I’ll start this post with a disclaimer that we had a great time, for the most part, in Thailand, and would definitely return. However, as black travelers, we had a few unpleasant experiences, and this post addresses that.
“Do you know why I wear this umbrella?” Our Thai tour guide asks as we walk through the elephant nature park.
“It’s so that I don’t get darker.”
It’s a sunny, and very warm day in November, signature of the Thailand climate, and there is not much in the area in the way of sun protection. The land is flat, and the greenery has been cleared down. The handful of guides leading other groups of people around the park, are all wearing straw hats.
Our brown-skinned guide continues his explanation on why he doesn’t want to get darker. He tells of how the darker skinned people in Thailand are looked down upon, and how lighter skin is favored.
But of course we already knew this. In fact, we learned this on our first full day in Thailand, on our very first stop outside of the airport, and outside of the hotel. We got our first lesson in Thai colorism in the beauty aisles of the grocery store in Bangkok.
After entering the beauty section, it didn’t take long to notice that the words “whitening” or some slight variation of it were imprinted on just about everything — from soaps, to face wash, to lotion, to sunblock. There were aisles upon aisles of bleach-infused products. So much so, that It took me about 20 minutes of searching to find a normal lotion. I think that my Vaseline brand lotion was perhaps the only product in the entire section that didn’t mention any whitening effects. I had a moment here, where I remember thinking…okay, so they, as an entire culture, must really value whiteness for the products to be included in mainstream brands in one of the country’s major grocery store chains. I’ll admit I didn’t stay on this thought too long, and I didn’t expand my thoughts as to what this meant for black people (or darker people). I chalked it up to just another quirk of a foreign country.
Although I didn’t process it immediately, I, unfortunately, only had to wait a few more minutes to feel the effects of it. After checking out, we hauled our grocery bags over to the designated cab-pickup area outside of the store, where we met another couple (who happened to be white) already standing in the area. Soon after, a store-employed security guard approached the couple, helped them get a cab, and even assisted them with putting their groceries in the trunk. We moved up a bit, naturally, thinking we were next in line for his assistance. The employee passed us a few times, but never stopped to find out if we needed a cab. A few minutes passed, and another white couple came to the area. He immediately walked toward them, and began asking if they needed help getting a cab. I felt so disrespected.
Unlike the other shoppers, to get assistance with securing a cab, we had to walk up to him, and request it. When our cab came, there was no help moving our groceries to the trunk. Instead, he just walked away. The aspiration for whiteness, exemplified by the bleaching products I noticed in the store’s beauty aisles, apparently meant that black people were undesirable.
Prior to this we hadn’t done any research on the experiences of other black people in Thailand. We had such a great time in Bali, and we didn’t want to come into the country with any biases that may have influenced our experience. However, as soon as we got back to our hotel, we jumped on the computer, and did the research.
The information online validated what we had felt. It was interesting to find out that it wasn’t just black people who were treated differently – it was also Middle Easterns, Indians, and even other Thai people. Basically, it was anyone with darker skin.
Kendrix, a black american who had lived in Thailand gave an explanation on the Minority Nomad blog: “The Thai people are very much into social standing and what others think of them, much more than other Asian countries I’ve visited. They don’t like dark skin people. It doesn’t matter where they’re from and they’re not shy about letting you know it. They look at dark skin people as being lower on the social ladder. If your skin is dark, it usually suggests that you’re a laborer or farmer or doing some type of work outside, which they attribute to having less education. If your skin is white, then it means that you work indoors like an office or bank or some type of place where education is needed. After talking to a young lady for a while, she told me, ‘Even though your skin is black, I can tell your heart is white.’”
I was devastated. This was one of my first experiences being treated differently due to my race (that I was aware of). To make matters worse, I would be in this country that abhorred people who looked like me for two entire months. I’ll be honest, after this experience, I wasn’t keen on leaving the safe, non-judgmental confines of our hotel room. It took a few days to build up the courage to go back outside, but we did. We went out and explored the city, and we were stared at…a lot (and that’s another story in itself). But, at some point, we began to adjust to the environment, ignored any potential negativity, and made it a point to enjoy the rest of our time in Bangkok, and eventually in Chiang Mai.