When I arrived to study in the United States, I did not know much about race relations.
Part of it is due to the environment in which I grew up. While at school I learned about the horrors of racism, it was not something I internalized. Watching then-candidate Trump call non-white immigrants all sorts of derogatory terms from Bangkok was, to myself and many of my friends, not much more than to see a developing clown show – silly – yet impossibly distant.
And so it was a new world when I set foot in the United States. I remember in my first year attending a campus event where Rep. Barbara Lee, a progressive icon, was speaking. “Stay woke,” she told the crowd. I was there to cover the event for the student government’s social media, and I typed down those words. But I remember asking myself: what does stay woke even mean?
Thankfully, over the years, I learned more from the people around me about the fraught issue of race (and indeed quickly learned what being ‘woke’ meant).
But there were still many issues I did not fully comprehend. Take the police. In Thailand, we often discuss police corruption and the need for reform, but I never felt any reason to fear the police. I had studied the issue of racial profiling in high school, but did not spend too much time thinking about it. Once in California I was confused to see “abolish the police” as a slogan, and the degree of antipathy towards campus police that I saw from the black community surprised me.
Now, there is little reason for surprise. From the murder of George Floyd to the unfolding scenes of police brutality towards peaceful protests, I have very little doubt in my mind left about why many African-Americans see the police not as what we Thais have termed phu pita santirat — “the defenders of the people” — but rather the tools of an oppressive state that discriminates in its enforcement of the law.
To not know the pain of injustice, in all its forms, is a privileged position. Many of us in this position are not aware, or care to learn, about the structural violence and institutional discrimination that others experience. As a statement from the Thai association at Tufts University, said, “the least we can do is use our privilege to open our eyes to injustices.”
One step to take is to engage, to be open minded, to challenge our own assumptions. In essence, to learn more.
A discussion I have had with many people, for example, is over the issue of violent protest. I have been able to read about, and hear, many viewpoints about why looting has happened, for example, and whether it is justified. Often I must agree to disagree; I still am at pains, for example, to see how the destruction of small businesses, many owned by people of color, is a warranted way to fight injustice. But over the course of these discussions I have learned much about violent struggle in the civil rights movement, and appreciate more the challenges in fighting stereotypes that black people must face.
Another step is to reflect that racism is a universal problem. It is not just an American issue — it is also a Thai issue.
Anti-blackness certainly exists in Thailand. Stereotypes are often aired unchallenged. Black migrants also face a particularly difficult life. An investigation in 2018 by Prachathai, for example, showed racially motivated discrimination of Africans by the Thai immigration department. It is important to recognize prejudice here just as it is important to recognize prejudice in America.
We often sweep things under the rug. Mai pen rai, we say — “it’s fine”. We practice a politics of ignoring; in history classes students learn far more about glorious battles with foreign enemies than the violent struggles of Thailand’s much more recent democratic past. The same applies with ethnicity, as we forget our nation’s own heterogeneity.
It is unacceptable, for example, that “Lao” was and indeed sometimes remains an insult. And just last year, Nattapon Suebsakwong made history as the first Hmong member of parliament in Thailand. But when he came to parliament in his national dress, he was subjected to a torrent of insults, many of them unprintable. “I understand urban people and I’m not angry that they don’t understand. It simply shows that we have been left behind,” he said. “It is the responsibility for all of us to build an understanding of the beauty of diversity.”
Conversations about race, prejudice and discrimination can make us uncomfortable. For me and many others, it will be unfamiliar territory. But Nattapon is right: to learn and to understand is indeed our responsibility.
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