Opinion & Analysis

Embodying power: Perceptions of whiteness in Thailand

Chye-Ling Huang, a Chinese-Pākehā Aucklander, spent the summer in Bangkok and reflects on her experiences with whiteness amongst Thai culture. 

The author, masked up on the streets of Bangkok in early 2022 | Photo: Supplied

As culturally and ethnically varied as Auckland is, socially and politically, Pākehā culture and identity are perceived as the dominant norm. As a Chinese-Pākehā (Irish) woman with a very Chinese name, in Auckland I am defined by my Asianess. But, based in Bangkok for the last three months, here, I’m perceived as white. What are the social dynamics or hierarchies around whiteness in Thailand, how did they happen, and what can we learn from them? 

Bangkok is open and bustling, with strict Covid measures but without the dissent against masks (pollution and seasonal burning seasons make them somewhat of a norm). I had recently released a five part podcast called ‘The Elephant in the Bedroom’ looking at race and attraction, and stepping away from Eurocentrism and being around mostly Asian people was refreshing - foreigners make up only about 3.87 percent of Thailand with low numbers of European tourists due to Covid.  

Under a mask, I felt anonymous and somewhat at home - Bangkok reminded me of Malaysia, where my family hail from - but I wasn’t as undercover as I’d thought. My main identifier was now ‘Farang’ - foreigner, often colloquially used to describe white foreigners in particular. I was treated how I‘d expect in a country where tourism contributes to about 12 percent of its GDP - people going above and beyond to be helpful. I felt incredibly safe through my almost three months there; the most surprising experience was not being catcalled once. 

Yet familiar markers of what I knew of as colonial-induced colourism cropped up quickly. 

I went into a 7Eleven to buy deodorant - and struggled to find one that didn’t also promise to make my armpits white. Face-wash was a worse minefield. Billboards and buses and TV spots were relentlessly selling whitening products - from beauty regimens to even water that supposedly helped ‘brighten and lighten’, and I noticed that celebrities, actors and presenters (of all genders) were noticeably paler than most of the people I’d see in the streets. Thailand is known for its cosmetic surgery industry, and it wasn’t uncommon for people I’d meet to have had some work done - tending toward Eurocentric features. 

Colourism describes a discrimination created around skin tone, particularly within people of of the same ethnic or racial group. Colourism favours people with lighter skin over darker skin, bringing with it institutional and individual privileges and barriers. 

In ‘The Elephant in the Bedroom’, we talked about the Philippines as an example of how a history of colonialism and white supremacy drastically shaped the coveting of pale skin as a beauty standard. 

As a blunt summary of a complex equation: Thailand escaped the same geopolitical fate as neighbouring countries as European powers colonised the East. In a unique position through WWI and WWII, and through navigating reforms, trade deals, and armistice agreements with multiple European countries early on, it’s a commonly told axiom that Thailand has never truly been colonised by Europe, though having been occupied for periods and losing territories to France and Britain. 

So if not from colonisation, like the Philippines, where did the obsession with looking white come from? 

Thailand itself made moves to adopt some Western practices across its history. Preemptive westernisation of Thailand is theorised as originating from a fear of Western advancement in Asia. For example, as slavery was condemmed by the West, Prince Damrong assisted Rama V in the abolition of slavery by commencing the reformation as early as 1890. King Chulalongkorn (reining 1868 - 1910) was Western educated and well travelled. Using Western architecture and imported labour for the creation of railways and other infrastructure began to subtly promote a connection between the West that was politically helpful, but also began to ingrain socially.  

Western culture was further embedded in Thailand’s history through the Vietnam War, where significant numbers of bi-racial children were fathered by American soldiers stationed in Thailand during the 1960s and 1970s. Mixed race, white-Thai people were in some cases seen as the shameful result of wartime promiscuity and prostitution. But in recent years, they’re more often seen as the epitome of beauty. 

Foreigners make up only about 3.87 percent of Thailand with low numbers of European tourists due to Covid | Photo: Supplied

White-Asian biraciality being commonplace and part of a zeitgeist of sorts was surprising, affirming and deeply uncomfortable. Thai-French producer Somchai says American media plays a big part in aspirational whiteness.

“White-Thai or Chinese-Thai celebrities are generally more popular, because they have European features, they’re seen as more beautiful, like Hollywood celebs. I think Thailand is trying to emulate that global Hollywood trend.”

But in everyday life, Somchai’s experience echoed my own. 

“But you never really feel like you belong. You know you have a lot more privilege, which is not really something I’m proud of because I didn’t necessarily earn it. And some people will actually resent you for that, too. Luk khrueng is what Thais call mixed race people, it means like, half-child. It’s not the easiest, like people might assume.” 

Biracial Thais who have a darker skinned parent, however, are not granted the same privileges, and are also adversely affected by colourism. As immigration from African countries isn’t as commonplace, Western stereotypes as the main source of education feed the negative views of Black and dark-skinned foreigners. West African areas in Bangkok are raided often. Nigerian drug syndicates spread into Bangkok in the 1980’s, leading to quick generalisations. Though drug related crime is still an ongoing reality, Nigeria is also one of Thailand’s biggest importers of Thai rice, many Nigerians in search of work in Thailand are themselves scammed by ‘agents’ and turn to crime to survive, and countless travellers of African and American descent are working and living legitimately in Thailand. 

Somchai gives an example of the impacts, “I worked a job recently where we needed to cast ‘diverse’ for an overseas client, but my company refused to look at any of my subs (submissions) for actors with Nigerian passports. It’s hard to break that stereotype and it’s hard to watch it happening.”  

A large factor in the way Thais view whiteness comes from these Asia-wide notions of class, Huang says | Photo: Supplied

Thailand is incredibly ethnically diverse, with estimates totalling at least 70 ethnic groups, including at least 24 groups of ethno-linguistically Thai peoples. Thai media favouring bi-racial people of only one type of enthnic mix is clearly a dangerous misrepresentation of the population. For example, the people of Isan, who at 22 million make up almost a third of Thailand’s population, continue to suffer under persisting stereotypes being lower class, uneducated or sex workers. 

But a large factor in the way Thais view whiteness comes from these Asia-wide notions of class. Outdoor working conditions that led to tanning and darker skin were equated with the lower class, where high class, nobility or royalty would be paler as they were wealthy enough to work indoors or not at all. Though dated, this bias is deeply ingrained. 

Lawan, 28, a Thai editor, remarks, “I'm sure there's a lot of racial undertones too, but whiteness is very much related to status, at least my personal experience of growing up around it here. It feels more to me that the colorism happens to coincide with white supremacy rather than be fully influenced by it.”

Between classism from Asian history coupled with Western influence, pale skin is currently sold as the physical embodiment of class, wealth and power. The persisting classism tied to skin colour affects careers, self esteem and even dating (another complex topic that needs its own separate breakdown).

For white foreigners, the reality is different. Some Thais see white Farang as a means to an end, especially in the service industry, but whether or not it comes from the heart, treatment of white Farang is undoubtedly better. 

Kusa, a Thai hotelier, says, “People here who are mature enough to know that at the end, despite what you feel, or your political ideas against that person, they are bringing you work, money and things that you need to live with. That's very clear here in Thailand.”

Keelan, 38, an American who has been living in Bangkok for 8 years has experienced two sides. “As far as skin colour is concerned, it goes both ways. As a white guy, you’re afforded much more status than someone with a darker skin colour, but you’re also often seen as a sure source of income. You pay more and are thought to be better off and therefore capable, and expected, to shell out more.”

Do white Farangs in Thailand feel marginalised? 

“Yes, but not in the sense that matters. What I mean by that is that I’m also aware that I benefit from the privileges that are afforded to me, and that they need to be considered as well.”

So although the West is responsible for much of Asia’s Eurocentric attitudes toward whiteness as aspirational, it’s equally Eurocentric to assume that Thailand is affected in the same exact ways. Globalisation has no doubt fueled an existing classist beauty standard by more exposure to western media’s own problematic white supremacy. The media within Thailand itself continues to perpetrate pale ideals, and the profits from the skin whitening industry ensure reinforcement and participation on an everyday level. A complex cocktail of factors provides no easy answers, but it’s clear the white skin as a personification of success is harmful and pervasive. 

For me, being aware of this dynamic reminded me how important it is for us to continue thinking outside our Eurocentric views. Dismantling the idea of whiteness as the ‘norm’ is important within every context, especially living in Aotearoa. 

And though uncomfortable, the feeling of being a minority is a pivotal step to growing respect and experiencing life from another’s perspective. Through Covid and the age of the internet, we have every access to the world - but always through a skewed lens. Reminding ourselves in one way or another that we aren’t the centre of the universe is healthy. With travel still restricted, I hope everyone is lucky enough to have this experience in the not so distant future. 

- Asia Media Centre