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The making of a global racial hierarchy : racial formation of South and Southeast Asian migrants In South Korea Lee, Seonok


How, why and under what conditions do new racial categories form? This dissertation examines the construction of South and Southeast Asian migrants (tongnama) as a new racial category in South Korea: a country in a continent long neglected within studies of race. Through ethnographic research on foreign migrant workers and marriage immigrants in South Korea, it was discovered that a new racial category has emerged. Tongnama has become an umbrella term to refer to migrants from Southeast Asian countries, such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, but also from South Asian countries such as Pakistan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. My findings show that several elements contribute to the racial formation of tongnama migrants: the Korean State, Korean culture, gender and patriarchy, and the Korean split labour market. To be specific, exploitative capitalist practices in the Korean labour market and state-facilitated gendered recruitment of foreign brides shape and reshape South Koreans’ understanding of this new racial category. At the same time, the racial formation of South and Southeast Asian migrants emerges out of a need by Koreans to understand their country’s position within contemporary international migration flows. Building upon Omi and Winant’s racial formation theory, my findings demonstrate that racial formation in South Korea shares similar racial logics with racial formation in European and white settler countries; such as an emphasis on the physical characteristics of groups, race as a group position, and a gendered racialization process. Yet, my findings also suggest that racial formation taking place in South Korea exhibits a different trajectory from Euro-American racial formation, which emerged alongside slavery, colonialism, and (neo) imperialism. This dissertation thus attempts to explain the dynamics of contemporary race and racial formation in a non-‘Western’ context. I argue that in South Korea, migrants’ countries of origin and the economic developmental status of these nations within the global economic order appears to be a critical factor in racial formation, which is essential to Koreans’ perception of a global racial hierarchy. Therefore, the case of South Korea contributes to theories of race by emphasizing the importance of contemporary economic migration for racial formation.

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