During my time in Thailand so far, it’s been impossible to ignore the presence of racism. Dark skin, whether on a Thai, American, Cambodian or any other nationality, is often seen as undesirable here and the market for skin-whitening products is booming as Thais long for lighter, ‘more beautiful’ skin. Blackface is frequently used here and the shocked reaction from Westerners usually goes over the heads of most Thais. This idea is also affected by the presence of nationalism and xenophobia, which causes some locals to look down on outsiders. The abuse and unfavourable treatment of migrant workers from Myanmar and Cambodia are an example of this. The racism I’ve seen here hasn’t always been in the same form as I know it from my home country. This post is my attempt at documenting and analysing it. It’s a long one, so please bear with me.
I’ll start with this. ‘Black Man’ cleaning products. Yes, this is a real thing. In Thailand, you can buy ‘Black Man’ mops, brooms and brushes, all carrying a little logo showing a smiling black guy in a suit, at your service. The company’s official website shows that the name has been altered to ‘Be Man’ and the chap in the logo is now white instead of his previous shade of grey and his bow tie and been switched to a tie, but ‘Black Man’ products are still available through retailers, so this must have been a very recent change. Still, it’s quite shocking , isn’t it?
There’s also Darkie toothpaste, which went through a similar process albeit quite some time ago, and was changed to Darlie after Colgate bought into the brand in 1990. This doesn’t seem so bad until you realise that ‘darlie‘ translates to ‘black person‘ in Chinese (黑人). The brand continues to be very popular in Asia. The picture below shows how the brand name and logo were altered, only after foreign influence condemned the original.
As well as downright racist products, there are also racist advertising campaigns from otherwise seemingly reasonable companies. Below is a video compilation of some of the most horrendous ones, including one from Cintra, offering a scholarship to girls with the most ‘radiant’ white skin.
It doesn’t end there. In 2013, Dunkin Donuts was forced to apologise after putting out an advertisement showing a model in blackface to promote their ‘charcoal donuts’. See the video advertisement below.
In an interview with Saksith Saiyasombut from Asian Correspondent, Kaewmala of Thai Woman Talks gave some very interesting insight into this incident and how it fits into Thailand’s ideas of skin tone and beauty. Read the full interview here.
“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.”
Even if some of these advertisements like these are just incredibly stupid and insensitive rather than intentionally racist, they do help to perpetuate the already common idea that dark skin is less attractive and among all the other instances of racism and uses of blackface, it doesn’t bode well. Kaewmala continues:
“There has long been a decided preference; an obsession bordering on pathological of “white skin” in Thai culture, as I explained [in an article on Thailand’s skin whitening craze]. At the most simplistic level, white equates good and beautiful and black the opposite. This remains deeply ingrained in the Thai psyche”
It seems that there’s a new blackface advertisement campaign every year in Thailand. In the latest, Seoul Secret released an advert for a whitening pill called Snowz featuring an actress who talks about how her white skin was the key to her success. She said that if she stopped ‘taking care‘ of herself and whitening her skin, other newer and lighter actresses would outshine her. It then showed her next to one of those girls, while she was painted completely black, looking on forlornly. The ad’s slogan translates to ‘white makes you win‘ or ‘whiteness is winning‘.
Shortly after the ad was released, the Youtube comments section was disabled, then later that day, the video was removed and Seoul Secret issued an apology.
While it saddens and enrages me to see these kind of advertisements, as someone who’s been living in Thailand for a few years, it doesn’t surprise me. The Seoul Secret brand name is an example of how Korean beauty standards are a big thing in Thailand. Their fairer complexions are widely regarded as more beautiful and there is a huge market for whitening products for Thais who want to emulate that. It’s hard to navigate this idea while living here. Some have argued that it’s not racism, it’s purely a beauty thing. However, it’s hard to argue that perpetuating the idea that one skin tone is inferior to another is anything other than racist.
My experiences as a teacher in Thailand have given me further insight into the perception of skin tone here as I’ve had countless conversations with my students about it. Some of these conversations have been positive, but the overwhelming majority of them have not. To show some examples, here are some excerpts of my posts on a thread on the Muay Thai Roundtable Forum called ‘The Lure of White Skin – Racism in Thailand‘, where much discussion on this topic has taken place.
“One student had been on vacation in LA, and I asked her if she enjoyed it. We got onto the topic of transport, and I mentioned that I’d assumed you would have to get around by car. She remarked ‘yes, public transport is very dangerous, a lot of black people get on‘.
An older lady had lived in Chicago for a few years. She said ‘I’m afraid of black people. They’re so big‘.
When I was discussing the idea of going to India with a student: ‘No, I don’t want to go. There are a lot of murderers and criminals‘. When I asked her why she thought that, she simply said ‘they have black skin‘.
Another student who’d just come back from a holiday in Bali said she had a lovely time there, ‘but I don’t like black people‘.”
“Yesterday, I was teaching a class about appearances and gave them pictures of different celebrities and asked them to tell me what they looked like. One of those pictures was of Wyclef Jean, which led one student to ask me “can I call him ‘negro‘?” When I responded with “absolutely not”, they were puzzled. They genuinely didn’t seem to know that it was an inappropriate or offensive term and thankfully, were very open to hearing my explanation, so I took time out of the class to make it very clear what words were OK and not OK for them to use and why, which is obviously not something I do when I have a student who makes an intentionally racist remark out of hate. I’m glad we were able to have that conversation.
Today, I had a one-on-one class with a university student who has a very high level of English […] She said “as Thai people, we believe that we don’t have racism, but we do, that’s why most people want to be white and think that dark skin is ugly” and talked about how every advertisement shows light-skinned actors and models. It was very refreshing to hear that kind of response. Most of my students would be completely unaware or ignorant about it. I told her about what had happened in my lesson the previous day and she laughed and said that she’d had a similar experience with her friends, and had told all of them not to say certain words. She’s an awesome student.”
The ‘pigmentocracy’ and idea that black is ugly and white is beautiful seems to stem from the notion that darker skin represents a life of manual labour in the sun and therefore a lower social class with a lack of money and education, and white skin being seen as ‘hi-so’ and a sign of privilege. This is how many people’s opinions of black people take the leap from them being less beautiful to being inferior and even criminals. I often teach classes about crime in which my students have to report a theft to a police officer, and almost every single one of them has described a male with ‘black skin‘ as the thief. See this photo I took of an advertisement on the Skytrain as an example.
I’ve seen a lot of self hate amongst my students for their skin colour, many of them lamenting their darker complexions and telling me that they wish they had my skin colour, which always makes me sad. Some of them have been completely baffled after seeing me with a tan. They can’t imagine why I would allow my ‘beautiful‘ skin to get any darker. While I’m out running in the sun, I’ll often pass women on their lunch breaks walking with parasols, who must think I’m rather strange. Here’s another story of mine that I posted on the Muay Thai Roundtable forum:
“I was teaching a fairly low-level class with a doctors and patients theme, teaching them how to discuss symptoms and give advice. Towards the end, I overheard one ‘patient’ tell the ‘doctor’ that his problem was his ‘black skin’. He was a little dark, but not that much (not that any shade would have made that comment OK). The doctor student responded with ‘it’s OK, you die and in the next life –‘ I cut him off before he finished his sentence, but it seemed like he was about to insinuate that he would come back as light-skinned in the next life as some kind of reward for being dark-skinned in this one! He then advised him to go and live in Korea, ‘because there is snow and everybody is white’ (Korean beauty standards are a big thing here). Instead of dealing with that student directly, I turned to the patient student and said ‘actually, you should go to my country, because a lot of people there love your skin colour and think it’s beautiful’.”
One of the most memorable instances of racism in Thailand that I’ve personally seen took place at a staff convention for a school I was working for, in which teams from each branch were required to put on a show. One group chose to perform a short play in which a man in blackface whose outfit consisted of head-to-toe black body paint, an afro wig, a pair of red shorts and a tribal necklace, was the main character. He was a buffoonish poor man with no English skills who wanted to learn English in order to marry a beautiful princess. The story involved him going through a door representing his education and coming out of the other side as a white man with nice clothes and the ability to speak English. Of course, he then went on to marry the princess. At that time, we had one black member of staff in the whole company, an American woman who was the first black teacher (and presently the last) to be employed there. She ran out of the venue in tears before it finished and ultimately quit her job. When she did so, she sent out a company-wide email talking about the numerous cases of racism she’d experienced during her time there, which was later deleted by management. Some Thai staff defended the show, stating that it was a traditional tale with no intention of causing offence. Another ‘traditional tale’ is Khao Nawk Na ข้าวนอกนา’, the story of a young Thai girl who was born to a mother from Isaan and a black father who met her mother during the Vietnam war. The girl is played by a Thai actress in blackface and is referred to only as ‘E-Dam’ (a derogatory term roughly translating to ‘black one’) throughout the tale. She’s a complete outsider, bullied and rejected by both her family and her peers until she eventually finds love with a white farang guy. No Thai man could find her attractive, it seems.
Below, you can see a recent Thai soap opera adaptation of the story, in which the main actress also has a half-sister, Duuan, who was born to a white father. Their lives are in complete contrast as Duuan is adopted by a loving, wealthy couple and ‘E-Dam’ is sold off to a cruel family who beat her and treat her as a slave. When the two sisters meet by chance as adults, Duuan denies ever having any siblings and rejects her sister again. ‘E-Dam’ later gets her happy ending when she becomes a singer and falls in love with her English teacher. I’ve put all the episodes into a Youtube playlist.
When shopping for toiletries and cosmetics here, I’m bombarded by advertisements for whitening products like ‘Snail White‘ and sheep placenta cream. Not only that, but almost all of the general toiletries contain whitening agents, too. It’s challenging to find lotion, shower gel and deoderant that isn’t doesn’t contain some kind of whitening agent and as a result, I’ve often found myself resorting to buying men’s deoderants. There are even whitening soaps and creams specifically to make nipples and vaginas less dark. Both men and women are constantly surrounded by the idea that they need to be white to be attractive and most TV shows and advertisements feature light-skinned actors and models like Nadet or Chompu.
My boyfriend, Tu, has struggled a lot as a black man living in Thailand and generally feels unwelcome. He was once stopped by police and forced to go back to the gym and produce his passport while out running, although the same officers gave me encouragement when I later ran past them myself. People often stare at him while he’s out and one woman moved seats when he sat next to her on the train. Another sat opposite him and blatantly took a photo of him without looking up from her phone to make eye contact. He’s recently had to address Thai people’s use of the N-word at his gym. It should be noted that he goes to a very modernized, ‘hi-so’ gym run by young, wealthy Thais. The manager’s wife told him ‘I don’t speak n***a‘ when she didn’t understand the slang he was using. Her husband later asked him not to be angry with her and explained that he and all his Thai friends used the word to address each other because they listen to lots of gangster rap and think it’s ‘cool‘, but thought it was okay because’there aren’t any black people around when we say it‘. He said that he would tell them not to use it when he’s around. Tu explained to me that he wasn’t personally offended by this because they really just don’t understand it. He said ‘there’s nothing behind it when they use the word, it’s just something they say because they’ve picked it up from music‘. What’s also strange is that when they speak to Tu, they suddenly adopt the slang and mannerisms that they see in hip hop, overacting and coming across almost like cartoon characters. It’s unclear whether they’re doing it for his benefit or for their own, but either way, it’s uncomfortable. For some black perspectives on racism in Thailand, see here and here.
Tu has tried to explain the concept of racism to his gym-mates, but it has never got him anywhere. This complete lack of understanding is what I’m usually met with when I try to have the same conversation with my students. One of my co-workers, another British teacher, attempted to run a debate class about the Seoul Secret advertisement blackface controversy, and it didn’t work at all. The side speaking for the advert completely missed the point and argued that of course companies should use beautiful white actresses to sell their products. I can confidently say that this wasn’t a language issue. The idea that black could also be beautiful or that ‘white is winning‘ was a harmful idea to promote wasn’t even on their radar.
The kind of ignorance I’ve talked about here can also be seen in the popularity of Nazi imagery in Thailand as well as other parts of Asia, which has been dubbed ‘Nazi Chic’. It’s horrific to us, somehow edgy and cool over here. There was a huge controversy in 2011 when a group of students put on a school parade dressed in full Nazi regalia, apparently unaware of how offensive their actions were. The Thai education system leaves a lot to be desired in any case, and most schools certainly don’t have the Holocaust on their curriculum. Can we put the day-to-day racism and inappropriate advertising campaigns down to the same lack of exposure to history? Not entirely. I can excuse the use of the word ‘negro‘ by a person who simply thinks it’s the same as ‘African American‘ and means no offence, but there’s no excuse for anyone to simply state ‘I don’t like black people‘, or for Thai schools to turn away black teachers because they think they’ll ‘scare the children’. While Thailand doesn’t have the same history of racism and slavery that the West does, blackface still means the same thing over here as it does over there. There is still the concept that one skin tone is inferior to another, and that is unacceptable. I’ll leave you with a photo of a Thai girl wearing an interesting t-shirt. She obviously doesn’t know what it means, but you have to wonder how these things get printed in the first place.