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Opinion: From American Racism to Thai Chauvinism

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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.

https://www.khaosodenglish.com/opinion/2020/06/07/opinion-from-american-racism-to-thai-chauvinism/

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As to ambassadors ...

"In most cases, career foreign service officers serve a tour of approximately three years per ambassadorship, whereas political appointees customarily tender their resignations upon the inauguration of a new president. As embassies fall under the State Department's jurisdiction, ambassadors answer directly to the Secretary of State." (Wikipedia)

I can only recall seeing one Black foreign service officer at the US embassy in Bangkok, and that was years ago. That suggests the Foreign Service (which is hard to get into) is not very racially representitive of the US population as a whole.

There also seems to be a bit of nepotism in the foreign service. A Peace Corps colleague had a BA and MA from top rated Cornell University, besides being very fluent in Thai. He told me he took the foreign service exam twice, but never could quite score high enough to pass it. We were in a Bangkok bar one night, when talking to the American seated next to us revealed he was from the embassy. My friend commented on how hard that exam was and asked how he'd managed to pass it. The embassy guy replied, "Oh, I didn't have to take the exam. My father worked at the embassy and he got me hired."  I've heard similar stories snce then, and it is even worse at the UN.

 

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^^ The hire was probably as a "locally engaged employee" i.e. not a career foreign service employment.  

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My Experience With Prejudice as an African Priest in Thailand

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.

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.

Beautiful Memories

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.

https://www.khaosodenglish.com/opinion/2020/06/18/my-experience-with-prejudice-as-an-african-priest-in-thailand/

Wow. Insulted by another priest!  :shocked:

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I'm sure this is all true but "doesn't want to be identified from possible repercussions from the Thai authorities", obviously from amongst the hundreds of other black catholic priests working in Khlong Toei.

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Hi,

Right, there is a lot of identifying info in that post. Certainly enough for the government to figure out who this guy is, if they cared enough that is.

Sanuk!
 

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If he is currently working in Khlong Toei, he will probably learn firsthand where the problems come from, if he ever wanders north on Suk Soi 5 in the evening.

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