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Colorism in Koreatown: Los Angeles’ Little Bangladesh & Koreatown

In order to preserve Koreatown's deep historical roots, the citizens of the neighborhood came together in protest. But are these protests rooted in colorism?

As someone from Bangkok, seeing a diverse neighborhood like the Wilshire area rings a nostalgic bell. In Little Bangladesh, I heard a store clerk speaking Spanish to customers, with the TV tuned to a Bengali channel in the background. My curiosity piqued, I struck up a conversation with the clerk to learn about his background. Apparently, he is Bangladeshi, lives in Walnut, CA, and is opening up a yogurt joint next to his discount store.

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Apon Bazar specializes in Myanma and South Asian imports

We enjoyed the banter until I had to ask, “Why do you speak Spanish so well?”
He replied “Because they come in and talk to me.”
I then asked, “Do you speak Korean? We’re pretty much in Koreatown.”
“I don’t speak Korean. They don’t come into my store,” he says.
“Why?” I push.
“Why don’t you tell me, your people would know,” he quips back.

These ethnic enclaves in the city of angels may have not yet moved passed xenophobia.

Koreatown is Los Angeles’ most densely populated area, with 120,000 residents in total. It’s also become more inclusive over time, along various different stratas each at different paces. Which is why we have to consider the implications of the recent Koreatown rezoning issue reveal and how having diverse groups of people living together may be necessary, but does not eliminate implicit xenophobia.

In 1992, after the Los Angeles riots, Koreatown demonstrators held signs with inclusive, hopeful sentiments such as “We can get along” or “Justice for All” in the streets next to burned ruins. In Koreatown today, most residents speak of how there’s people of all sorts of backgrounds, ethnic or otherwise, cohabitating in harmony.

However, we know that Los Angeles was ranked in the top 10 most segregated cities in the US. This veneer of harmony may be masking deeply rooted implicit xenophobia. We’ve also seen hate crimes in Los Angeles rise to the highest it’s been in the last 10 years.

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Cesar Salazar, 18, local born and raised in Little Bangladesh/Koreatown

“We all recognize each other’s faces, there’s a sense of community, but people have a mask on,” says Cesar Salazar, an 18 year old local, who goes on to say, “There’s definitely racism here.”

Last year’s short but strong demonstrations and activism to “Save Koreatown” reveals the xenophobic underbelly of these ethnic enclaves. Last year’s #savektown movement sprang ethnic Koreans residents of Koreatown into unprecedented political action. Jay Caspian Kang of Vice News called the energized movement a ‘race war’.

While race war may be an exaggeration, there are palpable racial tensions between Koreans in Koreatown and the South Asian residents of Little Bangladesh.

 

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Inside the Wilshire district, a proposal was submitted to redraw the borders of Koreatown to a third of its size, giving the deducted area over to the Little Bangladesh neighborhood, unless voted against by the residents. After street protests and facebook group clicktivism, the whole thing blew over without border changes and now Little Bangladeshis and Koreatowners have gone back into their quiet, political slumbers.

The arguments given for why the ethnic Koreans deserved to keep Koreatown the way it is surmounted to that they deserve the representation to reflect their population size.

 

“The community is a little hurt or annoyed that they’re trying to give away two-thirds of the town to [Little] Bangladesh.” said Kevin Park, a young Korean American resident of Koreatown.

 

But then in talking to a Bangladeshi-American resident of Little Bangladesh, who asked to remain anonymous, this person said, “Why [is it phrased as] ‘give Koreatown to us’, when we have lived [in Koreatown’s borders] for many years?”

In fact, almost all of the arguments made by the ethnic Koreans for wanting more representatives for Koreatown mirrored the arguments made by the ethnic Bangladeshi wanting more representation in Little Bangladesh.

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Bhalli’s Discount Store sign with enough wear and tear to prove he’s been here for 30 years

The political awakening of a normally politically dormant group, the ethnic Koreans, reveals that there are still ways lingering xenophobia and colorism can surface.

Koreatown local Kevin Park tells us the significance of this rare event. “I’ve never seen [ethnic Koreans] try really hard to vote as a community until this” When asked if ethnic Koreans held racist sentiments, Park says, “It depends on the person, some can be very traditional and old fashioned.”

A recent immigrant from Korea working as a waiter in a Koreatown restaurant who wishes to remain anonymous says, “I can always see [racism], it’s so obvious. Against Mexicans, against Bangladesh[is], against Indians.”

 

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It seems that a culture of political correctness is keeping openly racist sentiments at bay, but still allows implicit sentiments to persist. A man of Pakistani descent and a frequent shopper in Little Bangladesh, Ali, shares his thoughts with us but wishes to keep his last name anonymous. When asked if he’s seen a lot of racism in this town he comments,

“A lot more with the older generation, you see, we’re in 2019… you’re not going to fit in well with society if you’re not open-minded.” But he can attest that implicit xenophobia still exists in this neighborhood, “You definitely can feel implicit biases, and there’s definitely [ethnic] segregation.”

There are no complete census numbers for this district — with estimates of the number of ethnic Bengals as low as 1,000 and as high as 30,000. The estimate for ethnic Koreans, however, is 46,000 as of 2008, per the book Los Angeles’s Koreatown (Kim). The Los Angeles City Council has not said anything on the record with us regarding any of this.

Koreantown and Little Bangladesh both echo each other in their sentiments for more representation, the implications of colorism are communicated indirectly. This beckons the question – is there a way for these two neighborhoods to come together and unite? After all, they are fighting the very same fight, and dreaming the same American dream.

Smithi Skunnawat is a young writer and producer in film and television. To keep his writing muscle flexed, he writes a lot. When writing, Smithi takes a reverse gestalt approach to writing: getting to know the parts to understand the whole so we know we're looking at it right, be it social issues, philosophy, economics, tech, cinema, or television.
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