Last week a BBC news interview with South Korean expert Professor Robert Kelly quickly went viral after his two young children burst into the room while he was live on air. After a few moments the clip shows a woman arrive at the scene, frantically attempting to usher the children out of the room. The comic timing of the clip was flawless, but its fifteen minutes of fame surpassed expectations.
Initial reports sparked controversy by wrongly assuming that the Asian woman in question, Jung-a Kim, was the children’s nanny when she was in fact their mother. The event, which has since been described as a ‘comedy of errors’, is undoubtedly endearing, but the reaction to it is indicative of the current understanding of race in our society. Principally it shows us the widely held assumption that even in the twenty-first century most individuals tend to date within their own race. Moreover, it indicates the double standard that exists between women of colour and white women being able to date outside their ethnicities.
The fact that Jung-a Kim is Korean says a lot about the way in which society tends to sexualise East Asian women, viewing them as passive and subservient. This is not helped by the way in which UK media consistently perpetuates these assumptions, casting Asian women as nannies, mail-order brides or various other unreflective stereotypes.
From our brief impression of Kelly as an expert in his field, we formed an unconscious expectation of who we expected his wife to be. We expected someone equal to him in social status, perhaps professional, and above all someone almost definitely white. If the roles were reversed with Robert Kelly being Korean, and Jung-a Kim white, no one would have ever presumed that she was the nanny, because that is not the narrative constructed for white women.
It is a fact scarcely mentioned, but many women of colour who date outside their race face an intersection of assumptions and microagressions. Typically, women of colour tend to bear the brunt of cultural pressure both in their own cultures and in wider society, and in this particular case they also face the additional prejudices towards interracial relationships.
Multiracial couples are one of the fastest growing demographics in the UK, yet they are still very much regarded as exotic. Just take for example the mixed race musician FKA Twigs and her white partner Robert Pattinson. After dating the twilight star, Twigs received multitudes of online abuse from fans calling her a “monkey” and arguing that Pattinson should date someone more ‘on his level’. You don’t have to read between the lines to understand that Twig’s race was the only thing that made her ‘too alternative’ for boy-next-door Robert Pattinson.
If the reaction to Professor Robert Kelly’s interview is able to teach us anything it is that we do not live in a post-race society. Your claim that ‘you don’t see race’ is invalid, because everyone does. Unconscious bias dominates our lives, and in some way we all suffer from its expectations. Yes, many of us did see a nanny in that clip. The important thing now is to address the reasons why this hurried presumption may have farther-reaching consequences than a comic video.
Image: Bobo Boom