White Privilege in the Dojang

I have been practicing the Korean martial art of taekwondo for eight years now. Often, I am the only white person in the dojang (training hall). I am ashamed to say that I only recently noticed the way in which my white privilege enters the space, and I think it’s worth talking about. I have heard quite a few white people claim that their privilege ends when they become the minority in any location. This is complete bullshit, and so to arm anyone who wishes to argue against this crap, I want to set down the ways in which my white privilege operates when I am the only white person in the room.

Firstly, it seems to me that because I am white, I am considered to hold an amount of authority disproportionate to my actual expertise. I am a black belt, but only a first Dan, which is a much lower ranking than the third and fourth Dans who run the class. Yet when I voice an opinion about an activity or training exercise, my views are taken very seriously. Because white people are so overwhelmingly represented in positions of competence and power, both in western media and in global media, my whiteness provides me with extra authority in the eyes of my Korean instructors and classmates. Authority that I have not earned and do not deserve. Now that I realise that, I try not to interject simply to voice my preferences. I try to stay silent when we are discussing training activities, unless I feel that there is a substantive, important point I can make that others have overlooked.

Secondly, when everyone else is speaking Korean, I feel subconsciously entitled to ask what is being said. I only understand very simple Korean terms and phrases that relate to taekwondo. Most of the other students are either first or second generation immigrants, and some of our instructors are Korean nationals visiting Australia on student visas to learn English. They all speak Korean fluently. Naturally, they mainly speak Korean to one another. When they do, it simply does not occur to me not to ask what they are saying, because I can’t understand and I want to know.

This is a form of white entitlement. A lone non-white non-English speaker would be unlikely to feel so entitled to ask what a large group of white English-speakers were talking about. POC receive subtle messages that they ought to speak english well enough to understand. White people are socialised to believe that communication is the burden of POC. Because of this, I subconsciously feel I am entitled to understand everything around me and that if I do not then I am entitled to ask POC to explain it to me. That is fucked up. Now that I realise this, I do not ask what is being said unless it seems that something really dramatic or scandalous has occurred, or that it might have something to do with me.

Thirdly, the Korean students use their english names with me and sometimes even with each other. I am never expected to master the correct pronounciation of their birth names, and in some cases I am never even told their birth names. On some level, I think they feel that they should change the name they answer to in order to save me and other white people the possible embarrassment and discomfort of trying and failing to pronounce their Korean names.

I wish to call them by the names they view as their “real” names, but I also don’t want to make them uncomfortable or push them into doing anything they don’t want to do. When I do ask for someone’s Korean name, often their reaction is confusion: why do I want to use their Korean name when they have a perfectly good English name they have already provided me with? I think this is about the dominance of white English speakers, which makes white the default and means everyone else feels they need to fit around us. But at the same time, I really don’t know whether it’s more or less entitled for me to keep asking to learn and use their Korean names! If I make them uncomfortable just so I can feel less guilty, how am I helping the situation at all?

I struggle with this still. I don’t want to make the conversation around race all about white people. I wrote this post to try to illustrate to other white people that our race privilege follows us everywhere. Even if you are the only white person in a room full of POC making fun of white people, you still have race privilege. That privilege infects your mind and makes you think you’re entitled to ask for stuff that no non-white person would dream of asking from you. If you’re white, it is your responsibility to analyse your behaviour and cut that shit out. Unless you’re vigilant, you’re probably stepping on toes every day without even knowing it – and yeah, maybe you didn’t mean to or you didn’t think about it, but as a white person it is your responsibility to think about it and change how you behave. If you don’t, you’re perpetuating the cycle.


15 Comments on White Privilege in the Dojang

  1. Amanda says:

    I lived in South Korea for a year and I found similar situations of privilege like those mentioned in this article. Although I am white, an American, and therefore a minority in the country, I was still treated in a certain, almost better way, than native Koreans or Korean Americans around me. At first I enjoyed the treatment, which especially felt good as someone new to a foreign country. But then I started thinking about why I was being treated that way by strangers, my students, and people I was friends with and I wanted to figure out what I could do not to take advantage of that privilege. It’s a hard question to find the right answer to.

  2. Stephen says:

    As an immigrant, there is a conversation I’ve had literally thousands of times almost verbatim. I’m English, I’m white, and until I speak people assume I’m from the US. When I *do* speak, I generally have the following conversation:

    Almost every person I’ve ever met: Oh! You have an accent.
    Me: Yes, I’m from England originally.
    AEPIEM: That’s interesting, how long have you been in the US?
    Me: Most of my life, I came in 1984 when I was quite young.
    AEPIEM: Why do you still have an accent?
    Me: Well, my parents and elder brother have it and I never really lost it.
    AEPIEM: Yes, but you’ve lived here your whole life, aren’t you faking the accent?
    Me: Well, we had a satellite dish growing up, so we watched a lot of British television. It’s hard to know why some people keep an accent and others don’t.
    AEPIEM: Huh.

    My script for the exchange is the fastest and most convenient way to through it I’ve found, and I expect something similar is going on with a Korean person who gives their name as “John”.

    There’s nothing malicious about the person who is confused by my accent, anymore than there is anything malicious about someone who wants help to spell or pronounce a Korean name. It’s just that it’s tiring and tedious to go through the same routine over and over again and if there is a way to side step the whole issue, it’s convenient to take it.

    You may be perfectly happy to take the time to learn someone’s name properly, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re happy to take the time to teach you.

    A friend of mine is a Pakistani Muslim who lives and works as an defense attorney in the US. His birth name isn’t familiar to most Americans and he uses “Rick” at work.

    Introducing himself as “Rick” has several advantages over his birth name. People don’t ask about it, they can spell it, he gets less anti-Muslim bias directed at him, and similar conveniences.

    Sure, in a perfect world he’d be “Tariq” to everyone, but perpetually explaining yourself to foreigners (even well intentioned ones) is exhausting and, for casual acquaintances, why bother?

    If you ask an immigrant their name and they tell you “John”, it seems like the respectful thing to do is to call them “John”. It isn’t what their mum calls them, but you’re not their mum. Maintaining an identity as an immigrant can mean establishing different roles and personae for different people and situations.

    It might be very flattering to be offered the use of a more intimate name, but if someone has set up a personae for dealing with casual white acquaintances it seems best to respect their preferences and not pry.

    • Rachael Rachael says:

      Actually, I think it’s pretty different because you are white and the group I am talking about is non-white so I think we shouldn’t conflate the experiences at all.

      However I agree that on balance it’s better to just do what a person asks of you and respect their decision with regard to the name you should call them.

    • Connie Connie says:

      I keep coming back to this comment and why it angers me so much. On the whole, I agree that we should respect people’s choice of names – and I certainly wouldn’t insist on calling the person anything else (or insist on knowing their “real” name).

      There’s nothing malicious about the person who is confused by my accent, anymore than there is anything malicious about someone who wants help to spell or pronounce a Korean name. It’s just that it’s tiring and tedious to go through the same routine over and over again and if there is a way to side step the whole issue, it’s convenient to take it.

      If you believe that malicious intent is required for bigotry then you need to go back to social justice 101 basics. We are a 202 site who will occasionally take time out to go through the tiring and tedious routine of educating people who have not grasped the basics.

      For you the issue of your accent stands alone. It is purely because of your accent that people might ask you about your background. For people of colour those questions exist in the context of race and racism – the fact that they are non-white. For non-white migrants it also becomes an issue of culture and (often) language on top of racism.

      You know how it’s sexist when men tell women to “get back into the kitchen”, but not vice versa? Because contextually women have been oppressed for hundreds of years? At the moment you’re coming off as the man crying sexism because a woman told you to get back into the kitchen.

  3. linda says:

    i’m chinese, not korean, but i do use an ‘english’ name instead of my ‘real’ legal chinese name. i know it’s different for people, but for me, i basically consider my ‘english’ name to be my real name. most people have a hard time pronouncing my real name, so it’s just less of a hassle for everyone involved to just call me linda. even with other chinese people, i go by linda. the only people i feel comfortable with calling me by my birth name is family, and close family friends. all the chinese people i know whose legal names are their chinese names either go exclusively by their chinese name, or exclusively by an english name.
    of course, i’m chinese american, not korean australian, so it may be completely different…

    • Connie Connie says:

      Linda – I am in a similar boat to you. I was actually given an English name at birth as well as a Chinese name (I’m not even going to begin unpacking this) but only “Connie” ever got used after I immigrated. My family all call me “Connie” and the only people who call me by my Chinese name are distant relatives or family friends when I go to China. But this is an issue of the name I’ve grown into and grown accustomed to rather than Chinese vs English (and Connie is my legal name everywhere, although I don’t think legality really matters).

      I’ve had people ask me my Chinese name and it makes me intensely uncomfortable. All of them have been white and the manner in which I was asked suggested that they wanted, um authenticity of my ethnicity? As someone whose been considered a “banana” on many occasions I feel like they are demanding proof of my cultural background (which is racist and ridiculous). And when I refuse to tell them (because this is a private part my history, like the history of my life and my family and I don’t just blurt that out to anyone) they “don’t see what the big deal is”. My Chinese name is treated like a novelty.

      I will definitely have to think on this further. Thanks for the comment Linda!

  4. Stephen says:

    Really where I think you’re mistaken is with the sentiment “I think this is about the dominance of white English speakers, which makes white the default and means everyone else feels they need to fit around us.”

    It’s a mistake to think immigrants are trying to “fit” by giving you an English name. It isn’t necessarily for your benefit at all. Avoiding the hassle of explaining your differences to foreigners is to the immigrant’s benefit, which is why you shouldn’t hassle them about doing it.

    Even if you want to discount the experience of white immigrants, my Pakistani friend does the same thing for the same reason. When I give my “why do I talk funny” spiel or my friend gives his name as “Rick”, we aren’t trying to fit in, we’re trying to avoid being hassled.

    • Rachael Rachael says:

      Okay, now you’re being condescending to me,and AGAIN you compared your white experience to a nonwhite experience, which is not okay. They’re not the same thing. Stop doing that. I am a white immigrant to Australia myself who has lived in four different countries due to my parents’ jobs. When people ask me where I’m from (which they often do because I have a strange accent), I often say “It’s a long story” instead of giving them the whole spiel because it takes ages to explain. That has nothing to do with trying to fit in, yes, that’s to avoid a lot of explanation and time spent on the topic. That doesn’t mean I know what it’s like to be a nonwhite immigrant nor would I ever assume I did.

      But there’s clearly an additional dimension to the situation I describe in this post. I think you’re trying to pretend there is no racial element to the decision to offer me a different name, which I think is mistaken. In fact, they only give ME their different name, everyone else in the dojang is given their korean name (because everyone else is korean). Even if they are only trying to avoid hassle, they clearly expect to be hassled by a white person over their name, which is in itself an expectation that only exists due to the dominance of white english speakers and their insistence that others fit in with them.

      However like I said I agree that it’s better not to hassle anyone about their name and just accept it. I’m trying to deconstruct this from a social point of view, not to advocate that one should harass immigrants.

      • Stephen says:

        “Okay, now you’re being condescending to me,and AGAIN you compared your white experience to a nonwhite experience, which is not okay. They’re not the same thing. Stop doing that”

        That’s a grotesque oversimplification and insulting. You’re portraying Koreans as if they were inscrutable others that no other immigrant could fathom.

        I’m happy to talk to people with whom I disagree, but I’m not willing to engage with you if you’re going to be insulting. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry when you complain about condescension in a sentence where you address me in all caps and then go on to give me orders about what lessons I’m allowed to draw from prejudice directed at me and my friend.

        • Connie Connie says:

          You’re portraying Koreans as if they were inscrutable others that no other immigrant could fathom.

          We are saying you cannot fathom Korean experience because you are a white immigrant to a country that 1. speaks the same language, 2. shares similar cultural backgrounds and 3. is dominated by white privilege.

          I am a non-white immigrant and I am telling you that comparing your experience as a white English-speaking migrant from a similar cultural background is completely different to a non-Western migrant for whom English is a second language, whose culture is constantly belittled and derided in white media. Although you are a migrant in the USA, you still experience 100% of white privilege. Furthermore, it’s likely that Asian-Americans who have been US citizens all their lives and for many generations back will probably have a better idea of the migrant experience than you, because in some places “non-white” will automatically equate to “migrant”.

          Further comments suggesting that white privileged experience can be compared to an experience of a person of colour will be deleted.

        • Rachael Rachael says:

          Understanding that white experience is not the same as the experience of people of colour because of racism is not “othering” people of colour. It is acknowledging the reality of racism and racial privilege. Don’t pretend you know what it feels like to be a nonwhite immigrant because you have nonwhite friends. Surely you know how you sound.

          If I said a man’s experience of the world is not the same as a woman’s because of sexism, it is not “othering” women. It is a recognition of the reality of sexism.

          We engaged with you because there’s a high chance others might have the same ideas that you do, and we want to have a public refutation of these ideas. That’s been achieved now. There is no room on this site for further comments that seek to erase the racial aspects of the experiences of immigrants who are non-white by comparing them to the experience of white immigrants.

          • Stephen says:

            “Don’t pretend you know what it feels like to be a nonwhite immigrant because you have nonwhite friends.”

            You’re right of course. I can’t possible know what my friend of almost 30 years thinks about things. That would require the possibility of communication between whites and non-whites, and we all know *that’s* impossible. Nope, not turning him into an incomprehensible inhuman alien at all, no racism there, no ma’am…

            I’m glad to know you have no such problems divining the minds of other people, as you claim to know your Korean acquaintances are “confused” and miraculously intuit that they wish to save you “embarrassment and discomfort”. With your amazing powers it surprises me that you “really don’t know whether it’s more or less entitled to keep asking to learn and use their Korean names”.

            Being vague on whether you should do things to people against their directly expressed wishes? “Hmm, he asked me to call him John. I wonder what I should call him? Tricky.” Yeah that’s entitled, even whitey can work that one out.

            Now I’m being condescending, see the difference? Why bother, you’ve made it clear you’ll simply delete any disagreement. Enjoy your echo chamber.

          • Connie Connie says:

            I am commenting for the benefit of readers and myself, not for you. You have been blocked from commenting further from this website.

            There’s knowing something like facts and figures, and then there’s knowing through experience. No one can ever fully understand someone else’s experience. I can read about mental illnesses, understand the signs, causes, maybe even analogies to how it might feel, but having never experienced severe depression, I will never be able to fully comprehend the full psychological and emotional weight of it. Because I do not have a mental illness. I would never equate myself sometimes feeling sad or melancholy to depression because that would be insulting and dismissive of the gravity of the illness. People in the same situation will often have very similar or shared experienced (eg. people who have all experienced depression in some way).

            So while your friend may tell you about his life and you can rationally understand that he experiences marginalisation and racism, that does not mean you yourself have experienced marginalisation. Marginalisation is oppressive because it’s emotional and psychological and it’s something that marginalised people can never get away from.

            I find it very revealing that your argument against Rachael is basically “you don’t know what people of colour are thinking!” And yet I am a person of colour, commented first (twice, in fact) to that particular comment and yet you refused to engage with me. I am telling you that your experiences cannot be compared to my experiences and have listed the reasons why in my comment above. No divining needed!

            Being vague on whether you should do things to people against their directly expressed wishes? “Hmm, he asked me to call him John. I wonder what I should call him? Tricky.” Yeah that’s entitled, even whitey can work that one out.

            If you had actually read BOTH our comments then you would realise we both conceded this point. What we are saying is that your experiences as a white person cannot be compared to that of a person of colour’s.

  5. Catherine says:

    btw. Really liked what you said about depression there.


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