Q. Please introduce yourself briefly.
Hello. I am Kim Ji-hak, director of Diversity Korea. Diversity Korea was established in the summer of 2015 as an institute to educate diversity. It is now a non-profit human rights organization that educates issues on diversity, studies human rights, proposes policies, and advocates rights.
Q. Please tell us about the specific activities of Diversity Korea.
Prior to transitioning into a nonprofit organization, we have worked mainly on education. Human rights education, diversity education, gender education, multicultural education, global citizenship education, and violence prevention were our main activities. On the internet, we upload our own translated content, such as overseas materials and photos on our Facebook page. In real life, we go to various places and hold special lectures. Lectures are given to students and teachers at schools, social workers at social welfare centers, and employees and unions at companies.
If you belong to a privileged group in terms of a specific identity out the various social identities you have, it means that it is easier for you to obtain wealth, fame, and networks in the society compared to others (who are oppressed and marginalized) within that identity. People in privileged groups are those who are given more opportunities to think, make decisions, and take responsibility for themselves. Every one of us has many social identities, so we are not always in privileged groups or always in oppressed groups.
Diversity Korea recognizes the social privileges and oppressions of all people so that they can be empowered in their oppressed group. At the same time, their privileges in privileged groups are clearly understood, and we invite them not to discriminate against those who belong to the oppressed group, and moreover, take action to eliminate the social oppression and create an equal society.
Q. How did you start working on the issue of diversity?
When I was young, my aspirations were in art. There was always an easel and a palette in my drawings of the future. But my parents' opposition was severe. They said, “you are the eldest son, and men have to have a stable job and make money. Be a doctor.” Because I am not the rebellious type, I was just compliant, attending school and receiving tutoring. In passive protest, I slept all day at schools and private academies. It was gloomy, hopeless, and depressing. I felt that life was meaningless, and I thought about suicide.
Eventually, after getting into a major that I didn’t like, I enlisted in the military and never felt like going back to that school. Instead, I went to study abroad in the U.S. and switched my major to psychology to learn about counseling that I’d been interested in. There, taking a course called “Psychology of Prejudice,” taught by a Hispanic female professor, opened my eyes to the issue of discrimination I had never thought of before.
The story of discrimination and oppression in people of various minority groups, starting with racism and gender discrimination, was really shocking, and at the same time, I realized that the depression I had about my career was also related to the problem of discrimination and oppression suffered by social minorities. Rather than respecting and encouraging each individual's distinct values and thoughts, Korean society demands the “correct answer,” which discriminates, oppresses, and ignores diversity. This tendency applies not only to jobs and careers, but also to gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, disability, appearance, region, and religion.
When I was struggling with what to do with my life, nobody told me that there is no one right answer in life, that there are many alternative options. You can orient yourself and be respected for whichever you chose. I wish there was someone who could tell me that back then. This led me to hope for a society where everyone can be proud of their lives and dreams. I studied diversity and human rights and began to organize activities with the idea of creating a cultural foundation toward an equal society where no one is alienated or discriminated against, and where everyone can live “humanly” and “as they are” with others.
Q. What kind of discrimination did you experience while studying in the United States or that you were interested in as a third party?
Certainly, racism. I didn't have to identify myself as a person of color or an Asian until I studied in the United States. I didn't have to think that I am a person of color or Asian; I was simply “me.” After being in the U.S., I was called a person of color and Asian. That’s when I felt, “So this is what race is!”
Still, the United States is a country of immigrants and has a long history of various racial groups living together. They are aware of the issue of discrimination and also are conscious of being “politically correct.” Americans are well educated about the language of discrimination, including what we cannot say about black people, to women, or to people with disabilities. This kind of education about everyday language and attitude is definitely necessary for Korean society.
Q. What is the hardest part of your activity?
Sometimes it makes me realize, “Korean society still has a long way to go.” Awareness doesn't change in a short time. But in some ways, Korean society is transforming quite rapidly. There are a lot of things that have changed significantly in the last three years. One example is the voluntary, collective movement by young women who are speaking up after the Gangnam Station incident. When I returned to Korea, I felt that if we talked about the unconscious discrimination that our society has against women and sexual minorities, many people would not be able to sympathize. But it isn’t the case right now.
I think that along with the changing perceptions of our civil society, we must also change our laws and institutions. A bottom-up approach where citizens first voice up and gradually change cultures and institutions is certainly important, but top-down changes must be accompanied by legislative reform. That way you can make the most effective and significant changes. In that sense, I am actively involved in anti-discrimination legislation and the abolition of sex education standards. Such legal and institutional problems are the biggest challenges facing many activists that hinder effective change in raising awareness.
Q. Under the theme of 'diversity,' you must experience a wide variety of topics and community cases. What are the topics or community groups that you are particularly interested in?
My recent focus is on gender violence. On the various forms of violence caused by sexual objectification, we are carrying out education to change men's mindset and culture. Rather than categorizing and educating them in the framework of victim/ perpetrator, I think it is really important to educate the privileged group (men in the case of gender) so that they are fully aware of their “privileges” and stop them from sexist behaviors.
Nowadays, there are a lot of problems regarding men's group chats. Those who are found to be perpetrators must take the “human rights education” and sex education provided by their schools or companies. Diversity Korea is one of the organizations participating in this training. We call it “education to recognize privilege” rather than “human rights education to perpetrators.” It aims to invite people to recognize their privileges and to create an equal school or organizational culture without participating in discrimination, oppression, and violence.
When it comes to the issue of discrimination against sexual minorities, it is an important first step for non-minorities to recognize the rights they take for granted. For example, it is natural for couples to hold their hands on the street. But this behavior, which isn’t special to others, is impossible or risky for the sexual minorities, even if they try with courage. Once you recognize this, you start to think of them with a better understanding, instead of flat out rejecting them. I'm glad that there are a lot more people talking about these two areas these days.
Q. What is Diversity Korea’s future plan?
The recent cases of shocking dating violence have increased the desire for proper sex education throughout our society. In order to fundamentally solve these problems in Korean society, we need to implement proper sex education and gender education starting in elementary school. It is also important to provide education to recognize privileges to privileged groups, including perpetrators, in the cases that have been revealed. This is where I think Diversity Korea can contribute to Korean society.
I've given a lot of lectures over the past few years, but the most memorable one is the sex education class at this elementary school, and the other is the education to recognize privilege for offenders and whistleblowers at a university. At many universities, cases of “men’s group chats” are being surfaced by conscientious whistleblowers. This shouldn’t be considered something that only has negative repercussions. Now there’s an opportunity to reconsider these issues as a whole as whistleblowers who have finally recognized the seriousness of the problem are exposing sexual objectification and sexual violence that had not been revealed in the past. There should be more whistleblowers who do not remain bystanders.
Only then it will be possible to properly recognize the problems that we were not even considered problems and to prepare for change in our society. The students who participate in the education programs feel uncomfortable at first. But after the program, they would give us feedback such as “it was a chance to look back at my faults and reflect,” “I liked that they provided me with an opportunity to recognize both the privileges and oppression I have without unconditionally labeling me the offender,” and “I won’t be a bystander anymore, and want to be a supporter to create an equal society.”
About once a year, I have the opportunity to educate the entire sixth grade at elementary schools in Seoul and Gyeonggi. In each classroom, I spent about two hours with students talking about the qualities of the citizens living in the era of cultural diversity, how to be me and lead a happy life, sexual education that respects them as sexual subjects, and gender equality education that includes sexual minorities. I have given the same lectures at middle and high schools. The students have said, “it might be hard to believe, but it's the first time we talked about consent and using condoms in sex education.” “The reality is still that they show abortion videos or educate girls only. Thank you so much for allowing us to think about sexual self-determination.”
Students are prepared to think much more openly than we think, and they already know a lot. Education that instills fear or places taboos on sexuality simply fails to consider the critical issues and how to resolve them. In reality, elementary and secondary schools don’t have enough budget, making it difficult to conduct special lectures frequently. Ultimately, education on gender equality should be introduced systematically within public education, not through special lectures. Also, the entire process of education should be conducted in the spirit of gender equality. Diversity Korea wishes to contribute to this change of educational spirit and institutional change.
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