'I Felt My Blackness Being Chipped Away Bit by Bit'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

My colleague Ta-Nehisi spoke last night with French journalist Iris Deroeux about his time living in Paris and more broadly about race in France compared to the U.S.:

One of audience members of that Facebook Live session was Kaylee Robinson, who wrote in to hello@theatlantic.com to share her experience living in South Korea as a black woman and the cultural ignorance surrounding her race in the rural school she taught at. (If you’ve ever been a black expat yourself and would like to share your experience living abroad, please drop us a note.) Here’s Kaylee:

I lived and worked in South Korea for three years, and it was the most fascinating and frustrating experience of my life. I taught myself basic Korean and familiarized myself with Korean culture and traditions. While I was prepared in theory to immerse myself in the culture, I was unprepared for the daily racial and cultural microaggressions that came with being the first Black person that my students and colleagues had come in contact with. For example, after the initial Skype interview, my extremely friendly co-teacher casually mentioned how I was much nicer than she had expected. In fact, I was nothing like the angry Black drug dealers and criminals that she had seen on TV.

I taught in rural South Korea, about 1.5 hours from Seoul at a very small elementary school of about 70 students. My first day teaching the second graders highlighted how important my role was as a Black American English teacher. My class consisted of ten adorable, wonderfully excited students who were very curious about me and English class in general. One student came up to me and rubbed my hand and then looked at his hand: “Kaylee-teacher, brown no come off?” He thought my brown skin color was the result of a marker and was surprised that it didn’t come off. A million emotions and thoughts ran through my mind at the moment, some of which I was ashamed of when I remembered that this comment was from a 7-year-old child.

That same first month of teaching, a colleague asked if I had a gun back home because he thought all Black people did. My 5th and 6th graders didn’t understand my natural hair and touched it without asking. And virtually all of my students refused to believe I was American and must be from somewhere in Africa because to them Americans were only blonde and blue-eyed. Parents were frightened to speak to me simply because of what they had seen on TV shows and in movies. And in a small town, every time I walked out of my apartment building I was stared at incessantly. With such an onslaught of questions about my race and culture, I felt my Blackness being chipped away bit by bit, everyday.

To be clear, I don’t categorize these instances as racism. I categorized them as systemic cultural ignorance and lack of awareness. You can not blame children or their parents for lack of exposure to other cultures. (I blame the Korean government for not embracing cultural awareness at a national level, but that’s another story.) However, this same ignorance can easily be transformed into racism without proper education, as we see happen so often in America.

It was extremely frustrating and exhausting living in my Black body and living this particular expat life. Eventually, I connected with other Black American teachers in Korea and was able to share my experiences and acquire coping strategies. In time, I saw an opportunity to not just teach English, but to culturally educate my students and co-workers simply by existing in my Blackness. I spoke Korean outside of class, I learned KPOP songs, and I tried to always have a smile when answering difficult questions. These actions helped to challenge assumptions and bias attributed to my skin color. Kaylee-teacher was a human being just like them, just a brown version from America.

More importantly, I was able to introduce a few lesson plans on racism and discrimination to my 5th and 6th graders. One student even gave a speech on racism and related it to discrimination among East Asian races!

Through my genuine passion to teach and my fun spirited disposition, parents warmed up to me as well. Though my race became a focal point of my time in Korea, I utilized it as part of my teacher toolkit. Was it stressful and debilitating at times to have my Black body—skin, hair, and intellect—viewed as a teachable moment instead of as a human being? Yes. However, my particular experience of being Black and abroad provided a chance to stymie ignorance before it transformed into discrimination or racism. It was quite a rewarding feat when race relations back home felt, and continue to feel, stagnant.