Being black in Thailand

Skin whitening can be something of an obsession in Thailand, where does that leave black people? Melinda Lewis looks at some real life experiences.

By | Fri 30 Jan 2015

Here in Thailand, we’ve all seen a cringe-worthy skin whitening commercial or two, featuring an unhappy dark-skinned person who is miraculously transformed into a happy vibrant white-skinned beauty thanks to some cream or another. But what is the meaning behind this trend? Does a preference for light skin automatically signify racism? How exactly are black people viewed and treated here in Thailand? Are things worse here than they are in the west?

Coming to Thailand, I knew I was going to be treated like a foreigner. It’s kind of hard to blend into an Asian culture as a 170-centimetre Caucasian girl. And with that knowledge, I expected the behaviour that comes when you have a neon flashing sign above your head saying “farang.” The more expensive transport, the stares when I walk down the street, the help from kind strangers who can sense my incompetence, etc.

But I didn’t even think about how different it would be as a person of African descent. That is, until I met my roommate, Alyx Shepherd, a fellow undergrad exchange student from America, studying with me at Chiang Mai University. She too knew when she came to Asia that she could expect a different treatment, but her expectations were of the worrying kind. After a few disheartening comments while out on the town, the surprise of seeing game show contestants in blackface, and finding a Little Black Sambo doll at the orphanage where we volunteered, we were beginning to have the horrible thought that maybe this country that is known for its smiles throughout the globe might have a dark side of hating, well, darkness.

“I was shocked to read the requirements for teaching positions,” Shepherd told me of her school’s documents. ‘Caucasians required, white preferred.’ I asked a Thai person about this, and his answer was, ‘Light skin is beautiful.’ I wanted an explanation, not an excuse.”
Martha Mukaiwa, a travel writer and columnist from Africa, echoed these sentiments in a recent blog post she titled Travelling While African. “As a black African travelling abroad you often come with more baggage than what you packed and stowed on the flight over,” she wrote. “As a black African travelling abroad your travel companions will certainly be ignorance, racism and assumption and there will always be slurs disguised as coughs and men who have watched far too many hip hop videos in between drooling over National Geographic.”

However, American schoolteacher and long-term resident who currently teaches at a school in Lamphun Taj Jones-Kobayashi makes an interesting point: the negative experiences that may occur in Thailand do not always come from Thai people. “Do I get treated very differently by Thai people? Not so much,” he says. “But do I get treated very differently by other tourists? Yeah. Here in Chiang Mai, my life experience is 70 percent Thai, 30 percent foreigner, so it’s interesting that most of my experiences of issues with being black have been with other tourists.”

Stephan Turner, another American schoolteacher and Chiang Mai resident for nine years, has had similar experiences. “I was walking down the road one time with my wife and along comes this motorcycle. A Thai girl was driving and this white guy was on the back, going past at about 50 miles per hour, and all I could hear was, ‘Nigger!’ That’s the only time I’ve heard that word since I’ve been here. The only folks who have given me a hint of racist behaviour have been white men of western descent. The foreigners seem to bring their baggage with them when they come.”

As for the locals, it seems that while they may be a little curious about the differences of hair and skin texture, straight-out negativity is rare. “Generally, what I’ve found is that the local population in Chiang Mai take their cue from you. If you are warm and friendly, they will be warm and friendly,” Mukaiwa tells me.

“It’s definitely a curiosity that’s not at all negative,” says Mavis Bortey-Fio, an American graduate student living in Chiang Mai. “Here, I’m treated as a commodity. The Thai people are so positive and welcoming that their curiosity about me doesn’t offend me. If anything, it just makes me really happy that there are people out there who are curious and want to know me, want to take their picture with me because they’ve never seen it before. It’s kind of like being Beyonce.”

Turner agrees. “They might have prejudices against me because I don’t look like them, but that’s natural,” he says. “I have prejudice. Everybody has prejudice. But there’s a big difference between prejudice and racism. And I just don’t feel like what Thai people have going on here is hateful and insidious like it is in the United States.”

According to Mukaiwa, this behaviour occurs, “because we are only beginning to see the world and the world is only beginning to see us.”

Shepherd expresses a similar opinion, attributing differential treatment to cultural inexperience. “Racism? No. I think not having much exposure to many different skin tones has left them in the dark (pun intended) with different cultures. It’s not racism, but I think as time goes on, because Thai people are so accepting, as they become more exposed, it won’t even be stigmatised. I don’t think it’s a racism thing, just a lack of exposure.”
However, this innocence can be a very positive, clean-slate type of experience, as Jones-Kobayashi has found. “People assume a lot about you because you’re black in America,” he points out. “Here, they don’t know anything about you, so the fact that I’m black doesn’t have a lot of baggage attached to it. For instance, people assume that I listen to a certain style of music in America, but people here will ask me what kind of music I like. I like that.” He smiles. “I am an individual here. In America, I’m a black man. Here, it’s really liberating and refreshing. People see your skin colour, but it only means you have dark skin or that I’m from Africa. It only goes that far.”

But direct treatment from others is just part of the experience of being here. Another culturally shaping part of life anywhere is the media, and here in Thailand it’s lily white. “In the media, everyone has THE whitest skin,” Jones-Kobayashi concurs. “But it’s like having long hair or having shaved legs. Every country or part of the world has its ‘beauty thing.’ But I do find people to be a bit obsessive about it around here.”

One look at Thai television shows will give you an idea of the current beauty ideal, which is quite different from what most Thai people naturally look like. The actors and actresses are all impeccably groomed, very few sporting their natural hair colours, with noses shaped under the watchful eye of a plastic surgeon and skin so light that they seem to have avoided any contact with sunshine. All in all, the status quo appears to be heavily influenced by both western and Korean beauty standards.

Thailand’s advertising is no better. As a matter of fact, Thai ads are frequently mocked by the rest of the world for their lack of cultural sensitivity. Between whitening soap ads that send messages to Thai youth about how white skin is the way to happiness, to Citra’s “Wink 3D” skin scholarship – available only to students with fair skin – to Naomi Campbell’s lightened complexion on the cover of Vogue Thailand in 2013, it is apparent that the desire for lightness has become a fixation.
“I would rather that folks leave themselves alone,” says Turner. “I think people are beautiful in general. I think this skin whitening thing is taking things to extremes. People have become sick and people have died because of the chemicals involved with that. So, beauty? I appreciate beauty wherever I see it. It doesn’t have to be a certain colour for me.”

Turner has turned these ideas into learning points for his students. “One time, I had the kids write a monologue based on true things that have happened to them in their lives,” he recalls. “One of my students said, ‘Oh, I’m not pretty because I’m black.’ And I looked at her and said, ‘You’re not black. What do you mean you’re black?’ And she said, ‘Well, my skin is not white, so I’m black.’ And I said, ‘No, no, sweetheart, there’s a whole range of colours between black and white and all of them are beautiful and you’ve got to recognise that.’ It hurt me to hear her say that.”

Bortey-Fio agrees that this is an important point to consider. “It’s always something to think about when there’s such a stress on making people who are not naturally light strive to change that. Maybe five years ago, I got really into Korean pop culture. The majority of the TV I watch is Korean, and the Korean concept of beauty is very similar to the Thai concept of beauty. I would have conversations with my mother and she would say, ‘If you keep watching that you’re going to be unhappy with your body because you don’t look at all like the girls on the K-Dramas.’ Actually, I recognise their beauty, but I also recognise mine and I’m very confident in that.”

But, according to Keatisak Chaipatanapruck, a Thai society and culture professor at Chiang Mai University, perhaps Thailand has already reached the farthest end of the white-obsessed spectrum and is now on its way back.
“Thai society is going to change, because we know the colour of the skin doesn’t matter,” he says. “We can’t refuse the skin colour. You were born that colour. People will accept you by your personality and recognise you because of what you are, not because of what your appearance is.”

Beauty contests, which are hugely popular in Thailand, are often a big part of the problem when it comes to untenable beauty standards. However, the Miss Thailand 2014 contest actually brought a rare ray of hope to many. Nonthawan “Maeya” Thongleng was crowned with the support of social media and public approval, despite her naturally tan skin.

Thailand’s exposure to differences is increasing more and more as its global community grows. “I think there’s many different types of foreigners in Thailand,” said Jones-Kobayashi. “You have expatriates, tourists, people that work here and people that retire here. Everybody has a different experience. It’s good to have some of these stories come out. I’m glad that my story has a chance to be told because it’s not negative. I constantly get a lot of negative things thrown at me about people thinking being black in Thailand is a negative experience and I do think people hear propaganda and urban legends about racism here in Thailand.”

Turner expresses a similar opinion. “When I read those types of stories, it makes me wonder. Are you being overly sensitive? Is it you? Is it your frame of mind? Or is it really something that’s coming from the outside that’s meant to be what you think it is?” He shrugs. “I really don’t think you should believe everything you think.”

“Day by day, we are changing,” says Keatisak. “Day by day we realise we are equal because we are human.”

While these sentiments are laudable, and the experiences of Turner, Jones-Kobayashi, Mukaiwa and Shepherd encouraging, the facts remain that there are strong elements of prejudice in Thai society. The media propagates the tired and ignorant stereotype of white desirability, often mocking the dark skinned (whether they’re Thais from Isaan, southern Muslim citizens or neighbouring Cambodians) in failed and tone-deaf humour which feeds the natural racism, discrimination and bigotry, elements which are all part of Thai society – as they are in others. That being said, the true and valid experiences of our interviewees show that such negative sentiments are not only in the minority, they are also waning. The natural Thai joie de vivre and warmth seem to be overriding fear of The Other.

As a member of Citylife’s staff said when asked about her thoughts on how Thais view black people, “When I was young, it was not good. We used to tease our darker friends and be really mean to people who were different, such as those of Indian descent. In fact, this friend at my school was bullied so much she left to go back to India. She has now returned, a beautiful successful woman, and we are all so ashamed of our past behaviour. I didn’t meet my first black person until I was in my mid-twenties when I went to study in the US, and with all my prejudice, I admit that I was afraid. But times have changed, society has matured, as have I. I don’t see or hear prejudice to the same degrees and frequency as I used to. We are learning that difference is not something to be afraid of. And more importantly, not something to shun or shame.”

But as I walked away from her desk, I couldn’t help but smile at her tube of whitening hand lotion on her desktop!