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I was thinking of a old television show that came on during the 90s the other day.  A young Black man, who was raised to always shake the hand of an older gentleman, was upset at a Korean store worker who would not shake his hand.  He would only bow to him.  This show came on during the time of the L.A. Riots, which saw a Korean liquor store owner shoot and kill an you Black teen.  This was arguably the darkest period in Korean American and African American relations in the U.S.  While things have gotten better since this time period, questions like the one in the title of this blog still exist in the minds of many.  While younger Koreans may not be guilty of this, older Koreans may do this to many non Koreans.  So let’s look at why the act of bowing instead of shaking hands may be offensive to some, as well as why it happens in the first place.

Why This Can Be Offensive

There have been many stigmas towards Black people from non Blacks all over the world.  This can be seen on Korean and Chinese television where people dressed in Blackface are sometimes shown in a comedic light.  For some, there is the feeling that the darker ones skin is, the poorer, sicker and dirtier they are.   The practice of skin balancing, or skin lightning to others, that is done in Korea doesn’t help this situation to some.  Neither do some of the rumors that are told to children about Black people in Korea.  (As an example of this, one teacher said she was shocked to see a student concerned about her because he was told that Black people grow tails at night.)

Even in the United States, some who are not used to seeing Black people in person think that darker skin is a problem.  (A woman once told me that in college, she thought that Black students who came to her medical tent were extremely sick and she tried to wipe the Black off of them using rubbing alcohol and cotton.)  To those who know the story of how older Blacks were treated, some would not shake their hands for fear that the Black would come off on to them.  Hence, why not shaking a Black person’s hand can be viewed as racist behavior by some.

The Real Reason This Happens

In traditional Korean culture, people do not shake hands as a show of respect.  Bowing is done as a way to greet and to show respect to someone.  If a person is younger than you, a slight bow is appropriate.  However, a deeper bow  is reserved for people who are older, or who deserve more respect.  The act of giving a deep bow towards a younger person shows that you are trying to show them great respect.   An example of when an older person may give a deeper bow towards a younger person is if the older person has a business and they feel that the younger person is a great customer.  In this case, bowing should not be taken as a sign of disrespect, but as a sign of respect and a level of acceptance into Korean culture.

How Did the Show End?

In the show referenced in the beginning of this post, the young Black man was given the explanation that I just gave you.  When he understood that it was a sign of respect and not a racist gesture, he was no longer offended.  When the older Korean man realized that he was offending the young Black man, he made an effort to shake his hand.  The lesson?  When one understands more about a culture, there is usually less chance of being offended by the actions that one sees.  In modern Korean culture, people will shake hands for business or younger ones will shake the hands of non Koreans.  But if you go to Korea, or if you meet someone’s Korean grandmother or grandfather, do not take offense to it right away.  It may be their way of showing you respect in the tradition of their culture.  If so, that’s the reason why he doesn’t shake your hand when he greets you.