By James Austin
Earlier this year I wrote an article discussing White Power in Thailand: the widespread dislike of dark skin and with it countless whitening products blemishing the shelves of Thai pharmacies. The prequel to the products are the seemingly incorrigible advertising campaigns, and the catalyst of the campaigns, I wrote, is a national insecurity that seems interwoven with class prejudice. Dark equals poor; symbolic of a hard life working outdoors. Pale correlates to the nouveau riche; the urban indoor-working middle classes, or people living a life of leisure. As I stated in the article, the same phenomenon was prevalent throughout Europe for centuries.
One of the whitening product advertisements I invoked in the story was a drink that ostensibly gives pallor to a person’s skin. The ad – this is the third time I have rebuked Verena L-Gluta Berry Plus, but I won’t apologize – alludes to the fallacy that being black, or dark, means that you are ignominiously stationed somewhere at the bottom of the evolutionary chain. The drink, however, can magically fast-forward you to the higher, whiter, end of the scale. At the time I didn’t equate the ad with racism, but I should have; after all the darkest skin that appears in the ad belongs to someone of African descent.
Last week a Thai children’s teaching resource appeared online. A poster, which is a vocabulary learning tool, shows pictures of objects and people presented next to a corresponding word. ‘Handsome’, we learn, looks something like a cartoonish Korean pop star; ‘beautiful’, a western babe; and ‘pretty’ looks something like a young female Japanese anime character. Meanwhile, ‘ugly’ is depicted as what looks like a young African man, replete with diamond stud bling earrings. At the bottom of the poster it is written in Thai: “A way to thinking and teaching.” If such an arrantly offensive description exists in a children’s ‘thinking and teaching’ aid, then what kind of thinking and teaching happens in some Thai households?
Fear of the other
“At the most simplistic level, white equates good and beautiful and black the opposite. This remains deeply ingrained in the Thai psyche,” answered Thai critic Kaewmala in a 2013 interview in which she was asked if Thailand’s dislike of dark skin was not strictly related to beauty, but also contained elements of racism.
“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.”
In an article called Being Black in Thailand, written in 2014, some of the black interviewees described that they felt the attitude towards their skin colour and how being black in Thailand might elicit undue attention wasn’t racism, merely curiosity. Alyx Shepherd, an American under-graduate studying in Thailand, said, “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.”
Although in the same story when one black teacher found that an ad for teaching position said, ‘Caucasians required, white preferred’, and then inquired to a Thai friend the meaning of this she heard the sullied mantra, because “Light skin is beautiful”. The same respondent also remarked on a darker side to studying in Thailand, where she found remnants of a racist past such as when she came across a, “Little Black Sambo Doll”. In another story that appeared in the New Yorker around the same time a black American was turned down for a teaching job in Thailand because he would, “scare the children”, according to the administrator that interviewed him.
Brooke Lew, a black Canadian woman who worked as an intern in Thailand for some months, told Asian Correspondent: “People stared at me all the time, everywhere I went, as if they had never seen a black person before. I felt fetishized often, with people gawking at me or discussing the beauty of my skin as though they were being forward thinking and bold for even thinking it. I met a husband and wife artist couple who literally scared me. They wanted to paint me, like I was a gazelle in a safari or something.” Brooke explained that she thought maybe the lack of a solid racial civil rights movement in Asia may have “set the stage for the colonial white hierarchy to run wild”.
There are a few blogs written about black people’s experiences visiting or living in Thailand, and most seem to vacillate around the curious-racist line. Curiosity is natural and unintentional, but there is plenty of evidence of overt racism towards black people in Thailand. Painted black faces sometimes appear in Thai comedy shows, and those characters are often portrayed as being foolish, clownish. This mirrors the aforementioned advertisement; it’s attempting to inform us that black is not just ugly, but it’s also backwards, or not as evolved as a light pallor. ‘Black Man’, a range of Thai cleaning products from toilet brushes to dish scourers, can be seen in most Thai supermarkets. A correlation can be made with this brand name and servitude, or even slavery. This kind of invidious racial stereotyping was probably not accidental, but it’s unlikely that in Thailand it has caused or will cause an outcry from the public. Political correctness has yet to enter the Thai psyche.
Political correctness hasn’t gone mad
Ethnocentrism on the other hand is pervasive. Promulgated by the media and sometimes politicians is a belief that certain, heinous crimes could not have been committed by a Thai. Exiled political activist Giles Ji Ungpakorn points out in a blog post on the topic racism in Thailand that offensive words are commonly used in Thailand to describe large groups of people, or entire races.
Ungpakorn writes, “Most Thais refer to anyone who looks Malay, Indian, Turkish or Arabic as ‘Kaak’. This is no different from Anglo-Saxon racists referring to ‘Wops’, ‘Spics’ or ‘Dagos’. The highly offensive word ‘Kaak’ is also used to belittle the Muslim Malays of Patani, thus increasing their oppression.” He adds that black people of African descent are often referred to as, ‘Aye Murd’, which he says is the equivalent of ‘nigger’. Literally it’s probably closer to ‘darkie’.
Caucasians are known as ‘farang’, and being farang comes with numerous all-encompassing character misconceptions. The debate of whether the term is derogatory is an old one, but whether spoken with ill-will, or accidental ill-will, is not the point. To hold myopic pre-set notions of what an entire race is like is dangerous; it’s what we call racialism, or worse racism. Polarization of racial groups is common in Thailand; it belongs to the concept of Thainess, which in itself is a reductive ethnocentric view of oneself. The belief in Thainess, while embraced by much of the public and pushed into the brains of young students by the current government, is the root of the evil concerning racism. Governments endorsing national solidarity through Thainess is a paradox, because its endorsement is divisive, as well as its success.
Thailand has some catching up to do in terms of political correctness, but we mustn’t forget the pervasive racism and odious caricatures given to black people in the West not so long ago. Much to my long-passed grandfather’s discredit, he used to flick his rolled-up cigarette ash into a black servant’s hand ashtray in the late ’70s. “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote labour,” was an oft used slogan of the working class where I lived when Margaret Thatcher was up for election. The slogan was the creation of British Conservative Peter Harry Steve Griffiths during the 1964 general election, but the odious sentiment survived until the ’80s – and died when political correctness went mad.
Political correctness the world over has many critics, and perhaps at times they are right. When the sheep in the nursery rhyme Bah Bah Black Sheep was turned into the Rainbow Sheep we might ask why, and has anyone really benefited from the colour change? Black people have been reported as calling this ‘a joke’. The popular Bangkok-based blogger Stickman writes, “The almost total absence of any form of political correctness in Thailand is THE single most important attribute that attracts me to this country. The absence of PC provides a freshness and spontaneity that is far removed from current western culture.”
Overreaching political correctness may at times seem oppressive, but understanding and embracing cultural diversity or calling-out a children’s teaching resource for saying black people are ugly is not oppressive in the least; it’s kind, and humane. PC is something that should be learned through our own critical research; it’s a result of intelligent reflection, self-awareness; it’s a state of mind that can be encouraged but not taught. When Thais start to deconstruct Thainess, political correctness will come naturally. Once this happens, a black face will be meaningless.
About the author:
James Austin is a journalist and fiction writer living in Thailand.