Doughnut chain Dunkin’ Donuts came under fire last week in Thailand for an ad campaign showing an Asian woman painted in blackface to promote a new chocolate flavored product. Word spread quickly on social media, which was quickly followed by outrage and accusations of racism against the campaign. While the CEO of the Thai franchise quickly dismissed the allegations, the official US website reportedly issued an apology.

Saksith Saiyasombut spoke with Siam Voices contributor Kaewmala about the brouhaha surrounding the ad campaign, the subsequent outrage and the subject of racism in Thailand.

Thailand Blackface Doughnut Ad

A Dunkin' Donuts advertisement showing a smiling woman with bright pink lips in blackface makeup is seen on a SkyTrain in Bangkok. Pic: AP.

Saksith Saiyasombut: So, here we go again – another Thai advertisement showing people painted in blackface, followed by a backlash, and the ad is pulled. Do you find this ad offensive?

Kaewmala: At first sight I was taken aback, though I can’t say I was offended. The poster did remind me of the clownish blackface stereotype of black Americans. I thought it was stupid as it would likely offend some people, though not many in Thailand. It’s certainly provocative.

S: It seems that the outrage and subsequent coverage this time around was mostly from media abroad (e.g. Buzzfeed, TIME magazine) while the head of the Thai Dunkin’ Donuts franchise in Thailand (a Lebanese expat) dismissed this as “absolutely ridiculous” and “paranoid American thinking”. Does he have a point?

K: Not exactly. I agree that it is ‘American thinking’, but ridiculous and paranoid? I don’t think so. It’s American thinking because it is born in the American context where there was historically a real subjugation and oppression of black people as slaves and later second-class citizens, and racism against blacks still persists today. The “blackface” represents that very unpleasant aspect in not-so-distant history, so I personally don’t find it difficult to understand the negative reaction.

However, this Dunkin’ Donuts ad is not simply black-or-white. If you look at the commercial, it shows the model being originally white and when she eats the donut she turns black. I don’t imagine the ad makers had the idea to emulate the offensive American blackface when they were making the video. The ad poster unfortunately comes out looking like a Thai version of the offensive American blackface. Intended or not, it’s like an American pointing a foot at a Thai person, say, in Los Angeles.

S: That’s what many people say – this ad was made in Thailand for the Thai market. What do you have to say to this?

K: That’s globalization for you. Cultural taboos slip across borders these days and every so often we have a cross-border cultural faux pas for a real-time drama. Many Thais were recently upset about the Buddha toilet in the Netherlands, and Thais have offended Jewish people many times over with recurrent Hitler and Nazi mishaps. Certainly there are different degrees of offense and different levels of stupidity and ignorance involved, but it’s not always easy to determine where the line is between overanxious political correctness and sensible cultural sensitivity and freedom of expression.

I find the reactions in Thailand quite educational. There have been many discussions and debates on this over the past few days and reactions are wide-ranging. From what I have seen the majority of people – both foreign and Thai – on Thai social media don’t seem to think the ad is racist. One thing that many Thais and foreigners living in Thailand agree on, however, is that the ubiquitous Thai advertisements of skin whitening products are more offensive. And I think this is a more salient point in the Thai context, and I’d argue not unrelated to this ‘blackface’ ad.

S: Almost exactly a year ago, you wrote on the issue of beauty perceptions in Thai culture, especially in the context of the prevalence of whitening products. How do you see that in relation to the current controversy?

K: It certainly is an undercurrent which many people sensitive to prejudices against dark skin point to in this particular case, even if they don’t think the Dunkin’ Donuts ad is racist. But before that let me say what I find more telling in the ad: the fact that the model is the daughter of the Thailand CEO of Dunkin Donuts! This nepotism is much more Thai than the blackface faux pas – even though the CEO is Lebanese. I wonder about the possibility of the model in the CEO’s beautiful daughter’s place being a beautiful dark-skinned Isaan girl from Surin. What do you think? Would potential Charcoal donut-buying Thais find her as attractive as the CEO’s daughter? Why is the Thai entertainment industry full of fair skinned people, often of mixed Asian-Caucasian parentage or East Asian looks?

There has long been a decided preference; an obsession bordering on pathological of “white skin” in Thai culture, as I explained in that article. At the most simplistic level, white equates good and beautiful and black the opposite. This remains deeply ingrained in the Thai psyche. Just the other day, my Burmese housekeeper told me a joke about her husband. They are discussing adopting a baby and she suggested a newborn of her own relative. The first question he asked was, “was it white or black?” He said if the baby is white he would take it. My housekeeper thought it hilarious because he is “charcoal black” as she often describes him. Thais are no different in this way. Dark skinned people have fully internalized the fair beauty ideal, truly believe that if they are dark skinned they are not beautiful. Many Thais are incapable of seeing beauty in dark skin. Which brings us back to the extreme overrepresentation of fair skinned models in Thai advertisements. Why is that? Call it whatever you want but that’s how it is.

S: This is not the first time we have seen something like this in Thai advertisements or media in general, where blackface has been used. You were tweeting about Thailand having its own blackface phenomenon, can you elaborate on that?

K: Yes. Thailand has its own blackface phenomenon. There’s a popular novel called Khao Nawk Naa (“Rice Outside the Fields”) which features a half-black, half-Isaan Thai girl of a black GI father and Isaan mother who was his rented wife during the Vietnam War. Khao Nawk Naa is the Thai iconic blackface. She’s a misfit at so many levels, a girl who was born black and “ugly” and lives with extreme discrimination throughout her life. The posters show an old version of the film adaptation (ca. 1970s or 80s) and the latest TV drama adaptation. On the second poster, the running lead says: “No one wants to be born ‘E-Dam’” – at best ‘E-Dam’ can be translated to “black female” in a disparaging tone, at worst “black bitch”.

In the story, the leading character finally got married to a Caucasian man, pretty much because no Thai men would have her, and of course, the hero is really a nice farang guy. This is an extreme prequel to the real-life dark-skinned Isaan women working in bars in tourist areas who would be attractive largely only to foreign men who favor tanned skin.

The leading role in Khao Nawk Naa as I recall has never been played by a truly dark-skinned actress. I must say though that the character is not only atypical Thai in her looks but also in her attitude. She is not sweet or submissive. She’s a fighter and an empowered heroine who finds success eventually – just not with a Thai man.

Beautiful heroines in Thai TV dramas these days still play their roles in disguise (to avoid detection) in dark painted faces. When they are in disguise they tend to act buffoonish and are considered ugly by all, until of course they are discovered by the hero to be a fair beauty worthy of falling in love with.

S: Finally, what do you see being the general problem here? Sheer cluelessness, lack of sensitivity or can we really say that we have a racism problem? 

K: I don’t want to speculate how the ‘blackface’ Dunkin’ Donuts ad really came about because I really don’t know. But do we have a racism problem in Thailand? Surely we do! Many Thais still use the words “Lao” and “Khmer” as an insult, though often jokingly with their fellow Thais who look, dress or behave unfashionably like a country bumpkin. Thais have a strong dislike and distrust of dark-skinned Burmese and Indians, and can find little beauty in dark skinned people, poor foreigners from neighboring countries, poorer fellow Thais from Isaan or Thai-Malay Muslims in the South, or Africans. Racism in the Thai cultural context is more intertwined with the chauvinistic attitude based on ultra-nationalism in Thai education which teaches us that we are better than our neighbors, and the Bangkok-centric worldview, interwoven with persistent discrimination based on class, urban vs rural and social-status hierarchies.

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About the authors:
Kaewmala is a writer, a blogger and an avid twitterer. She blogs at thaiwomantalks.com and is a provocateur of Thai language, culture and politics @thai_talk. Kaewmala is the author of a book that looks at the linguistic and cultural aspects of Thai sexuality called “Sex Talk”.

Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and freelance foreign correspondent. He writes about Thai politics and current affairs since 2010 and reports for international news media like Channel NewsAsia. Read his full bio on about.me/saksith.