OPINION — “But you aren’t white. How are you able to speak English so well?”
That’s an actual question a new classmate asked me on my first day at a Thai school after moving back from the United States.
I initially thought she was asking why I wasn’t “white,” as in, culturally Americanized. But having grown up in the United States, I was as American as apple pie.
Later, it dawned on me that she was referring to my skin color. She was perplexed as to how someone with my honey-colored skin — the same color so many Americans used to envy me for — could speak English so well.
Over the years, this has happened to me repeatedly. People in Thailand just couldn’t seem to associate the way I look with someone who grew up or studied abroad and could speak more than one language. My darker skin color automatically labeled me “poor and uneducated.” Like so many others, I was subjected to the colorism that is widespread in Asia.
Colorism — the prejudice against individuals with darker skin among people of the same ethnic group — has long persisted in Thailand. For centuries, darker skin was associated with farmers and laborers who spent time working under the sun. Having fair skin was an indicator of higher socioeconomic status, i.e. the privilege of staying indoors.
To this day, Thais hide under umbrellas, wear long sleeves, and make all attempts to avoid exposure to sun. You would think we were a nation of vampires from the way we cower from daylight.
But while colorism isn’t new, it actually seems to be getting worse.
The obsession with being white is fed by the media. Thai television, billboards, and magazines are full of pasty white faces — very rarely are brown Thais cast as anything other than villains or slapstick comedy foils. Most celebrities are, in fact, half-Thai, half-Western. That applies for beauty pageants as well. Three of the past five Thai Miss Universes have been half-Caucasian.
Five years ago, a famous beauty product company, Citra Thailand, held a campaign asking university girls to send in pictures of themselves holding a bottle of Citra whitening body lotion. Winners would be judged on the product’s “efficacy” and would be awarded scholarships of THB100,000 (about US$3,100). This further reinforced the skewed ideology that skin color is somehow proof of wealth, education, or competency — or lack thereof.
Our insecurity has given rise to a skin-whitening beauty industry that’s projected to be worth US$31.2 billion worldwide by 2024, according to a 2017 report by Global Industry Analysts, Inc.
The Asia-Pacific region is the largest market in the world for these so-called whitening products. As I walk down the aisles of drug stores, whitening facial creams line the shelves left and right, some coming with “color strips” guaranteed to leave you three shades lighter in two weeks. Whitening deodorant. Whitening nipple cream. Whichever part of your body you want to whiten, we’ve got you covered.
And we haven’t forgotten the men: some clinics in Bangkok now offer “penis whitening” laser treatments.
Yet there are health risks involved that aren’t so laughable: the mercury and hydroquinone that act as bleachers in whitening products can cause ochronosis, a skin discoloration resulting in bluish-blackish patches — quite the opposite of what you bought the cream for in the first place. Oh, the irony.
The stigma around skin color poses a real concern. Many darker-skinned women are perceived to be from rural provinces, as workers in the nightlife business, or, most condescending of all, as “mia farang” — women from poor backgrounds who marry wealthier Western men who fancy their exotic looks. This degrading of women doesn’t only harm their social status, it impedes their access to well-paying careers.
At the end of the day, colorism remains a cultural problem. Because of this, I dread the future. If my generation feels the need to whiten our genitals to fit into society, what will my children’s generation be faced with?
But I also hold out hope that one day colorism will fade away. If that is ever to happen, Thais must first acknowledge each other as equals sharing a common identity and culture, regardless of complexion.
Through self-acceptance, I have learned to embrace my skin color. I hope others can do the same, that my future children can enjoy the beautiful beaches our country offers without being scared of getting a little tanned, that they’ll never come to me asking for money to buy whitening products.
Tayo Tunyathon Koonprasert is a Master in Public Administration student at Harvard University.