Does white privilege exist in Thailand?

In a country seemingly obsessed with skin whitening, Nicole Osgood investigates whether being white in Thailand is a privilege or a restraint.

By | Mon 1 Jan 2018

Prior to arriving in Thailand, I had nightmares about getting lost. Upon leaving the airport I was, perhaps naïvely, shocked to see the masses of English language signs and advertisements. The adverts that immediately drew my attention were ones for skin whitening products — all, to my eyes, with overtones of Western beauty standards. I remembered seeing a 2015 advert for a skin whitening dietary pill where a famous celebrity I later learned was Cris Horwang, ascribed her success to her fair skin by stating “whiteness makes you win”. I remember being pleased to see the backlash on social media from both local and international communities. In the United States where I come from, white privilege is insidious, operating in ways hidden to the average white person, but here it felt blatant. I immediately asked myself two questions; were my opinions tainted by Western ideology, and how does white privilege manifest itself in a non-white country like Thailand — if at all.

I began my journey by posting a simple question on an online forum, asking the local expats whether white privilege exists in Thailand, and if so, in what form? The explosion of comments took me by surprise. The opinions were vast and varied. Many were heavy handed, obnoxious, and even racist with just a few sensible replies peppered amongst the trolls. One thing I learned from it all was that there was no consensus. As outraged as some posters were about the question, it seems as though no answer was acceptable to any majority. So I decided to consult a few experts on the matter instead.

“Here in Thailand, if there is such a thing as privilege relating to colour, it’s most likely about class,” explained Dr. Lora Friedrich, the Director of Thai and Southeast Asian Studies at Payap University. She added “White privilege is an outdated concept. I think colourism is probably a much more current way to think about it.” Colourism more broadly explains prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a darker skin tone, and can include people of the same ethnic or racial groups.

Here, lighter skin is associated with a higher status, something that was obvious to me as soon as I walked out of the airport. White skin portrays class, wealth, intelligence. “During the Ayutthaya Kingdom, the royal family created social classes to maintain power, a concept that was most likely borrowed from the Indian caste system,” Dr. Keatisak Chaipatanapruck, a Thai Studies professor at Chiang Mai University. “We don’t see the colour of your skin but we will ask where you are from or about your family. This is not colourism or racism; it’s about social classes. Traditionally, if you are fair skinned, you are from a rich family and don’t have to work outside on the rice fields.”

“New generations are moving away from this concept more and more,” suggested Dr. Christopher Fisher, a philosophy lecturer at Chiang Mai University, a comment which Dr. Keatisak agreed with. “Nowadays we teach that everyone is equal. Fair skin or dark skin, everyone is Thai.” Thai people see themselves as Thais first. Dr. Friedrich added, “Thailand’s very proud of the fact that it has never been colonised by a Western power.” This idea gave way to a growing nationalistic politic — a trend seen across the world in recent years — that puts obstacles up for many groups such as hill tribe peoples, ethnic Malay, and even expats from gaining official citizenship.

As any foreigner living here knows, there are strict policies that dictate what jobs can be taken, where they can live, what they can own and so on. “I’ve lived here for 14 years. I have to go to immigration every three months to report my address. I have to renew my visa every year,” continued Dr. Fisher, who has a wife and children who are Thai citizens. “I have no means of being secure in this country. The Thai government could ask me to leave at any time.” And yet, Western expats in Chiang Mai enjoy a freedom of movement in Thailand unavailable to many nationalities outside of the West because they hail from countries that issue the most powerful passports in the world. “We are more globally mobile, hence privileged, we can come and go as we please to most countries,” said Alex Putnam, an expat in Chiang Mai.

When employers need to hire a native-speaker, a more obvious form of racism emerges. “I once worked at a school that refused to hire black people because they thought the children would be scared,” said one anonymous source. “White teachers are preferred over non-white teachers in Thailand,” said Brandon Lucas, a teacher living in Chiang Mai. “I think it stems from the idea that native English speakers are all white.”

Another issue that foreigners face is the common practice of double pricing. Several years back, a Thai national who looked ‘too much like a foreigner’ was forced to pay the foreigner price at a Bangkok attraction despite presenting his Thai citizen ID card. Dr. Keatisak responded by explaining that every organisation needs money for maintenance. “The Thai government is not rich so they need support to build the infrastructure and facilities for visitors.”

Having felt I had enough opinions about discrimination against foreigners, I wanted to explore the Thai perception of people of colour. When I questioned Dr. Keatisak about black and African people in Chiang Mai, he stated “We are not familiar with black people or African people. Thai people feel scared. If you are in Chiang Mai, you rarely see black or African people. So when we see them, we feel scared.” Dr. Fisher understands these attitudes and suggest they stem from a lack of education or lack of exposure rather than being based on indoctrination or hate as can at times be seen in the West.

Despite my efforts to understand how racism and white privilege manifest here, at the end of the day, there is no consensus as to whether or not white people are privileged in Thailand. While some foreigners here perceive discrimination based on race, the reality is that Thai people seem to not talk about race in the same way that Westerners do. A different definition exists here and what I thought of as white privilege seems to be absent entirely. “Privilege in Thailand is based on wealth rather than race or colour,” concluded Dr. Keatisak. “We were also never colonised so we have less resentment towards European nations than our neighbouring countries do.”

Although the correlation between skin colour and wealth in Thailand is disappearing, it is still an issue. Racism, after all, comes down to a simple lack of education. To me, it seems that my American interpretation of white privilege is not applicable to a place like Thailand. The privilege I feel here is more likely a privilege of wealth, not of skin colour, however I can’t deny that the image of wealth set upon me is not in some way influenced by my skin colour or ethnicity.