It started with shock, outrage, and it became an uproar.
We saw it all our social media feeds last week – an infinite array of black squares shared by friends, top celebrities, influencers, and Thai netizens alike with similar captions of solidarity: #blackouttuesday; #blacklivesmatter; #justiceforgeorgefloyd, you name it.
The murder of George Floyd by four police officers in Minneapolis was a symptom of the United States’ history of systemic injustice and violence against black people.
The incident has become a catalyst for change, his death sparking one of the largest civil rights movement in United States history.
Not long after, the Black Lives Matter movement went global, inspiring international solidarity and protests around the world, including one in Thailand.
Not only has this been an opportunity for Thais to stand up against racial injustice on a global scale, but it is also a chance for us to learn more about systemic injustice against minorities in both the United States and our own society.
It is also the perfect time to reflect on our own unconscious racism and biases.
On Sunday, Thailand’s first Black Lives Matter event, Supporters of the Black Lives Movement in Thailand, was held online with over 370 guests tuning in from different places around the world – most were foreigners, but many Thais also participated.
“I want this to be more than just an Instagram or Facebook post,” said Natalie Bin Narkprasert, one of the organizers of the event, “There’s so much more we can do to make a difference in the black and minority communities in Thailand.”
“The fact that we are having this conversation means that people are not getting away with it as much as in our generation [in the past],” she told Thai Enquirer.
Thailand’s entrenched history with racism and colourism
The United States’ history with racial injustice dates back hundreds of years. Thailand’s history of racism is no different.
Racism, colourism, and xenophobia run rampant in Thai society, but people often turn a blind eye on, normalize and hardly ever discuss these issues.
If you are Thai or have lived here for a while, this will come as no surprise.
In fact, racialized conditioning starts off pretty young – perhaps even before many may realize. Thai children who read folktales, poems, or turn to popular culture will learn, from a very young age, that being dark skin in Thailand is ugly and inferior.
Thai culture even appropriates and allows for the use of racism in everyday Thai language – the derogatory terms ai dum (black thing) and ai mued (dark thing) are often used in everyday conversations to refer to black people and those with darker skin tones.
The ethnic Maniq people – a Negrito group in the country that has been living in Thailand’s southern region for thousands of years – for example, are still subject to discrimination and are considered “alien.” The Maniqs were the inspiration behind King Rama V’s famous play “Ngo-pah” and are still widely known throughout the country today as the Sakais, a controversial derogatory term meaning ‘slave’ or ‘barbarism’.
Sean Carter, a Black American who grew up in Thailand and is now working in Bangkok as a music producer, can still recall being harassed by many Thais when he was younger.
“People would come and touch my skin and ask me: why is your skin so dirty?” recalls Sean, “I’d tell them that it’s my skin color, then they’d ask if I was stupid.”
“I remember during Songkran one year, a Thai guy came up and wouldn’t pour water over me. He said because your skin is black, you deserve coke, and then he poured coke all over me.”
“I was so angry.”
Racism and xenophobia in Thailand also extend to the state level.
“Living in Bangkok in the early 2000s, I’d get stopped by cops all the time.” Sean added, “I’d be the only black person in my friend group and the only person to get called out. They’d strip me and search me in the middle of the streets and in front of places like Emporium. It was humiliating – and happened a lot.”
“[There was one time] when the officer in charge who saw me [at immigration] immediately asked where I was from and what I was doing there,” recalled Paddy Enzy, a teacher from Ghana working in Thailand.
“When I told them that I was from Ghana and there to do my visa, they immediately told me to go to the other end at this other section – a section for criminal verification only for West Africans.”
To this day, this policy is still implemented. If you are from West Africa, you will be automatically criminally investigated at the Immigration Bureau.
Beyond being racist and xenophobic towards foreigners, Thais can also be prejudiced towards one another.
As with many other cultures in Asia, being dark in Thailand is equated with a lower social class, lack of money and education, and outdoor labour conditions.
One reason for such notions being prevalent is that a large number of wealthy Thais are of Chinese descent and have naturally lighter skin compared to indigenous Thais.
“Even Thais get discriminated against too, you know,” a Thai Facebook user reflected. “I still remember being darker than the rest of my classmates and being left behind in the classroom, the teachers never choosing me for any activities or events just because I was dark.”
“I got them too – from ‘you black thing, why do you look so dirty? Why isn’t your family black like you? Did they fetch you from the trash?’” another user wrote. “I would always cry, it was such a complex of mine. This discrimination is still here and very unacceptable for me now.”
These ideas extend far beyond immediate social circles. It is also prevalent on social media.
When looking at mainstream media in Thailand, one thing remains clear: if there is a shade to guarantee success and happiness in life, it would be white.
A beauty ad featuring A-list Thai-Chinese actress Cris Horwang that was banned in 2016 confirms this narrative with its infamous slogan – “just by being white, you will win.”
Still present, still a long way to go.
Thailand has undoubtedly become more aware of the fact that racism prevails and is a real threat to human rights, especially in the wake of this movement.
But Thailand still falls disappointingly short in understanding intersectionality and realizing our own unconscious racism and cultural biases.
Take, for example, this insensitive #BlackLivesMatter solidarity campaign that was released by Dr Sandwich BKK last week:
Or this statement made by Move Forward party leader Thanatorn Joongruangrueangkit:
“The story of Wanchalearm is the story of George Floyd”
“I think this is an inaccurate connection,” quoted the article, “It distorts the story of George Floyd’s death, which concerns racial discrimination and racial inequality.”
Or take these comments from Thai netizens directed at singer Gam the Star just last weekend:
“Are you complaining or barking? Gam, you black thing.”
“Your looks are evil and black, but your heart shouldn’t be black too. Just leaving this here.”
“You black thing, you won’t go far. You moron.”
“If I had a friend with a character like yours, I wouldn’t be friends with you. Do you even have friends these days you black thing?”
Or this from Janesuda Parnto, a prominent Thai celebrity and designer who shared a series of images supporting the #BLM movement last Tuesday quoting Martin Luther King Jr., but has yet to remove this photoshoot from her collection taken in southern Thailand last year.
If Thais were to truly recognize and advocate against systemic racism – both at home and in the United States – none of the posts above would have been published or gone unaddressed.
Clearly, we still have a long way to go.
Time to confront our implicit biases and time for change
Although oblivious and unintentional, the aforementioned examples stem from our culture’s shallow understanding of systemic racism, the Black Lives Matter movement itself, as well as an ingrained belief that lighter skin is equated to beauty, desirability, and privilege.
There’s also the need to jump on the latest trends.
Just over a week after the movement was trending, this conversation that dominated our social media feeds has notably faded.
“The whole #blackouttuesday trend in Thailand last week is cool, but kind of lazy,” Sean observes. “Like, do you really know what this is really about? I feel like if people really cared about this, you would have been doing this before George Floyd.”
Beyond this trend-jumping, there may be a certain level of understanding on the issue, but real activism and allyship mean digging deeper and not dropping the narrative when it is no longer convenient or trendy.
“This has happened so many times, and you see black people always coming up and saying that this matters. And it took how many videos of black people being killed before people took notice? What was happening when there were no videos around?” Sean added, “I just want people to realize it, be consistent and aware that this happens all the time and call out and fix it.”
Real activism also lies in acknowledging that we, as Thais, may have been conditioned to unconscious racism within our own lives and society.
“In the pillars of racism, you have to start with challenging your internalized beliefs before you can understand what the problems actually are,” commented Jason Moosikkamol, a Thai-American designer based in the US and activist for #ThaisForBlackLives.
“If you don’t know, you’re just going along with it,” he explained, “You [won’t] know that you’re part of the problem.”
The emergence of Black Lives Matter in Thailand has also sparked backlash from many.
Some argue that those who support #BLM are doing it for attention, and some say the supporters are hypocrites who fail to acknowledge racism or systemic injustice happening within their own communities.
But this movement can call upon us to do both.
That’s because racism, systemic racism, and racial injustice exist in every pillar of Thai society.
“Systemic racism has so many different faces. Over here, it’s prejudice against Black people, Latin people, Asian people. In Thailand, it might be prejudice against Africans, Laotians, or Burmese,” said Jason. “Question your anti-Blackness. Why do we use skin-whitening products? Why are we uncomfortable in our own skin? Why do we treat others who aren’t us so poorly? Take a hard look at yourself and our people, and understand why we do these things.”
“Look at how Black people have been treated throughout history. Learn about the history of the slave trade. I’m saying this through an American lens — I know it’s different from Thailand but these lessons can be applied to racism in all parts of the world”.
The #BLM movement, Thailand, and how they are connected
To those who argue that the Black Lives Matter movement does not affect Thailand, its culture or people – take a moment to reflect on the fashion trends you indulge in and the art you consume.
Here and globally, we are surrounded by aspects of Black culture – from Jazz, R&B, Hip-hop, disco, graffiti to various forms of dance – but surprisingly fail to honour the history behind the art.
“That drives me crazy,” noted Sean, “Hip Hop culture is all over the world. For you to get to enjoy and make money off of it, but stay silent about [the movement] and say this doesn’t involve you is crazy. This does involve you, and you are a part of this too.”
“I think it goes without saying that you have to support if you’re going to consume media from Black people. You have to be with the movement,” added Jason.
As global citizens, we also share a collective responsibility to acknowledge this issue, educate ourselves on the history of racism, and stay informed.
This especially applies if you have gotten a glimpse of how it feels to fear for your safety based on your race; when you witness racist sentiments expressed towards yourselves or others; and for attacks fueled by racist or anti-Asian attitudes during the current coronavirus pandemic.
If we do not want others to be ignorant of our plight, then we shouldn’t be ignorant of theirs.
“If people advocated for each other, we would be much further ahead instead of pulling each other back,” noted Natalie. “I would urge people to care about this movement and to also care about what is happening in Thailand.”
Racial prejudices in Thailand may not be as evident but remains just as problematic.
To truly progress as a society, it is crucial that we use this opportunity to examine the society we live in, reflect on our own implicit biases, and stand up against racism and injustice when we see it.
“If we can tackle the issue as something that we must be educated about, maybe we can start to back some of the equalities that we are all striving for as a society,” said Jason.
It’s long overdue, and it’s time we finally address it.
To learn more about the Black Lives Matter movement, #ThaisForBlackLives, and how you can help, check out these infographics created by Jason: https://www.instagram.com/p/CBBN9NTndh7/