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Thai woman highlights racism in her homeland

Social media star blames ingrained prejudices on Thailand's dominant beauty industry and television shows

UCA News reporter, Bangkok

UCA News reporter, Bangkok

Updated: June 18, 2020 06:33 AM GMT
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Thai woman highlights racism in her homeland

Vlogger Natthawadee 'Suzie' Waikalo has experienced racism in Thailand because of her darker skin tone throughout her life.

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As global attention has been focusing on alleged systemic injustices and police brutality fueled by racism in the United States, a young mixed-race Thai woman wants to highlight what she says is widespread racial prejudice in her homeland.

At a forum organized by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand in Bangkok about global Black Lives Matter protests, popular young vlogger Natthawadee “Suzie” Waikalo, whose father is from Mali and mother is from Thailand, said she has experienced various forms of racism in Thailand because of her darker skin tone throughout her life.

“They let me go from my job and wouldn’t say why,” Natthawadee, 25, noted, adding that she later learned that she had been fired because her employer thought that her physical characteristics and demeanor “made the company look bad.”

Meanwhile, on public transport some people would refuse to sit next to her, she said, citing racial prejudice as the probable cause.

Even as a child in school, she was routinely mocked and ostracized because of her African looks, Natthawadee said.

“After school, my sisters and I would talk over dinner about how we were made fun of, even though it shouldn’t be a dinnertime topic,” said Natthawadee, who calls herself “Blasian Chick” and “Blasian ML&TH Chocolate Girl” on various social media platforms where she posts sassy videos and has some 200,000 followers.

“It’s a terrible feeling that you never forget,” she added.

She stressed, however, that she would not be a passive victim in the face of taunts and would fight back against people who belittled her over her looks.

“If they use nasty words with me, I [speak] right back,” Natthawadee said. “But I won’t attack their looks or skin color. I will say something about their upbringing that causes them to be so ignorant.”

The Thai social media star laid the blame for ingrained prejudices on Thailand’s dominant beauty industry, television shows and cultural traditions whereby lighter skin is widely seen as prettier and more preferable, especially in women.

Daytime soap operas, which are hugely popular, routinely feature fair-skinned actresses, many of whom have partial Caucasian heritage. Meanwhile, the role of villain is often reserved for people with darker skin.

“Thai society still treats black skin as something unacceptable,” Natthawadee said. “You cannot [succeed] with this skin color.”  

Over the years various advertisements, including those made for skin-whitening products, have been lambasted for depicting darker skin as ugly and undesirable. Some of those adverts and commercials had such pronounced racial overtones that they grabbed headlines worldwide.

Such prejudices about darker skin aren’t limited to Thailand, however, and they also prevail in neighboring countries where lighter skin is likewise seen as more preferable. In countries such as Vietnam and Cambodia, young women, especially in towns and cities, often go to great lengths to avoid being in the sun for fear of getting a tan.

Across Southeast Asia, darker skin is traditionally associated with farmers who have been viewed as people with lower status, experts say.

In Thailand, a country with an entertainment industry that is watched widely beyond its borders in Laos and Myanmar, an obsession with lighter skin has been wedded to prejudices about darker skin, observers say.

Racism in the country “manifests itself in a [plethora] of nuanced yet heinous large-scale exploitation,” Palis Pisuttisarun, a young Thai social activist who studies at Harvard University in the US, argued in a commentary article last week.

“There exist stereotypes, biases, and judgments — even if secretly whispered — which incite many of the racial issues present at a larger scale. We see buses toting whitening cream adverts and dark-skinned actors perpetually clowning around in comedic roles on TV every day.”

A prominent Thai political scientist who participated at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club event last week argued, however, that racism is less pronounced in Thailand than it used to be.

“As Thailand becomes more cosmopolitan, raw racism has not been eliminated, but there is lot less than there was in the past,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

“Thais’ discrimination comes from ignorance rather than hatred as we are seeing in America today,” Thitinan said. “Racial prejudice from ignorance can be rectified easier than deeply ingrained racism.”

That assessment has rubbed a Bangkok-based American foreign correspondent the wrong way, however.

“Isn’t that statement itself racist?” he fumed. “So [the professor] is suggesting that Thais are racists because they don’t know better, but white people are racists because they’re naturally hateful bigots.”

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