Racism, colourism, and beauty standards in Thailand

Story by Chatchai Mongkol
Illustration by Kittiya On-in

Representations in the media of dark-skinned people have distorted how Thais perceive them and set standards for beauty in society.

The death of George Floyd, an African American man, at the hands of a police officer has sparked a debate on police brutality against minority communities in the United States, especially African Americans, which has been going on for decades. The debate has moved beyond police brutality to include the overall discrimination and systemic racism facing the African American community, as well as marginalized communities in other countries.

Not only people across the United States but also people in other countries — including Germany, Brazil, France and New Zealand — have come out to protest Floyd’s death, demanding justice for him.

Thailand has not been excluded as a virtual rally was held on 7 June over Zoom. Participants wore black and held 8 minutes 46 seconds of silence, representing the period of time the police officer had his knee on Floyd's neck, which resulted in his death.

Racism against black people in Thailand takes a more subtle form compared to what is happening in the United States, according to African American teachers in Thailand, but it still exists.

Racism in Thailand comes from representations in the media

Tee Young, an African American teacher from Chicago, Illinois, said he has not experienced a lot of racism in Thailand, since he has a lighter skin, compared with people he knows with darker skin who sometimes experience poor service in public. However, Tee said some Africans have caused this because they steal, cheat, sell drugs and disrespect Thai people. Tee noticed that many Thais think all dark-skinned blacks are straight from Africa.

“I think more Thais need to realize not all Africans are bad and not all dark-skinned blacks are from Africa,” Tee said.

The difference between racism in Thailand and in the United States, as Tee explained it, is that there is an aggressive nature in Americans which causes a lot of racism to happen in your face, while racism in Thailand does not always appear on the surface. As Tee said, Thais are generally not naturally aggressive.

Racism in the United States originated during the colonial era when people held the belief that black people were undeveloped beings while white people were smart and intelligent, according to Thammasat University history lecturer Pipad Krajaejun, whereas racism in Thailand originated from how the media has portrayed dark-skinned people as clowns.

Phrae Chittipalangsri, a comparative literature professor at Chulalongkorn University, said on CU Inside that racism in Thailand and in the United States came from different origins. Racism against blacks in the United States has existed since slavery. Phrae looked at racism through the lens of literary studies and said Thai literature introduced Thais to the concept of colourism.

Many works of literature portray dark-skinned characters as antagonists, Phare gave Inau (อิเหนา) (Panji Tales) as an example. Inau is a cycle of Javanese stories. Inau, the protagonist, is described as having a light skin, while Joraka (จรกา), the antagonist, is described as having a black skin.

“It’s the foil of literature where Joraka is the character to make Inau seem more outstanding by comparison,” Phrae said. “It created a perception that evil persons must be black.”

Phrae said there are many other literary works that created the same perception of black skin.

It was not only literature that created misconceptions of having black skin but also social representations, Phrae explained. Thais tend to value light-skinned people since the ruling class in the past, such as kings and the nobility, consisted mostly of people with light skin. These days, people in government and economic leaders tend to have light skin as they are of Chinese descent.

The different roots of racism in the two countries has resulted in different levels of subtlety when it comes to racial discrimination.

Representations in both the media and society have affected Kris Murray, another African American teacher who has faced a much less subtle form of racism. Kris posted on her blog about her experience being black in Thailand. Kris was jokingly called an “ugly black female dog” by a Thai teacher in effort to make others laugh.

“I do not laugh. I do not look. I stare at the ground in an effort to disappear,” Kris explained her frustration.

At one of the schools where Kris applied to teach, she said a teacher who interviewed her said parents at the school were very “nervous” about her skin colour. Parents thought that native English speakers would not have black skin. Kris was questioned if she could make a lesson plan and if she could be a good teacher despite having a masters degree in education with five years teaching experience. Kris said two white British women got offered jobs at the school without any interview or teaching demonstration.

“[Every] day I pray. I pray someone doesn’t try me. I pray someone doesn’t try to make me feel inadequate. I pray that I respond appropriately to situations placed in front of me,” Kris said on her blog.

The media continues to portray the same perceptions today. Pipad gave one of the most popular Thai TV shows, The Mask Singer, as an example where height, looks and skin colour are still made fun of in the show. The laughter comes from dehumanization, Pipad said, and it is a way to normalize the issue.

“If we still believe in the same theory that the media has an influence on people’s ideas, the show is making the mockery of black people and short people into a social standard, and mockery will make the audience happy.” Pipad said.

Beauty determined by skin colour

Alexandria O’Benna, an African American teacher from Atlanta, Georgia, also said she was once told by an older Thai person that her skin was too dark and was not pretty compared to her co-worker who had lighter skin, but she did not take any offense as she understands the culture of colourism in Thailand. Instead, she took time to educate that person that skin colour does not determine beauty.

“Being black anywhere in the world, you are subject to racism at some point,” Alexandria said. “As an African American I strive to change the narrative [and] dispel the stereotypes the media put out about us.”

Amara Pongsapich, former Chair of the National Human Rights Commission, told ThaiRath that racism exists because of the environment that one has grown up in. Amara said everyone was acculturated since youth on the characteristics of people of each skin colour including their beauty and their intelligence. What determines beauty, Amara said, depends on the norms of society at the time.

Meanwhile, Phrae said letting skin colour determine beauty has become the norm in Thai society.

“It’s a sad story because on the issue of skin colour, no one speaks of the violence in social structures . We only see it as a preference of beauty.” Phrae said. “If we take a good look at it, it’s serious.”

No one cares about this issue because there are other political issues that people care about, Phrae said. No one in the media, literature or academia has spoken on this issue. She said even though there has been an effort to glorify dark-skinned Thais to become the Thai style in the international pageant industry by citing western beauty standards, it is not good for them in the end.

“It’s the mindset that makes dark-skinned people have to rely on the power of others to say that ‘my skin is pretty.’ Claiming that being dark-skinned is good just because foreigners like it isn’t self-empowering.” Phrae said.

Phrae said if people still do not speak up about this issue, nothing will happen. Racism and beauty standards will remain in existence in Thailand.