other Koreans who would echo her sentiment.

Anyway, at this point, spare me the talk about how this society not so long ago valued whiter skin as a symbol of class and not having to work in the fields etc. - "That's where our view of white skin comes, you know!" (As though it's a thing that could be valued any differently in practice if its origins had been explained differently). This girl today wasn’t buying and wearing some lead-based face paint because she thinks she’s trying to maintain her noble heritage.

That she thought it was okay to comment to her foreign teacher about the fact that she thinks black people are dirty, just really bothered me today. She said it quite cheerfully, actually.

I know the world has a long way to go (I often shudder at the thought of my significant other facing possible discrimination in good ol’ Cowtown), but there are times when it seems that, on this issue, Korea is not even out of the gate yet. This isn’t true for all Koreans – that goes without saying – but there are enough of them out there who still cling to a “pure-blood” and white-favouring mentality to make me, well… angry. This is what being a “hermit kingdom” for so many centuries can do to even today’s younger generation.

I was told that the previous native English teacher at our school was a bit of a disappointment to the students because they, and I quote, “were expecting blonde hair and blue eyes, but he looked more like Obama.” I know things take time to change, and above all, this change requires exposure to the unknown. You always want progress to come more quickly than it does.

I can pretty much guarantee that this girl has never seen a real darker-skinned person in her life. Still, that doesn’t make it any less disappointing to hear what I heard from her today.

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