Dwight Turner: Thailand, land of smiles. But only if you’re white
Mass media is the easiest place to peer into the attitudes Thais have about dark skin.
Turn on a cartoon on TV and notice the dark villains and the white heroes. Flip a few more channels or go through a stack of magazines and you'll find that being dark is almost never associated with beauty, power or success.
You don't even have to go looking for these messages; the ubiquity of advertising ensures that they come to you.
For example, take the now-removed ad on the BTS Sky Train that reads, "These seats are reserved for people with white skin" -- a play on the common signage reserving seats for the monks and elderly.
Perhaps those seats should be reserved for the mentally-handicapped marketers, advertisers and their clients who reviewed the ad and, clouded by ignorance and greed, thought it was a clever idea.
Am I wrong for seeing this ad on my commute to work and wanting in angry desperation to hijack the sound systems in Bangkok's giant shopping malls? I could replace the vapid Bossa versions of pop music with an authentic dose of civil rights era tunes.
it be enough to slip some James Brown into Thai society's morning coffee? Could
that alone make them proud to be a multifaceted nation of tan and brown people,
ending any contempt they hold for darker foreigners?
Perhaps I came to Bangkok five years ago with expectations that were too high? Before my arrival I was hypnotized by the proselytizing of travel writers and tourism campaigns, championing Thailand as the "land of smiles."
But none of the travel advice I read, language I learned, nor cultural practices I mastered prepared me for how I'd be perceived and treated because of my dark skin -- an ugly reality of life in Thailand that is hardly discussed and rarely challenged.
I arrived unaware of the trouble my appearance would cause, stepping off the plane with a giant grin. For the first few days I was beaming, smiling at anyone I met as I settled into my new life in Bangkok.
When my enthusiasm was returned with glares or frowns by some, I began smiling even brighter, discounting those encounters, however frequent, as anomalies.
However my smiling defiance of these uncouth surroundings ran dry during one particular job interview.
Neither I, nor the Western friend who arranged the short notice interview at one of Bangkok's most prestigious schools, had any idea the interviewer would tell me I was too black to teach there.
"You'll scare the children," the interviewer blurted, with no mention of my qualifications. He then quickly began retracting his words to formulate an excuse about the position being unessential and already filled.
This would turn out to be one of my most direct collisions with
discrimination in this country, but not the last time I'd have my unread resume
returned along with fragmented excuses while being whisked out the door.
In 2011, the year the United Nations has proclaimed the "International Year for People of African Descent," is my heritage really THAT scary? Has it rendered my appearance so wildly different from yours that our slight difference in pigmentation induces fear?
The truth is that the people of Thailand have long been duped into loving an image of beauty that is not their own. Thais come in a wide range of colors, but much to their frustration, none of them includes white.
The history of color-based discrimination in Thailand is long and complicated. Unlike colonized South Asian countries, Thailand has been more subtly robbed of its brown skin heritage by a lucrative cosmetic industry, being force fed images of Western beauty by local and foreign media from countries like the United States.
Aside from heavy use of cosmetics, surgery and avoiding the sun in vampire-like fashion, Thais' skin isn't vastly different from blacks, Indians and other dark-skinned people who are frequently victims of discrimination here.
But not only is this
one area where bigotry overrides what would otherwise be seen as a commonality
in foreigners. Thais frequently use their compatriots' natural adaptation to
their frying pan climate as a way of subjugating them to those with doctored
A recent study found that women bare a disproportionate amount of the pressure to be whiter than white. This shows that whiteness has been elevated beyond what is attractive and become a requirement for acceptance in mainstream Thai culture.
So then what hope is there for children whose complexions look nothing like what they see on TV? I can't help but wonder if young girls respond to humiliating taunting by peers and adults by submitting prayers to a fairy godmother who never appears to alleviate their burning desire to look like "Snow White."
Or perhaps Thais don't have imaginary fairy godmothers and are more like the princess in the film "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives," confiding qualms about their appearance to a seductive, yet equally unreliable catfish.
I guess in the instances of flaky fairy godmothers and cheeky catfish, there's always the Buddhist belief in reincarnation. Better start crossing your fingers now if you hope to be reborn into a designated seat on the sky train speeding toward an anorexic, glow-in-the-dark after-life.
So when I fantasize about the idea of Thais waking up and having a brown renaissance, I'm not bloated with the expectation that Thais will consider teaching their youth to be proud of their appearance no matter how they look.
Neither in the year that the UN is engaging nations on how to end racism, am I pleading with Thais to consider hiring people based on their ability and not their appearance.
That would be asking too much and living here has taught me to lower my expectations about such rapid, drastic change.
This year I'm willing to settle for a seat on the train -- and just a few more returned smiles.