Reflections from South Korea: Whose Megaphone are We Amplifying?

IMG_3778I’ve spent the last month exercising self-care and middle-class privilege; getting off the grid in Mongolia and riding my bike up the East Coast in Korea. I have a lot of stories to share but for most of these, you’ll have to meet me for happy hour. Before I leave Korea and submerge myself in the constant noise of the U.S. media, I wanted to share some perspectives from the Korean Peninsula. And, if I’m being honest, I owe Erin a lot of blog posts, so I’m trying to take advantage of some renewed energy while I have it.

This probably would have been a more timely blog post a few weeks ago, while North Korea still dominated the news, social media feeds, and many of my text inquiries from friends and family. But the news of explicit White Supremacy in Charlottesville has overtaken the news of North Korea. Still, I think there are reminders I want to preserve and share while I’m viewing U.S. news from outside the country.

This is not going to be a sophisticated post about the geopolitical and historical context of U.S., North Korea and South Korea relationships. This is more of a personal narrative and perspective sharing as a Korean-American who just spent the last two weeks in Korea, including riding my bike all the way to the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone). I fact, I rode my bike all the way to where the road ends (for civilians) near the North Korean border.

I started riding from the city of Pohang, about 250 miles south of the border. As I got further north the signs of militarization were more evident. I saw things like beaches fenced off with barbed wire, look out stations with military personnel with machine guns, barriers that can collapse into the road to prevent tanks moving forward, and of course, soldiers. The area just near the border felt like a ghost town; eerily quiet, peaceful, and undeveloped, especially in contrast to the crowded beaches and beach towns just a few miles (or rather kilometers) south.

IMG_3779This militarized reality is not new. Technically the Koreas are still at war and have been for over 60 years. South Koreans (and North Koreans I am guessing) have lived with this precarious situation for multiple generations. Over the past 20 years, I have seen friends and family members who seem to have grown accustomed to the carefully choreographed dangerous dance that happens on a regular basis between the Koreas. In most cases, life goes on as normal, especially in Seoul.

Since the noise from the U.S. media was really loud, bolstered by 45’s constant inflammatory tweeting, I decided to informally poll and ask friends and family in Korea if they felt particularly scared about the situation with North Korea. Most said they didn’t really feel any different, although some did mention that 45 is making things worse and unpredictable, without consideration for Koreans or the Chamorro people of Guam. My Korean cousin is in the military and stationed near the border, and his wife said things aren’t too different. Contrasting the recent situation to one two years ago (in 2015), when shots were being fired between the Koreas and their family had a “go bag” ready to head for the bunkers.

Whose Megaphone are We Amplifying?

All this context is to help offer a perspective from the Korean peninsula that appears to be in contradiction to the noise coming out of the U.S. In the rapidly moving environment of social media, could we be contributing to sharing narratives that enhance 45’s platform and perspective; imperialism, colonialism, and militarization? Could we be amplifying the very voices that we hope ignore? Could we be getting tricked by a dangerous game of “squirrel” that takes our focus and energy off dismantling systemic racism?

I’m a deep thinker, which is one of the reasons I can’t use twitter, it moves too fast for me. I know it serves a purpose, but even in the twitter-verse, or for me the Facebook universe I’d like to remind myself to ask these questions before sharing and posting news related to race and systemic racism.

Am I being performative? Am I looking for ally cookies or a social justice badge?

Fakequity has blogged about this before. Are we doing things to say we did them and to show we’re paying attention and in-the-know? It doesn’t hurt to be up to speed on current events or even the latest local gossip, but not everything has to be for show. Racial equity work isn’t about being seen and performing, it is about reflection and figuring out when to use your voice and when to step back and allow other voices to emerge.

Is this the narrative I want to share? Whose voice and perspective am I amplifying?

45’s voice is loud. In the position of power, he holds he has a huge microphone and a press corps trained to analyze his every word. But that doesn’t mean his voice should overshadow other perspectives. I work hard to make sure the articles and voices I promote and share are authentic to the story, such as finding people of color perspectives for articles or videos. White people interpreting a racialized incident doesn’t help to bring a new narrative forward, it might be adding

Who is the audience? For white people? For people of color?

Being in Korea I saw the difference in perspective. I was out of the American-white media bubble. The news there is different. Have you ever looked at the difference between BBC Worldwide and BBC America same company but they reprogram their content for a white audience. Same can be said of Al Jazera and other media companies. Locally look at the difference in content between The Seattle Times versus local media such as the South Seattle Emerald, Globalist, and ethnic media.

Othering versus Centering

Again, being in Korea I saw the difference in story narratives. In America, the press centered and focused on 45’s message and voice. They also othered Korean American voices. Very few media articles looked at what Korean Americans and other people of color, including Pacific Islanders, had to say about the topic.

It is important to remember voice makes a difference and we all have to be intentional about how we choose to use our own voice and who’s voices to share and amplify.

By Heidi Schillinger

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