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.