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Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu

The Lure of "White Skin" in Thailand - Racism in Thailand

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Above is a jarring anti-blackness beauty advertisement for a product that promises to whiten skin, illustratively included in a new Asian Correspondent article on the esteem of white skin in Japan, Taiwan, Korea and of course Thailand. The Thai commercial is described:

In one such ad...Verena L-Gluta Berry Plus advertises its so-called beauty drink by showing an unhappy black bear speaking to a pale-skinned female doctor who explains to the bear that it took millions of years for its kind to evolve into a white bear. Fortunately, she tells the sad bear, with the use of beauty drinks evolution can happen overnight. Proof of this is her father’s appearance in the office; he has dark skin, and is actually Negroid. Needless to say the ad proved to be lusterless among some of the critical Thai population, but that didn’t prevent many more ill-thought out ads containing ridiculous prejudicial notions following it.

A few years ago Thai cultural critic Kaewmala also wrote a really good piece on this in her Thailand's Skin Whitening Crazy: How Far Will it Go?

The commercial itself just shows how completely alien much of the Thai thinking about skin color is to most of western sensibilities, and it's a small secret that tourists and visitors to Thailand just don't know much about. If you don't speak Thai it may be hard to detect in the short term. The people of Isaan, the heart of Muay Thai, in the North East tend to have much darker skin (rural, often of Khmer or Lao decent) and are uniformly regarded as less through the signature of their skin color. It could be argued that Muay Thai (male) an prostitution (female) are generalized expressions of Thai conceptual blackness. Buakaw, whose skin is very dark, has a name which means "white lotus", almost a counter message ironic marketing joke. A female Thai fighter here in Pattaya is simply referred to as "the black one" at times, her father seems to be of Malay descent, and I've heard very nice Thais fall into very strong racist characterizations without thinking much about it at all. In so many ways Thailand can feel like a sci-fi trip down to a parallel universe of the 1950s in the west, and this is one additional dimension of it. And, as someone from western culture which has long struggled with the moral approbation of slavery, the same moral arguments against anti-blackness do not quite match up. They are only parallel, riding along only a similar track of ethic agrarian peoples vs urban modernization. But it is real, and striking when you run into it.

This was another controversial campaign that ended up getting pulled, selling Dunkin' Donut chocolate donuts in blackface:

Thailand-Blackface-Do_Crav_opt.jpg

You can read about that controversy here.

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It is quite shocking once you see it in person, I am sure even more so when you can understand the language and what is being said indirectly. Lol if I had a nickel for everytime a Thai has said they want my skin or my eyes... The contact thing freaks me out as well. It is probably more prevalent in Bangkok, but it weird me out everytime I see it.

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The bear ad is blatantly racist. Considering the huge stigma around racism in the West it really does feel like a whole other world.

 

Charcoal donut? Does it taste like charcoal? Its weird that they decided to have a woman in blackface to advertise it, but it doesnt really seem offensive to me. Especially considering minstrel shows were never a thing in Thai culture. Its probably more analogous to Dave Chapelle dressing up as a White man. That never caused any controversy in the West.

 

dave_chappell.jpg

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Charcoal donut? Does it taste like charcoal? Its weird that they decided to have a woman in blackface to advertise it, but it doesnt really seem offensive to me. Especially considering minstrel shows were never a thing in Thai culture. Its probably more analogous to Dave Chapelle dressing up as a White man. That never caused any controversy in the West.

 

The article suggests that much of the protest came from international quarters, Dunkin' Donuts is a world wide brand. The Doughnut campaign seems a complicated issue of racism. Ironically enough, in the commercial the exact opposite thing happens than happens in the bear commercial. A very light skinned Thai woman eats the doughnut and turns black, and this is a positive. Maybe a way of saying this is: becomes Other...but only for a second..."enjoy your moment". She takes her walk on the wild side.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qwvSb6x4a08

The campaign suggests that becoming black is "breaking every rule" and may be aimed at University students - we saw that Dunkin' Donuts is pretty popular with CMU students - perhaps mirroring the popularity and cutting edge of rap (just a guess). Progressive Thais did not see it that way though. It was just plain racism, using stereotypes to sell products.

As to "charcoal", keep in mind this advertisement is in English for educated Thais most of whom are not fluent in English. The word "Charcoal" probably does not have the same connotations to Thais that it does to us. I would also say that a black comedian going "white face" is politically very different than a white, or light-skinned person donning "black face". They aren't analogous to me. One comes from a position of social disenfranchisement, the other from a position of power. The history of black face and racism is well documented and is generally offensive in the west.

I do think that the younger generation that this seems aimed at makes the kind of racism implied complex.

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Thanks for posting this topic. I came across this video a while back and meant to post it here, but forgot.

It's a compilation of some more ads, which also includes the bear one, all translated into English. They're really quite shocking. 

I can't tell you how many times students of mine have made racist comments in my classes. It happens all the time, but here are a few examples, all from Thai students:

  • 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'.
  • There was one particularly horrible student; a young, spoiled kid from a rich family. He boasted about how he'd attended Eton College in the UK, and liked to look down his nose at everyone else. He actually got kicked out of Eton for carrying a knife, which he claimed he needed to protect himself because he feared for his life after he'd called someone the N-word. Obviously, he didn't realise that he couldn't just say anything he wanted over there like he could at home. Thankfully, he thought he was too good to learn English, so despite his parents paying for a year-long course, he never came back, so we didn't have to deal with him. Good riddance.

My boyfriend is black, and we do get a lot of looks when we walk around in public. One student told me 'they don't look because they're racist. They look because it's something different'. A woman once got up and moved when he sat down next to her on the train, and there's no excuse for that. It's awful. He definitely feels very unwelcome in Thailand.

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The article suggests that much of the protest came from international quarters, Dunkin' Donuts is a world wide brand. The Doughnut campaign seems a complicated issue of racism. Ironically enough, in the commercial the exact opposite thing happens than happens in the bear commercial. A very light skinned Thai woman eats the doughnut and turns black, and this is a positive. Maybe a way of saying this is: becomes Other...but only for a second..."enjoy your moment". She takes her walk on the wild side.

 

The campaign suggests that becoming black is "breaking every rule" and may be aimed at University students - we saw that Dunkin' Donuts is pretty popular with CMU students - perhaps mirroring the popularity and cutting edge of rap (just a guess). Progressive Thais did not see it that way though. It was just plain racism, using stereotypes to sell products.

As to "charcoal", keep in mind this advertisement is in English for educated Thais most of whom are not fluent in English. The word "Charcoal" probably does not have the same connotations to Thais that it does to us. I would also say that a black comedian going "white face" is politically very different than a white, or light-skinned person donning "black face". They aren't analogous to me. One comes from a position of social disenfranchisement, the other from a position of power. The history of black face and racism is well documented and is generally offensive in the west.

I do think that the younger generation that this seems aimed at makes the kind of racism implied complex.

I agree in a Western cultural context this can be rightfully considered offensive. I also agree that a Black comedian in "whiteface" is not analogous to a Euro-American donning blackface. I just think it makes things different when its done by a Thai woman in a Thai cultural context. Though I suppose I am making the same mistake Dunkin Donuts did: not realizing the whole world will watch it on the internet.

 

I also find it interesting that her turning dark skinned is portrayed in a positive way. It conflicts with what we hear in the Muay Thai community about light skin being considered desirable. At the same time it makes sense to me on a personal level because I think all skin tones have their own unique beauty that should all be celebrated. 

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II also find it interesting that her turning dark skinned is portrayed in a positive way. It conflicts with what we hear in the Muay Thai community about light skin being considered desirable. At the same time it makes sense to me on a personal level because I think all skin tones have their own unique beauty that should all be celebrated. 

 

As I pointed out, the woman's skin is turned black for a moment "enjoy your moment". And this ad is likely aimed at rebellious university students, it's attempting to shock, to reverse everything, to "break every rule". It would though be a big mistake to assume that black is generally desireable in Thai culture, or that Thais with darker skin are experiencing an social advantage in some way.

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I can't tell you how many times students of mine have made racist comments in my classes. It happens all the time...

...My boyfriend is black, and we do get a lot of looks when we walk around in public. One student told me 'they don't look because they're racist. They look because it's something different'. A woman once got up and moved when he sat down next to her on the train, and there's no excuse for that. It's awful. He definitely feels very unwelcome in Thailand.

 

Emma, it means a lot to hear real world examples like this. I think it is very hard for us in the west to interpret Thai racism towards dark skin. Part of this is that it comes from a different set of social circumstances (the whiteness is the whiteness of Chinese skin much more than it is of Caucasian skin, for instance), but the symbols and concepts of derision seem straight out of some of the most backwards western racist thinking. I can't imagine what Tu experiences in Thailand.

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Down in the Red Light District of Pattaya there are these carts piled high with stuffed animals, the type you would win at a carnival game, that are sold to the drunken customers in the bars. I assume western men buy them for the Thai bar girls. Mostly it's bears and rabbits and the kind of crap you'd expect, but there's also this huge - huge, like the size of a 6-year-old person - black doll with red lips; totally mistral "black face."  It's always there, so I'm assuming it doesn't sell, rather than that these carts just have to keep this awesome item stocked. But, much like the insane T-shirts you find in English here in Thailand, my question is, "who the f*ck is making this product for sale?"

My point is, Thailand doesn't have the history of "black face" that the US does. Thailand doesn't have the same history of racism and oppression against African-originating black skin that the west does. But that doesn't mean that "black face" means something much different. It's still poking fun at something (and someone) perceived to be inferior. While the concept of "blackness" and dark skin is not identical to the history we've made for ourselves in the west, the racism isn't much different.

And, as White persons in the west we are far less exposed to the pressure that People of Color in the west feel to purchase products that push toward "whiteness." Hair relaxers and straighteners, skin bleach, contacts, wigs, weaves, etc. The market for this stuff is huge. The fact that we don't see it on TV and in the mainstream magazines goes to show just how privileged whiteness is (we'd only see advertisements for white skin becoming whiter), rather than that we're somehow "post racism".

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And, as White persons in the west we are far less exposed to the pressure that People of Color in the west feel to purchase products that push toward "whiteness." Hair relaxers and straighteners, skin bleach, contacts, wigs, weaves, etc. The market for this stuff is huge. The fact that we don't see it on TV and in the mainstream magazines goes to show just how privileged whiteness is (we'd only see advertisements for white skin becoming whiter), rather than that we're somehow "post racism".

It really is hard to believe how huge it really is. I think its a gender issue too because it seems to afflict women more than men. On the bright side though there has been a big push against it by the natural hair movement. One of my best friends in high school was born to Nigerian parents and she would almost always wear weave. Now she only wears her hair natural and likes to post pictures on facebook of new natural hair styles she is trying.

In your time in Thailand have you witnessed any kind of "dark skin movement" to resist the social pressure that pushes towards "lightness"?

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I should also add that when my boyfriend was running, he passed a group of police officers, who stopped him and demanded to see his passport. Lots of locals came over to tell them that he was a fighter who they saw running along that same road every day, but they weren't interested. Of course, he didn't have his passport on him because he was running, so they took him back to the gym and demanded again to see it. There, the trainers spoke to them and managed to sort it out. 

Later, I went running alone on that same road and passed a group of police offices at the same spot where he'd been stopped. Not only did they not stop me, but one officer actually gave me thumbs up and shouted 'very good' at me as I ran by. 

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I heard that the dislike of dark skin here in Thailand originally comes from the ideal that if one has dark skin it would mean that that person works in the fields or works manual labor and therefore would be exposed to the sun.  So that would indicate that a darker skinned person would be poor, uneducated and more likely to commit violent crimes.  I can't remember who told me that (thai or foreigner) and I don't know how true it is, but it guess I can see the logic in that thought process.   In America I get the impression that many people still hold on to the ideal that black Americans are descendants of slaves.  (Clearly it's more complex than that, but I hope you see my point.)

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  • An older lady had lived in Chicago for a few years. She said 'I'm afraid of black people. They're so big'.

A lot of my Thai friends say they're scared of black people too, though they never specified why... another thing I found weird is they seem to call them the N word a lot, I really don't know whether they realise how offensive it is or not. I also read an article which was about a guy who went an trained in Saenchai's old gym, I think it was Sor.Kingstar in isaan, and in the article there had been some black people that visited the gym and the people from the gym referred to them as 'nekros' though the article stated it thought they might've picked up it up from American soldiers during the Vietnamese wars. 

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Yea exactly what punchdrunk said that's it really dark skin means poverty and uneducated hence more likely to commit crime. I want to say I'm shocked but I'm not anymore to be honest but its terrible! I've heard of many Indian/African expats being treated appallingly by thai's. And I'm talking about wealthy well educated expats here.

 

Have any of you seen that TV show its like mythical and there's twin princesses (same woman) one is white and good and beautiful and the other they have painted her body and face black and she's evil and bad....she looks ridiculous!

I feel terrible for people who come here and are treated like that I don't know why they would stay here to be honest! The land of smiles .....but only if you look right to them, they conception of beautiful is so misguided its tragic

 

One of the reasons I love buakaw is that he's so dark doesn't care does loads of training and stuff outside in the sun and doesn't care!!

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Yea exactly what punchdrunk said that's it really dark skin means poverty and uneducated hence more likely to commit crime. 

I find this weird because like one of the major icons of Thailand is Buakaw and he's sooo dark, and I've never heard a Thai judge his skin. 

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I think Buakaw is more of the exception than the rule since he's done quite a lot to elevate himself status-wise in the sport, especially on an international stage. I feel like it would be different if he was just a Thai champion, but it's also the fact that he's recognized in K1 and other circles as well as an icon.

As for the skin thing, it really is insane here. The number of new products that come out to whiten your skin is staggering. Right now the new thing is this "Snail White" lotion or something.

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I find this weird because like one of the major icons of Thailand is Buakaw and he's sooo dark, and I've never heard a Thai judge his skin. 

 

That would be like saying that America isn't racist because Michael Jordan and so many other major sports heroes are black. Or even because whites were pulling for Joe Louis against Max Schmeling in 1938.

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... he's recognized in K1 and other circles as well as an icon.

 

I do wonder what Buakaw's image is among the core Thai Muay Thai community. He's a huge name in the west because of his K-1 success, and much of his media seems very western oriented - the face grimace, etc. Though he also puts up a lot of nationalist imagery too (flags, military). He hasn't fought a Thai in almost a decade, and I've been told by at least one person close to the fight game that if he fought a real Thai fighter now he wouldn't stand a chance. He's such an interesting case because of how he broke from his gym, isn't a Muay Thai fighter proper, and is ethnically so dark. Maybe he is like a kind of movie star, who doesn't make movies.

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That would be like saying that America isn't racist because Michael Jordan and so many other major sports heroes are black. Or even because whites were pulling for Joe Louis against Max Schmeling in 1938.

I think you read it wrong, I wasn't saying they aren't racist because Buakaw is dark. I was saying I just found it weird they don't judge him for it. 

Please read it again, rather than jumping the gun as I don't understand where I said 'Thai's aren't racist' nor did I imply it either. :mellow:

 

I think Buakaw is more of the exception than the rule

 

 Yeah, that's I meant though in my previous comment that I find it weird there can be exceptions, as I was comparing it to the west in my head where I though racist people tend not to find that ethnicity or skin colour attractive even if they're celebrities, but I don't know... 

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I've been to a couple of Asian countries and have witnessed these skin whitening creams ect. I thought one was a moisturizer and was applying it to my sunburn and thought my sunburn had gone away in record time. Nope. I merely bleached my sunburn.

 

I'd also see women wearing long gloves, leggings, and umbrellas to stay out of the sun.

 

I've read some articles that trace it back to the idea that being pale equaled wealth because you weren't outside in the fields.

 

I've read some articles that talk about a desire to look western. I.e. the trend in Korea to have plastic surgery done to their eyelids.

 

It seems to stem from a lot of things.

 

Someone posted about people getting up and switching train cars when their boyfriend came on the car. That happened to me all time. I don't know if people were scared, disgusted, or intimidated by me lol. There was also the look of dread when I would sit by some people. You are correct in stating that it is a very unwelcome feeling.

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I think you read it wrong, I wasn't saying they aren't racist because Buakaw is dark. I was saying I just found it weird they don't judge him for it. 

Please read it again, rather than jumping the gun as I don't understand where I said 'Thai's aren't racist' nor did I imply it either. :mellow:

 

Fair enough, my bad. I was just surprised that you felt that what Thais say out loud to you somehow would reflect their feelings about race. I've never heard any Thais talk about the skin color of well-known people - other than Master K making a joke about Buakaw's name - but I didn't think that was weird. I just assumed that because I don't speak Thai and don't engage in long conversations it was never something that would come up. And more than this, when I think about it, I'm not even sure I've heard Americans judge Michael Jordan for being black, and I'm American, which is really the point I should have done a better job expressing. I do wonder how he is viewed, and in fact how all people of some celebrity from Isaan are viewed.

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He hasn't fought a Thai in almost a decade, and I've been told by at least one person close to the fight game that if he fought a real Thai fighter now he wouldn't stand a chance. 

At 70kg I would still pick him over most. The only guys I could see outclassing him are Yod and Sittichai.

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    • Sparring was each day, it's part of the training, also each day you go the bagwork and the pads, so i don't know where you got that idea from.  You never go  without hiting the pads or having spar in the Thailand, unless you're in a really bad comercial gym, but the spar there is way different than in other countries, you develop technique there and go sparr without power, by either legs, hands or clinch, depending on the day . As for technique, they always correct you and try to teach it the correct way, they made a good amount of adjustments in my kicking techniques, sweeps and clinch while i was there, i didn't go into such small details because it would take a whole book to write about how much small things they see and try to work on that. Also i don't think you fully read what i wrote in the blogs, because i don't really remember now all the things i wrote, it was a long time ago, but i went on and re-read the first day i wrote, and it already said i did a lot of pads and clinch , knees and elbows , so i don't know where you got the idea that i didn't do pad work. 
    • Hey mate sorry for bumping old thread, im thinking bout going to Manop for 3 months in nov-dec-jan. Everything you described in your posts are what i'm looking for, but there was some things bothering me.   1) From what I read you barely got to spar? Sparring is a huge deal and important for me.. Why didn't you get to spar in the beginning? 2) You seem to spent ALOT of time hitting the bag, why didnt you get more pad-time in the beginning of your training? I really don't know your level and it was hard to tell from the fight 3) (Probably most important) How are they on instructions? Do they correct your technique? how much do they emphesise on that? Do they teach you proper form, sweeps, techniques, tricks, etc? cause from your posts it seemed like you were on your own pretty much the entire stay     Cheers!
    • I'll recommend Elite Sports, Yokkao and Fairtex.
    • If you're having problems seeing then it's time to get a Dr somehow and I'm glad you did. So now, unfortunately all you can do is wait. I have been in similar situations and understand how frustrating it is. Good luck.
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