Lawmakers must heed the UN’s International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination
A “Whiteness makes you win” advert by Thai skincare company Seoul Secret recently went viral on Thai social media and garnered international coverage from outlets such as CNN and the Guardian. The ad for skin-lightening pills equates “whiteness” with success and “blackness” with failure, and has been withdrawn following a public outcry. However, is this a case of racial discrimination?
Historically, both in the West and the East, tanned skin has been associated with labouring. The inhabitants of both the Roman and Chinese empires used skin-whitening cosmetics. Moreover, within the Thai context, which draws on an Indic inheritance, while there are traditional sayings praising different colours of skin, only aphorisms praising whiteness – like “skin as radiantly light as the moon” – are well known.
Nonetheless, in early Thai illustrated manuscripts depictions of hell do not distinguish based on skin colour. However, from the 19th century, those unfortunates in the lower realms are shown more consistently as darker skinned. At approximately the same time in Europe, the first pseudoscientific racial typologies emerged, eventually coalescing into three “races”, the White (Caucasian), Yellow (Mongoloid), and Black (Negro), each with their own “innate characteristics”.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Thai nobility, many of whom were educated in imperial Britain or France, consequently associated themselves more with “White” civilisation, leading to the introduction of Western styles of dress and behaviour. Thais disassociated themselves from the “Yellow” race due to fears of emerging Chinese power, firstly in the form of secret societies in Thailand, especially following the 1909 general strike, and later in the form of rising Chinese nationalism and ultimately communism. However, there was no clear adoption of “whiteness” in terms of skin colour yet; photographs of Thai nobility from the period show darker-skinned people.
The 1930s and early 1940s saw a much clearer distinction between the “white” race and the “black” race as Thai citizens were urged to adopt the trappings of Western civilisation in every form. “White” civilisation was contrasted with “black” degeneracy in radio broadcasts featuring the fictitious patriots Mr Man Chuchat and Mr Khong Rakthai. A single quote from a June 1942 broadcast is illustrative: “[Sleeping on raised beds as Whites do] is the correct way because it is good for health. But for the Africans, they lie down wherever like monkeys. The difference in living style between the White people and the Africans is very noticeable. Civilised and uncivilised people are different in every respect of their daily lives.” However, Thai wartime propaganda also began praising the qualities of the “Yellow” race, especially following the fall of Singapore, which destroyed the myth of the invulnerability of “white” civilisation, and the subsequent alliance with Japan.
The large influx of American GIs to Thailand during the Vietnam War began to crystallise the issue of “white” and “black” in terms of both skin colour and “race”, though by that time no serious scientist acknowledged the validity of the latter concept. Thousands of mixed-parentage children were born, both to white Americans and African Americans. Thais reacted to these children by applying both the propaganda they had been taught and the older, more widespread, tradition of darker-skinned people being associated with labourers in a complex socio-psychological mix also involving karma. This is exemplified in the 1973 novel “Khao Nok Na” (Rice Outside the Paddy), where the different destinies of two Amerasian half-sisters, Dam (Black), who has an African American father, and Deuan (Moon), who has a white American father, are karmically determined by the role of the mother as a “rented wife”, the father’s “race”, and skin colour.
Certainly by the 1980s, Thai society’s fixation on equating “whiteness” with beauty and success was well established. The Eurasian “look” was being associated with success in contexts such as beauty contests. However, this posed problems of control of such messages within Thailand. For example, Thailand-born, California-raised Porntip Nakhirunkanok, the 1988 Miss Thailand and then Miss Universe, was portrayed as international in outlook by the Miss Universe corporation during a tour in Thailand, while her Thai public relations company struggled simultaneously to portray her as Thai. The Miss Universe corporation succeeded: she wore Western rather than traditional Thai dress when granted an audience with HM the Queen.
By this period, we can see the clear emergence of the widespread public sentiment that equates success with both whiter skin colour and “white” civilisation. In other words, whiteness is equated with “modernity” and development. This is evident in the Thai phrase pai aow phiw (“going to get [white] skin”), used of rural women migrating to Bangkok for work. In the 1990s, a multimillion-dollar commercial market developed in Thailand which could both meet and stimulate this demand: the skin whitener and cosmetic surgery industries. Together, these promise to lighten a Thai woman’s skin, provide a bridge to her nose, and create a double eyelid, thus “whitening” those consumers who have sufficient financial resources for such transformations.
The skin-whitening and commercial surgery adverts in the 1990s were mutually reinforced by Thai soap operas, with their very obvious notion that “dark is bad while white is good”. This has only deepened the stigma attached to the traditional, darker Thai face. This becomes a problem of racial discrimination when systematised along racialised lines. According to academic research, the Na Lao (“Lao face”) of Northeasterners is seen as “inferior” to a “white” look in a way similar to that in which Africans and African Americans are still typically perceived.
As such, and in line with Article 1 of the UN’s International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which includes discrimination by “colour”, Thailand must pass legislation to regulate the images and language of these adverts. This would help mobilise public opinion to challenge the socialisation processes which create the impression that Thai women are ugly or unsuccessful simply because of darker skin.