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Ornamental Multiculturalism: Kimchi, Korean Boy Band, and Costco

I did a double take recently while shopping in Costco when I found jars of kimchi in the refrigerated

section side by side with pickles, cheese, and prepared pasta. When I was growing up in Toronto, kimchi was eaten only by Koreans and hidden well away from our white Canadian counterparts. Now, Costco in Louisville, Kentucky is selling kimchi and giving out free samples!

Several months ago my fourteen year old daughter, who is into Korean popular culture, was tickled to tell me that one of her white school friends texted her asking about a “cool” Korean boy band she had seen on YouTube, called “Super Junior.”

Costco is selling kimchi and my daughter’s white American friends are listening to Korean boy bands. This is a bizarre reality shift for me since the only source of Korean culture available to North Americans when I was growing up was the 70’s TV show, M.A.S.H. I am happy to acknowledge that America has come a long way in accepting Korean and other minority cultures. I am also happy that my children are growing up in a more welcoming environment than the one I grew up in… or are they?

Something else happened that put a wrinkle in all of this. My wife and daughter were walking the dog in a nearby park when a group of teenagers walked by loudly chanting “Ching, chong, ching, chong….” My wife didn’t fully understand what was going on until after they had passed. When she realized that the jibberish was a racial slur, she became so angry that she wanted to tell them off, follow them to their houses, and have a talk with their parents…., but she didn’t.

I asked my daughter if anything like this had ever happened to her. She replied that sometimes she would hear similar taunts on the way home from school from boys passing by in a school bus. She said that it bothered her at first, but then she figured that those comments had nothing to do with her and that those boys were only embarrassing themselves. I was proud of how well she was able to process these negative and potentially traumatic experiences. I had thought there was a good chance that my girls would grow up unscathed from the kind of discrimination I had experienced as a young person, but I was wrong. Sure, Costco sells kimchi and white teenagers may be listening to Korean boy bands, but…

I have to fight the cynicism this experience makes me feel. How much has America really changed? We have a black president for heaven’s sake. Don’t we live in a post-racial era? I’m not so sure. America accepts aspects of other cultures like ornaments on a Christmas tree. Korean culture and their advances are accepted, even celebrated as long as they contribute to the American entertainment/music/technological/cultural/economic machine. But has there been any real structural change in the power system in order to accommodate minorities? Has the aestheticization of other cultures without structural accommodation actually made it more difficult for genuine reform? This “ornamental multiculturalism” that treats other cultures as decorations to enhance the status of the dominant culture may be at work in our churches and denomination as well. How can we move from a “cosmetic” understanding and use of multiculturalism to a deeper, genuine interrelationship that could transform us all?

*This was originally posted in the PC(USA) blog site, Thinking the Faith, Praying the Faith, Living the Faith, on February 23, 2011, by the Office of Theology and Worship.

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