A Catholic missionary priest from an African country shares his personal encounters with racial discrimination in Thailand. His identity is concealed to protect him from possible repercussions from the Thai authorities. Top image: A cross atop a building in northern Thailand by Miguel Discart / Flickr.
I’ve been working in Thailand as a Catholic priest since 2012. Many times, I have been bullied and subject to discrimination just because of my black skin.
Despite my effort to learn the Thai language, to try to know the Thai culture and as a missionary to contribute to the development of the villages I have been assigned to, I always felt rejected or looked down upon.
But I am happy to learn through your news agency’s article that most Thai treat us badly out of ignorance, and not because there is systemic racism in Thailand. I really hope that through education all of us will learn to treat each other with respect.
Thailand is the second Asian country I have been assigned to work in as a missionary. Before coming here, I spent six years in the Philippines. I arrived in Thailand in February 2012 and just after few days, I discovered that it was not easy to be a black person in this country.
In fact, when my confrere — an Italian — and I went to meet a Thai priest who was in charge to introduce to us our jobs in Thailand, I remember that he greeted my Italian confrere with a welcoming smile and then looked at me and said, ‘I don’t like black people, they are bad people.’
I was very shocked and I phoned my parents who are my faithful fans to get some words of encouragement. Before that I could not have imagined that a man of God could go so low. Maybe I was very naive.
‘Many Times I Was Tempted to Give Up’
Another humiliating experience happened when I was studying the Thai language. Many young Thai people were willing to help my European colleagues do their assignments and improve their knowledge. But no one accepted to help me even while I asked for their help. Many chose to keep making fun of my pronunciation instead.
I also realized that during the meetings of priests and nuns, there seems to be the assumption that I am an ignorant; my Europeans peers were welcomed to give their opinions and I have to struggle to make my voice be heard.
When I was assigned as the priest in charge of a parish, I remembered that at the beginning, some people have difficulty accepting me as their pastor. Some even said that I will not stay there more than 6 months (thanks be to God, at the end I spent 6 years there before moving to Khlong Toei where I am working now).
I could see that other people were reluctant to introduce me to their friends as their parish priest, or to invite me to their house; they preferred to be seen with European priests.
It was not easy. I have to swallow my pride, and accept to be made fun of by some people who kept asking some strange questions, or making offensive remarks. Like may I touch your hair (as if I am a pet), do you have water in your country, do people wear clothes in your country, and so on…
Many times I was tempted to give up, but I kept praying, asking Jesus to help me to be perseverant, to love Thai people and to be faithful to the mission He has entrusted to me. My faith tells me that He is the One who wanted me to be in Thailand and to love Thai people.
Treated like a Criminal
Thai security officers also appear to be suspicious of me. I used to work in a parish located in Mae Sot in the far north. At a checkpoint on the way there, the police asked for my passport, but did not ask anything from my European friends.
It hurts me a lot when I remember that I brought my little contribution to the development of the villages by paying the tuition fees of some students (with money from my family), building a Church, building houses for some elderly people, and buying wheelchairs for people with disabilities.
Another experience I don’t look forward to is when I have to apply for the extension of my visa. have the same type of visa as other Europeans priests in our mission, but every time at the immigration office, they keep asking for many documents to justify my presence in Thailand.
I felt humiliated to be treated as a criminal, as you know, people from African are requested to go first to the section for criminal verification before renewing their visa.
As part of the criminal record vetting process, I must present my fingerprints and extra documents from the owner of my residence. The requirement doesn’t extend to the European priests, even though all of us live under the same roof.
But, please don’t get me wrong, I am not judging the Thai people – I am just sharing with you some experiences I have been through as an African person in Thailand.
I always tell myself that not all Thai people are racist. I believe that there are many Thai people, even among priests and nuns, who are welcoming and kind.
In fact, with time I came to meet very nice Thai people, and there are many who not only accepted me as a fellow human being, but also welcomed me as a friend. They felt at home with me. In the parish I work for, many Thais also overcame their prejudices about me and treated me as an equal person.
Before I flew home for holidays 2 years ago, many people in the villages gave me presents for my parents such as bags, traditional Thai dress, Thai sweets etc. When I returned, they were happy to see me back and they asked for news about my family. These gestures meant a lot to me, they showed me that they see me as their brother, and they love me.
I also remember with joy when Thai people helped me raise funds and collect gifts for Christmas in the villages. Some families also brought me to their house and shared Christmas meals with me, giving me an opportunity to know each other and build a better friendship.
In those moments, I see the goodness and generosity of Thai people. I prefer to keep those beautiful memories, because as you mentioned in your article, some behaved badly out of ignorance, and I want to believe that change is possible.