Just a few weeks ago, it was the coronavirus that filled my Instagram feed—today, it is Black Lives Matter. And while Thailand’s population isn’t split into black and white, we stand in solidarity with them in this uprising to no longer accept racism as a norm.
But in doing so, perhaps some of us might have forgotten to look into the racism embedded in our own culture, subtle.
Whether it’s racism, classism or sexism, social discrimination has long been present in all cultures.
But in the Land of Smiles, it seems especially obscure, hidden in the greetings we use to call our friends and the stories we tell our kids.
It’s camouflaged so well in our daily lives, growing up, I wasn’t sure whether this is discrimination or simply part of our culture and personality.
One time at a family gathering, my aunt was telling a story of her trip to the supermarket in Paris: “I walked through the door and walked over to get a shopping cart.
Next thing I know, there was a negro [as Thais sometimes casually call black people] standing right behind me and it shocked me!” Everyone laughs hard. “Anyway, the French already charge for plastic bags when here in Thailand we’re just starting to.”
I can’t remember exactly whether the story was about the plastic bags, but it definitely had nothing to do with the black man. However, that alone seemed to stand as a pretty good punchline in itself for it to crack up my parents, aunts, uncles and grandma.
But I was not moved. The descriptors we seem to casually give people when we talk about them, oftentimes completely irrelevant to the gist stories themselves—black (mued, meaning dark), white (farang), gay (tut), fat, poor, countryside (ban nok), fat—are the small things that make social discrimination so prevalent and accepted.
It is a threat so overshadowed by our friendliness, so masked behind the playful jokes and loving banters, both offenders and victims don’t even realize what is taking place. I won’t pretend I know anything about racial injustice in America or anywhere else.
But here, where I’m from, it seems to be okay to treat your waitress like you’re superior to them, and to call immigrant workers aliens undeserving of respect.
It seems to be okay to overemphasize that someone comes from a family of farmers, or that someone is “dark-skinned, not so pretty but hardworking”, or tell a person they’ve gained weight as soon as you meet them.
There is nothing wrong with describing someone by their appearance or background–they are who they are, and what better way than to refer to someone by explaining exactly that? It’s these little misleading adjectives here and there–names to call someone, yet illustrate no true meaningful image or character of who they really are–that build up a culture of unaddressed racism which has come to shape our perception of the world we live in, and how we choose to treat the people who are different from us.
I’d like to believe most of us don’t mean any harm to our choice of words—after all, it is the way it’s always been, part of the culture, just how we speak. It doesn’t seem like a big deal and people don’t seem to get too offended, that’s just the way things are around here.
But should it be the way things are around here?
When one ignores the labeling of people, one is actively participating in social discrimination. If one is complacent, and allow certain terms to go by unnoticed, it enables assumptions by others.
First, it is just a nickname to call someone. Then it’s a funny joke. Story after story, details are twisted and characters are exaggerated. Person after person, misconceptions are created.
Eventually, it becomes one big stereotype of who they are, what they do, and why they are who they are.
We are better than this. It is our job to educate ourselves. It is our job to empathize with all in our society and not just our peers and equals. True class is not judging a person who we think is at our station by someone we perceive to be of a lower station. Only then can we realize that no one is better than anyone else.
As the Black Lives Matters movement progresses, we must use this opportunity to reflect the way we treat each other back home.