A 'Whiteness makes you win' ad by Thai skincare company Seoul Secret promoting skin-whitening pills called Snowz (seriously?) has hit Thai social media hard, made the major dailies such as the Bangkok Post and Khaosod English and has gone international, hitting CNN and The Guardian. So, is this a case of blatant Thai racism or not? Basically, yes, but first we need an understanding of ‘whiteness’ before we get onto the Buddhism, the legacy of race-based weak fascism, and the socio-psychological issues. This column includes references for those interested in further research.
Whiteness is a new area of study centering on human chromatic differences. The main historical factor is that Europeans and Americans occupied a dominant pole in the post-slavery era while African, Amerindian, and Asian people occupied the subaltern pole. This meant whiteness became the unstated, normative category by which others were defined. This naturalizing of whiteness as a social discriminator has been criticized as false and has provoked a diverse wave of studies. The first wave of studies was seen by Hill (2004, p. 7) as an attempt to address Frantz Fanon’s references to the ‘ontogenic’ nature of white normativity (Ashcroft, Griffiths, & Tiffin 2000, pp. 220-221). At its heart, this is the problem that ‘white’ as a category was associated with apartheid but is now associated with racialist groups using the rallying cry that ‘whiteness’ is under threat.
Thus, as pointed out by both Roediger (2002) and Hill (2004), even the embracing of the term ‘whiteness studies’ by the academic community invokes and is symptomatic of the problem of hegemony (Ashcroft, Griffiths, & Tiffin 2000, p. 221). Thus, what is crucial is to understand the power of the term ‘white’ as used in both unofficial and official typologies of ethnicity, especially in the case of censuses. In cases where trends in social control and self-ascription are leading to the deconstruction of discrete categories, there is nonetheless the concern that the corollaries of ‘white’, such as ‘African American’ and ‘Latino’ may lose their power in society or in political lobbying.
Thus, whiteness studies, as with post-colonial studies, nonetheless perpetuate the power distinctions that the studies are purposively struggling to dismantle. Whiteness studies in countries such as Australia and the US tend to emphasize the use of whiteness by socio-economic groups for political reasons, such as One Nation in Australia and certain Christian fundamentalist groups in the US (Ashcroft, Griffiths, & Tiffin 2000).
In Thailand, one early study on skin color and hybridity by Weisman (1997) examined the Thai hybrid actors in the 1973 novel Kha Nok Na (‘Rice outside the Paddy’, a term for a child born out of wedlock) by Sifa. The novel relates the life stories of two Amerasian half-sisters from the period of the Vietnam War, Dam (Black), who has a Black American father, and Deuan, who has a White American father. The novel, an award-winning 1,000-page opus, was translated into English as Wild Rice in 1988 and was turned into a movie and a television series, which ran in 1990-1991. In the novel, both the behavior of the children and their destinies are dictated by the color of their skin. Both are initially brought up by a mother hired by their real mother, then both are adopted by guardians, one by a childless woman desirous of a beautiful-looking daughter and the other as a doll-like toy for her own daughter.
When their real mother later returns to procure them as prostitutes or rented wives, Deaun is protected by her new family while Dam is rejected by her mother. Dam’s saving grace is her ability to sing, and the young women, Dam now a singer and Deuan a top student, eventually meet and become reconciled as Deuan recovers suppressed memories of her past. However, both are then arrested in a flop house. The novel ends with Dam studying English and trying to become a ‘good’ woman while Deuan returns home to her adoptive parents, her reputation forever suspect and disowned by her father after an episode where his wife suspects him of incestuous thoughts towards Deuan, due to the characteristics of her fallen mother reemerging in her.
Through the lens of Thai Buddhism, and following Van Esterik’s (1989, p.12) interpretation that “[c]larity of complexion, grace, and serenity were reflections of moral goodness, one guide to knowing merit store. Ugliness, unfortunately, conveyed the opposite…", Weisman (1997, pp. 58-59) notes that complexion indicates part-Black Amerasians are products of immorality in previous lives whereas part-white Amerasians are products of previous virtuosity in earlier incarnations. Thus, in the end Deuan, while having stumbled, has her innocence restored as a ‘good woman’, still desirable to a ‘good’ Thai suitor, while Dam is still a ‘bad woman’, her future uncertain and in the hands of a Black American physician, fallen so far she is no longer a burden on Thailand as the doctor seeks to arrange her immigration to the US.
Moreover, during the weak fascist government of Phibul Songkram in the 1940’s, which endorsed a Western image of civilization and then the Japanese concept of the superiority of the ‘Yellow Race’ (which also saw the Black Other as degenerate - Weisman cites Russell 1992), black people have been associated with uncivilized degeneracy. Weisman notes that official radio broadcasts of the fictitious patriots, Man Chuchat (‘Secure/Uplifting the Nation’) and Khon Rakthai (‘Enduring/Love Thailand’), consistently denigrated black people. Citing Chaloemtiarana (1978), Weisman includes three broadcasts, reproduced here in full:
Man Chuchat: If we go to Central Africa [sic], we will see that those barbarians do not dress themselves orderly [sic] and beautifully. Their barbaric minds are indicated by their dresses. On the contrary, if we go to London, we will see beautiful people wearing beautiful and orderly dresses. And we will see that the British are a people who are cultured and are good in every aspect. (p. 272, broadcast September 14, 1941)
Khong Rakthai: "What I have noticed is that White people are neat when they are eating. They do not use their hands to pick up food. They use knives and forks no matter where they are… [B]ut whoever would like to be as the Africans - to use hands instead of forks, to use mouths instead of spoons and to use teeth instead of knives - he could continue to do so if he likes. (p. 309, broadcast June 4, 1942)
Man Chuchat: [Sleeping on raised beds as Whites do] is the correct way because it would be good for health. But for the Africans, they would lie down wherever like monkeys. The difference in living style between the White people and the Africans is very noticeable. Civilized and uncivilized people are different in every respect of their daily lives. (p. 310, broadcast June 4, 1942).
Weisman notes the novel mirrors other tropes such as the ‘tragic mulatta’ (citing Berzon 1978, Little 1989, and Zanger 1966).
Weisman posits two main reasons for the enduring nature of the story. Citing Hamilton (1994), Weisman notes the first is that in the ‘hybrid hoopla’ over hybrid offspring of Americans during the Vietnam War who have become successful in the eyes of the media Thai (especially white American-Thai offspring), there is a rebuttal of society’s responsibility for addressing the means whereby the disenfranchisement of the much larger number of those hybrids existing ‘on the edge’ such as Dam, who border on being ‘unworthy’ in Thai society, came to be, i.e., the complicity which creates the low socio-economic conditions of the majority of the mothers.
The second reason is that the story grants the reader or viewer a level of control as the interpreter of a morality story which includes a collective “hallucination of desire” centering on capitalism, consumerism, and modernity (Weisman 1997, pp. 68-69, citing Hamiton 1992, pp.263-264). However, this control is not unproblematic. Weisman cites the case of control over the image of Thailand-born, California-raised Porntip ‘Pui’ Narkhirunkan, the 1988 Miss Thailand and then Miss Universe, when the Miss Universe corporation sought to emphasize the Western nature of Pui’s identity during a tour in Thailand while Little Duck, her Thai public relations company sought to portray her as Thai.
Weisman ends by noting that Thais typically do not regard hybrids as Thai or true Thais (Thai thae); they are instead regarded as luk krung (half children), which has implications for their ‘proper citizenship” but which epitomizes the ambivalence regarding the legitimacy of the desire they embody, both sexual and in terms of modernity, and the feasibility of fulfilling a potential which involves “connections and positions both desired and anxiety-producing” (p.72) within the context of the global socio-economy.
Subsequent ‘post-modern’ and ‘post-colonial’ research on whiteness in Thailand has confirmed a “gendered and racial economy of desire” (Persaud 2006, p.212) associated with global modernity whereby ‘whiteness’, typically defined by skin color, shape of nose, and shape of eyelids and thus now all amenable to change through a multi-billion dollar industry of whiteness products and surgery, is superior to ‘blackness’, as associated with the postcolonial phenomenon of increasing numbers of Eurasian offspring of Thais and Westerners, now not a result of the Vietnam War but, somewhat paradoxically, as a function of the appeal of Oriental exoticism and eroticism. Within Thailand, the women of the Northeast in particular are not seen as beautiful as they possess the ‘Na Lao’ or Lao face, which is seen as browner and without a ridged nose (Hesse-Swain, 2006, 2011; Chaipraditkul 2013).
So, a complicated topic, and one not unique to Thailand as ‘whiteness’ is also a problem in African countries, some of which, such as the Ivory Coast, have banned skin-whitening products, mainly due to highly damaging long-term effects including cancer, and other Asian countries such as India. It is nonetheless a recurring problem and very visible in Thailand as success clearly is associated with ‘whiteness’ in the popular imagination. This becomes an issue when systematically associated with specific ethnic communities, such as the ‘Na Lao (Lao face) associated with the Thai Lao, when it becomes a clear-cut case of racial discrimination and so needs to be taken up by the National Human Rights Commission as a priority.
This is necessary if Thailand is to escape what would be both unfortunate and embarrassing censure by the Committee for the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), Article 1 of which reads:
In this Convention, the term "racial discrimination" shall mean any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life [my emphasis].
It is also evident from the frequency of these ‘whiteness’ advert scandals that the skin-whitening industry in Thailand is out of control and needs to be reined in. The frequency also confirms a previous column suggesting racial discrimination and xenophobia are very real and worsening problems in Thailand.
If General Prayut is serious about implementing the 12 Thai core values regardless of race or color (a basic human value), for example by promoting the Philosophy of Sufficiency Economy as a bulwark against gross consumerism, he would be well advised to implement anti-racial discrimination quickly, as suggested by the CERD Committee during its meeting with the 2012 Thailand Country Delegation (CERD 2012a, b). This would help ensure that millions of Thai women presently socialized to believe that they are ugly will enjoy the protection of such core human rights legislation. The fact that such legislation does not exist in Thailand only confirms the severity of the existing problem.
Ashcroft, B., Griffiths, G., & Tiffin, H. (2007). Post-colonial studies: The key concepts (second ed.). London: Routledge.
Berzon, J. R. (1978). Neither white nor black: The mulatto character in American fiction. New York: New York University Press.
CERD. (2012a). Summary record of the 2173rd meeting. Paris: UNOHCHR. Available from: http://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?sy...
CERD. (2012b). Summary record of the 2174th meeting. Paris: UNOHCHR. Available from: http://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?sy...
Chaipraditkul, N. (2013). Thailand: beauty and globalized self-identity through cosmetic therapy and skin lightening. Ethics in Science and Environmental Politics, 13, 23-37.
Chaloemtiarana, T. (ed.) (1978). Thai politics: 1932-1957. Volume 1. Bangkok: The Social Science Association of Thailand.
Hamilton, A. (1994). Cinema and nation: Dilemmas of representation in Thailand. In W. Dissanayake (ed.,) Colonialism and nationalism in Asian cinema (pp. 141-161). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Hesse-Swain, C. (2006). Programming beauty and the absence of Na Lao: Popular Thai TV and identity formation among youth in Northeast Thailand. GeoJournal, 66(3), 257–272.
Hesse-Swain, C. 2011. Speaking in Thai, Dreaming in Isan: Popular Thai Television and Emerging Identities of Lao Isan Youth Living in Northeast Thailand. PhD diss., Edith Cowan University, Australia.
Hill, M. (2004). After whiteness: Unmaking an American majority. New York, NY: New York University Press.
Persaud, W.H. (2005). Gender, race and global modernity: A perspective from Thailand. Globalizations, 2(2), 210-227.
Roediger, D. (2002). Colored white: Transcending the racial past. Berkeley: University of California.
Russell, J. (1992). Race and reflexivity: The Black Other in contemporary Japanese mass culture. In G. E. Marcus (ed). Rereading cultural anthropology (pp. 296-318). Durham: Duke University Press.
Sifa. (1973). Khao nok na [Rice outside the paddy]. Bangkok: Klangwithaya Publishers.
Van Esterik, P. (2000). Materializing Thailand. Oxford: Berg.
Weisman, J. R. (1997). Rice outside the paddy: The form and function of hybridity in a Thai novel. Crossroads: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 11(1), 51-78.
[i] A traditional Thai saying, literally ‘Black people are not beautiful’. Black refers to the color of the skin, as Thais use khon Negro (Negro people) for Black Africans and African Americans. However, anyone with dark skin does include Black Africans and African Americans, plus there is a pejorative meaning, thus my translation, ‘Darkies’.