Grace Kanklao, cultural appropriation and Thailand’s lack of empathy

By Jasmine Chia and Sirin Mungcharoen

Before debuting her latest cover, “พักก่อน COVID 19”, Grace Kanklao announced her new ‘look’ on Instagram to her two million followers: a sparkly red Bulls jersey, layers of bronze-gold chains and, unfortunately, cornrows.

Cornrows have long roots in black culture. They are practical for black hair, but also symbolic. As maps of freedom in the slave-owning South. As a way of connecting with a proud African heritage. “Carved into the scalp like a rite, energy rushing about the head. They speak, those lines. A thousand tongues. Ibo, Ebonic,” wrote Karen Good Marable on the subject.

So how did they come up in Grace’s video? Grace was covering Thai rapper MILLI’s famous and fabulous “พักก่อน”, a viral masterpiece that was released this February. MILLI exudes hip hop with an effortless, badass, tongue-in-cheek air – notably, without cornrows. In fact, MILLI exudes hip hop dressed as a schoolgirl, in a red sweater and plaid skirt. Clearly, the cornrows (and the bulls jersey, and chains) weren’t necessary.

Is it cultural appropriation? This isn’t something talked about much in the Thai cultural scene. So when twitter user @pxnnikx reached out in Grace’s instagram DM’s to point this out, Grace replied: “Thank you very much. These things are really up to intent – I don’t want drama, our lives are hard enough right now; we should forgive some things so we can be at ease.”

When @pxnnikx posted the exchange on twitter, she received massive backlash from Thai netizens – so much so her account went private. The debate was not whether or not it was cultural appropriation since Grace seemed to acknowledge as much – and ignore it, rather, many asked, why does it matter to Thais what we take from black culture?

Does it matter?

Black America – not of hip hop, but of Queens, of South Side Chicago – is an ‘other’ that seems far away. There are few crossed paths, even fewer shared histories. In trying to understand its relevance in the Thai context – can we also locate spaces of empathy and understanding?

I reached out to Jordan Anthony, a break-dancer and one of the few black breakers in his Asian American dominated breaking scene. Upon seeing Grace’s picture, he let out a yelp of laughter.

“There’s a way of doing this that isn’t this…with people entering hip hop culture, they need to understand what the line is between ‘hip hop culture’ and just black and brown culture.”

Anthony sports a du-rag when he dances. “When I was younger, I had cornrows, so I always wore du-rags – when you go to sleep, it keeps it neat. For black people it legitimately has a purpose.At a recent breaking competition, controversy was sparked when a Japanese breaker appeared on the floor with a du-rag – some in the breaking community felt deeply uncomfortable at the sight while others supported it.

Anthony admits that the line is perhaps difficult to draw, but believes “there’s a way you can be hip hop without being black.”

“Hip hop is counter-culture,” Anthony points out, comparing it to rock and roll. “It’s rugged, hard, tough…because of its status as counter-culture, it’s a pillar, a support beam of [American] pop culture.” 

MILLI’s virality comes in part from nailing this counter-culture element: with her mess of curly hair and casual blend of Thai and English cuss-words, she speaks against a prescribed ‘Thainess’ in which women are well-behaved, skinny beings who, first and foremost, must always be beautiful. As Grace poses prettily with her cornrows, this clever irony is sorely missing.

Looking back at Grace’s picture, he says more solemnly: “It’s a modern version of blackface. It’s not as obvious to the eye, but you’re using blackness as a costume to be more ‘authentic’.”

Grace is not the first (and likely not the last) Asian celebrity to dip her toes in black culture. She’s also not the first to be called out on it. K-pop icons like Taeyang and Zico have been accused of ‘de-contextualizing black culture’: a culture borne of a history of slavery, police brutality (police murder, to be clear) and extreme inequality. Childish Gambino eloquently speaks to this history in This is America, twisting his body into a Jim Crow pose before shooting his first victim.

Of cornrows, it has been said over and over: if you aren’t black, that’s cultural appropriation.  Jordan emphasizes: “That hairstyle she wears, that’s black.”  

Cultural appropriation: the Thai encounter with the other

This history has little resonance in Thailand.

Among the comments on @pxnnikx’s thread was a picture of black children performing the “slant-eyed” gesture, captioned: “If they can be racist, we can be racist too.”

“It was horrifying,” @pxnnikx said of the Twitter response, “The fact that there are a lot of people who aren’t aware of this issue scared me. What’s worse is that most of them are not willing to try to understand at all. I also received a lot of hate comments on deciding to speak up about it.”

The opinions of Thai Twitter regarding the criticism of Grace’s ‘look’ have truly been brutal. Some said that those calling out Grace’s cornrows were being ‘overly sensitive’, ‘worried too much about being politically correct’, or simply ‘SJWs’ (social justice warriors)’. Some tweets were outright racist, as above, implying that black people were using their history of oppression as an excuse to be racist toward Asians. Some said black people were ‘playing the victim’.

‘It’s in the past. Move on,’ many declared.

Thai people’s lack of understanding of cultural appropriation is, unfortunately, not a surprise. Thais have long been using others’ cultures as ‘dress codes’ or party themes. Native American culture is perhaps the most frequently appropriated. ‘ชุดอินเดียแดง’ or ‘Red Indian clothes’, the outdated, offensive term is still being used in Thailand to describe Native American-inspired clothes featuring headdresses which can be found anywhere from a school play to music festivals.

Thai people who deny the existence of such a thing as cultural appropriation often bring up the example of ‘farangs’ wearing Thai traditional clothing. Thai people are proud of foreigners dressing up, taking pictures in Thai traditional clothing, so of course, people from other cultures must feel the same way. After all, it means your culture is being appreciated. Of course, as some tried to point out in the Twitter debate, this perspective lacks cultural sensitivity.

@pxnnikx laments: “Cultural Appropriation has been overlooked by a lot of people for a long time.”

“Knowing that Grace is a TV personality who has millions of followers, I was worried that her act will not only offend the black community but also ‘normalise’ cultural appropriation even more. So, I decided to explain it to her, hoping she would take those pictures down. But her response shocked me, so I tweeted the conversation afterward to bring this issue to the surface.”

New role models

After the international backlash toward a Thai advertisement of a skin-whitening product that featured blackface in 2016, have Thai people become more sensitive regarding black culture? From opinions on Grace’s cornrows, apparently not. Many Thai people are still deeply ignorant when it comes to black culture. Even as some try to explain cultural appropriation and black history, most refuse to listen.

@pxnnikx expresses this frustration. “Thai people still have a very long way to go when it comes to the understanding of racial issues such as racism and cultural appropriation.” She points out that neither in school, nor in Thai media is this subject brought up. 

In a society praising whiteness and worshipping (white) farangs, what will it take to make people aware of racism black people are facing?

“You’d want the answer to be as simple as just a little empathy, but that’s just not a good enough answer these days,” says Anthony with a sigh. “People have this idea that they can’t be challenged, and when you challenge that it scares them.”

Perhaps to challenge racism, we have to look back at its source: celebrity culture. Artists like Grace need to take more responsibility for their fame, acting by example to rectify their own mistakes. Meanwhile, Thais should look to other artists – artists with clear principles and causes – to obsess over.  

“Even though hip hop has a lot of artists who are misogynistic, there are women who jump into the rap game, and it’s often celebrated that they’re strong and powerful – breaking those stereotypical issues of misogyny,” Anthony says. He points to Lil Nas X, who has also used hip hop as a platform to speak out against homophobia.

These counter-currents are beginning to emerge in Thai pop culture. MILLI’s defiant rap is one viral example. Another is the charming, unmasked humor of Nakhon Sri Thammarat-based Lilly’s “เลิกคุยทั้งอำเภอเพื่อเธอคนเดียว“. There are countless more that speak to aspirations that go beyond Thailand’s stifling status quo – a youthquake shaking the country both culturally and politically.

Counter-culture is badly needed in Thailand. But supporting an existing culture of wilful ignorance and racism is not counter-culture, no matter how quickly Grace tries to rap the lyrics to her song. She, like some others, needs to พักก่อน.

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