The anti-racist protests and riots in the United States across 70 cities as a result of the police killing of black man George Floyd on May 25 have got some in Thailand reflecting upon their own society.
Thai blogger Mike Raomanachai posted on Facebook in English last week that some Asians, Thais including, can be racists too. He said black American and African expats have been treated as second class citizens compared to their white counterparts.
“Many Asians in Asia are racists too. They always use slurs and look down on black people or [those] who have darker skin. African or African American,” he wrote.
Mike also angrily argues that: “Some of them have been treated as a joke on television. Enough is enough. I won’t stand racism in Asian community anymore.”
Then he went on to address his Thai friends for using Thai words like ‘Ai Mued’ or ‘Ai Dum’ which is a derogatory way of referring to black people, whether from Africa or the United States.
“You are a racist. Period. You are wrong. This tough conversation is needed in Asian community. We are better than this,” Mike concludes.
I share Mike’s sentiment, although the situation in Thailand is not as complex and severe as in the United States where the ancestors of many of today’s African Americans were largely brought to the American colony to be subjugated and exploited as slaves for centuries.
The term cultural chauvinism might be more accurate than racism for the case of Thailand.
In the United States, four centuries of institutionalized racism against black people means the feeling of white superiority is still deeply rooted in the consciousness and subconsciousness of a number of white people including police. This despite Barack Obama having become American president for two terms, starting in 2009.
Meanwhile, in Thailand, contacts with black people are quite recent and limited. Any major visibility of contacts with black people probably occurred when some African American soldiers were stationed in Thailand during the Vietnam War. Yet any real exchanges who limited.
Xenophobia and cultural chauvinism play parts in making fun of black people, however. Black people, whenever they appear on Thai TV, slapstick comedy shows and soaps, are almost always portrayed as uncultured or even primitive.
One Thai-based comedian is making a living out of such stereotype portrayals and has become famous.
Joey Chern-yim, a Bangkok-based Ghanian actor whose real name is Johnson Amidou is arguably most famous. The 45-year-old black comedian arrived in Thailand in 1999 and is fluent in Thai and has performed not only on television but in a dozen films.
I am happy that Joey is making a decent and honest living and liked by many Thai fans. Nevertheless, it’s unfortunate that Thai screenwriters and directors mainly use Joey to foster outlandish stereotypes of black people that fosters the perceptions of black people being barbaric, naïve and thus inferior.
I must confess that I sometimes find Joey’s acting “funny” but in a disturbing way and feeling guilty about it. This is particularly so when he starts making unintelligible speech on TV that is most probably invented – just like some American white mimicking what they think Chinese or Japanese sound like in order to make the audience laugh.
I am sure Joey as an actor can play serious roles as well if people in the entertainment industry have the will. It’s much more convenient to stick to the tried and tested formula of presenting black character as a buffoon or barbarian, however.
Local news involving African online scammers, people from African countries catfishing as handsome white soldiers on Facebook and robbing Thai women of their precious baht, does not help. Over the past week, some Thais tend to focus on the lootings occurring in the US to reinforce their entrenched preconceived perceptions that black people are violent prone and not law-abiding.
The only source of Thai admiration for black people, Africans or African Americans, are mostly limited to the field of international sports and music.
Since real human contacts between Thais and Africans as well as Africans are still limited, the hope for an immediate rectification of the situation is slim.
Opening up a conversation about our perception of black people helps, however. We must be honest about our feelings and bias.
Having an active black American Ambassador to Thailand can help. It can showcase black leadership in Thailand. It’s unclear how long will the wait. An article on Foreign Policy in 2018 stated that out of the 119 ambassadors nominated by US President Donald Trump since he took office in 2017, 91.6 per cent are white.
A more proactive role by ambassadors from various African nations can also help to in foster better understanding.
A long-term solution, be it racism or cultural chauvinism, starts with reflexivity and education. It’s imperative to examine our society and ask if there is something wrong and why. It’s here where Thais can learn from the bitter and shameful experience of racism in the United States and other societies and the hope that one day, not only black lives will matter in the US but all human lives will matter all over the world.