Chiang Mai Zoo event sparks blackface controversy

Photo: Chiang Mai Zoo
Photo: Chiang Mai Zoo

A celebratory event at a major zoo in northern Thailand sparked a debate this weekend over the use of blackface.

Images and videos of a welcoming ceremony for a baby giraffe and zebra at the Chiang Mai Zoo’s African animals section garnered attention when two zoo staff were seen portraying blackface, painted head-to-toe in black paint, with lips bright red, and dressed in East African shuka tartan. Video showed them bouncing up and down and chanting animal noises.

It was reported that Chiang Mai zoo director Wuttichai Muangman gave the two THB500 as compensation for their performance.

The images began circulating on Facebook and Reddit, with some quick to call out the overt racism online. As of Monday afternoon, the zoo has not responded to the controversy.

Blackface, which originated in the US as a way to mock African Americans in minstrel shows, spread throughout the world through cartoons, pop culture, and kitsch, and this is not Thailand’s first blackface controversy. Recent years have seen Thai comedians in hot water for their “hip hop” costumes, pulled ads from cosmetic brands, and apologies from Dunkin’ Donuts

However, not everybody seems to agree. While some online have spuriously said it is a tribute to the Maniq people of Thailand—a group numbering about 300—others have argued that there’s an enforced Western bias on what is considered racism. 

On Friday, the Chiang Mai Zoo welcomed two animals: a six-year-old male baby giraffe and a two-year-old male baby zebra. Both the calf and foal were transferred from Khon Kaen Zoo last month and underwent a health examination by the veterinary team during a 10-day quarantine period. Their appearance at the zoo coincides with the first semester break for students in Chiang Mai.

The celebratory event which lasts through this weekend lets visitors feed the young animals with vegetables and fruit for free.

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