Opinion: The protests in the United States are a good opportunity to talk about colourism in Thailand

During my time in the US, I was a student in St. Louis, Missouri when Michael Brown was murdered by a white police officer. In the following years, I saw this replayed again and again in a system that does not value black lives.

That George Floyd was murdered by the hands of the police in the United States was not an irregular occurrence but a systematic extension of the status quo.

At the same time, I started noticing my Thai friends posting in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, even though some of them have not lived in the United States at all. This forced me to reflect on anti-blackness in Thai society.

Anti-blackness, colourism, and racism are rampant and pervasive in all aspects of Thai society and culture.

Anti-blackness in Thai culture is a manifestation of colourism, and thus, are intricately linked. In Thai, when we criticize someone for their skin colour, we do not call someone เข้ม (kem, dark), but we call them ดำ (dum, black).

Anti-blackness, colourism, and racism is seeped deep into Thai culture.

For example, in the story สังข์ทอง, the character of เงาะป่า, with dark skin, curly hair, and thick red lips, is a caricature of black people, specifically of the Maniq people who live in Southern Thailand.

Throughout the play, the character is devalued and mocked. He is only valued after he takes off his “black disguise” to reveal a man with golden, light-colored skin.

Even in the story ขุนช้างขุนแผน, ขุนช้าง, the main antagonist of the story, is described as รูปชั่วตัวดำ (evil looking and black). This description highlights that in this, as well as many Thai folk tales, blackness is associated with evil.

Often, the antagonists would have dark skin, while the protagonists have light skin.  This is not a coincidence, but rather, a pattern of association of blackness with evil that results from anti-blackness in Thai culture.

To counter the colourism in our society we can:

  1. Educate ourselves. The first step is to educate ourselves to unlearn all the biases and anti-black attitudes that our culture has ingrained us with.
  2. Listen when marginalized groups speak. When black or darker-skinned Asians tell us about their experiences, listen to them. Show your support and amplify their voices. Do not speak over them. Let them have the space to talk and protect that space for them.
  3. Check-in on your friends. Talk to your black and darker-skinned friends and find out how the system does not value them as much as those with lighter skin. Learn from their experience, be willing to have uncomfortable conversations.
  4. Educate those around us. Not everyone has been exposed to issues of racism and social justice. Not everyone has had access to all the literature that you might have read. Take the time to share what you have read with those around you.
  5. Translate social justice work into Thai if you are bilingual or multilingual. A lot of conversations around social justice and social justice literature are in English. As a result, social justice is often viewed as a trait of Western-educated Thais who live detached from their communities. By translating social justice literature to Thai, we make it more accessible to all members of our community. This allows conversations around social justice to happen at all levels.
  6. Call out our families and friends when they make racist comments. We need to call out racism when we see it, especially within our communities. It is important to have these difficult conversations. Even with discussions and education, we might not see changes within a short period of time. For example, it took me years calling my mother out on her racism, and last week, she called me and asked me how she could help and join the fight. It will take a while, but with insistence and education, you will be able to create change. We need to change the attitudes within our families and friends. After that, a cultural shift will slowly happen.
  7. Donate. If you have the financial means, donate to anti-racism and anti-discrimination groups.
  8. Make sure everyone’s voices are heard. Use the privilege that we have to lift up black voices. Make sure that in any space, everyone gets a chance to talk and to contribute to the conversation. Make sure that the conversations are centered around the victims that the system is oppressing.
  9. Advocate for more change in existing systems. With our privilege, we can push for change within the existing systems we live in. We might not be able to change much in the government, but we can change the smaller systems of our school, work, and families. At work, we can push for more inclusion and safe spaces for our black colleagues. At school, we can demand that more anti-racism literature be added to the education and curriculum. We can normalize anti-racism within our circles and push for cultural change for future generations.

What is going on in the United States is an opportunity to talk about the issues that are prevalent here.

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