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The Citizen

No one’s black in South Korea

The woman in this painting was supposed to be Black. Drawing this piece was one of the most emotionally damaging experiences of my life.

I live in Jeju Island, South Korea. Before coming to live in the island, I was in China where I met a Black girl, with whom I became very close friends quickly. Not only was she physically beautiful, and by the kindness of her heart, she quickly became one of the most beautiful people I know. As an amateur painter, I drew everything and everyone I deemed worth remembering, and I promised myself to draw her.

I soon came to find out that drawing her would be impossible in Jeju Island.

Outlining her physical features didn’t give me trouble. When it was time to color the painting, though, I was met with an authority’s disapproval and with an utter lack of resources to finish my painting. As I began coloring, I noticed that all the colors available for drawing skin are in the spectrum of beige, fair and apricot. I asked my teacher: “where are brown and black colors?” The teacher responded: “Why are you looking for black and brown colors when you’re trying to paint a person?”

When I explained to him that I was trying to draw my black friend, he told me: “Painting a colored person is not an aesthetic idea. A dark skinned person makes your painting look dull and lifeless.”

I protested. I proceeded with the dark colors I could to represent my friend as best I could.

Then when it came time for me to shade and highlight the painting to make it dimensional, I was completely stuck. Good shading and highlighting are decisive in making the painting realistic and dimensional, and the colors used for shading and highlighting all have to be compatible with the skin color of the person portrayed. Yet the shading colors available were yellow, grey, pink and red, all the colors that add tone to the face of a fair-skinned person. I searched for colors that could match the dark color of my friend’s skin, but I could not find the right colors; every color was either too dark or too light.

Realizing that I couldn’t draw my friend accurately in her skin color identity, I surrendered and drew the person I could, in complete obedience to the instructions given to me in an art textbook for “how to draw a person.” The painting above is the result.

With the resources I have now on this island, I will never be able to draw my friend accurately. People around me will not know just how gorgeous she is, because there is no possible way I can draw her without altering the color of her skin to a much lighter one, so she fits “the model of a person.”

On a macro-level, we see this practice of exclusion for someone with a darker skin in a crueler way. Recently, the South Korean citizens petitioned to the government to ban the entrance of the  refugees from Yemen. While the underlying issues of such petition are many, one that stands out is the deeply-ingrained, unfortunate disdain for those who are darker. Where the concept of Danil Minjok, referring to the absolute purity of South Korean bloodline, used to show up predominantly in school, South Korea only began to eliminate such concept altogether in the early 2000s. Until then, though, Danil Minjok showed up as a primary value for South Koreans, through education, immigration policy, and everyday life. Marrying a non-Korean was a notion unimaginable. That would mean betraying the nation’s proudest heritage, our superiority of racial purity.

Over the years South Korea made strides in bettering the culture so it is more inclusive of non-Koreans. Koreans are now more familiar with the concept of multi-cultural families, and the government encourages foreigners to come to South Korea on a visa-free program.

Yet, there still remains an overall disdain for people with a darker skin and the admiration for those with a lighter one. After all, the cosmetic industry in South Korea is blowing up with brightening creams and whitening foundations. An advertisement for a whitening cream reads: “whiter, whiter, to be a woman.”

People might say that this is a problem of a homogenous country and that I should suck it up. I strongly disagree.

I belong to one of the more fortunate ends of the socioeconomic spectrum in South Korea. I go to an international school with a mission to raise global leaders, and I’m fully aware of my privileges. More than 80 percent of my peers will commit to studying at a university in America when they graduate. If a basic understanding that a black person is a person doesn’t appear anywhere in our education curriculum, I believe I can safely conclude that we won’t be an effective and inclusive global leader as our privileged education system has been designed for us to be.

In my social context, seeing that my friend is denied her personhood because her skin color is too dark is not only discouraging but alarming for my generation. Personally, witnessing my friend’s identity being rejected has been painful.

I want not to be told that I’m not drawing a human when I’m drawing the most beautiful person I know. I don’t know what white supremacy means in its entirety, but I certainly feel that my experience is an example of it.