What enters your head when you imagine the average Thai person? Compliant? Well-mannered? Pacifist? Probably. Unafraid to rise up and audaciously demand action and justice? Definitely not.
One of the most vital tools to unlearning deep-seated prejudice as a society is active education: not just the static curricula taught in schools, but also the constructive conversations that transpire in day-to-day exchanges. In the wake of the recent Black Lives Matter protests, I've tried to initiate dialogue among close Thai friends and family, but instead of gaining much conversational momentum, most attempts ended in a defensive litany of "But I'm not racist!" and "But how is that our problem?"
The Instagram Story-esque notion of a healthy, open conversation seems to fall flat in a Thai social setting. The uniquely uncomfortable air that paralyses conversations of race and discrimination in Thailand isn't merely inconvenient but is symptomatic of the deeply unsettling Thai attitudes, values and priorities that have long inhibited social progress towards the racial justice we all deserve.
In the US, systemic racism runs in the veins of their questionable institutions. Legal doctrines like qualified immunity allow police brutality as in the case of slain George Floyd, whose death at the hand of police in Minneapolis late last month triggered protests -- and unrest -- across the globe and other injustices in education and employment to slip through the loosely jointed fingers of lawful justice and the people's claimed constitutional rights. But in Thailand, racism quietly runs in the veins of our people.
In the US, racism prevails due to a history of cyclical bigotry and segregation. In Thailand, however, racism prevails because we have allowed it to.
Though racism isn't systemically enforced in Thailand, it still manifests itself in a plight of nuanced yet heinous large-scale exploitation. There exist stereotypes, biases, and judgments -- even if secretly whispered -- which incite many of the racial issues present at a larger scale. From the pop culture that heavily appropriates black culture to the beauty industry that capitalises on a corrupt, anti-black ideal of beauty, our society seems riddled with deeply disparaging messages of race and colour. We see buses toting whitening cream adverts and dark-skinned actors perpetually clowning around in comedic roles on TV every day.
The question is no longer whether racism exists here -- it does. The question is why are we, as a conscientious society, not addressing it?
Why haven't the Thai rappers who culturally appropriate black music spoken out in solidarity with their artistic benefactors? Why aren't businesses and the media apologetic about their pejorative portrayal of dark skin tones? Why can parents and teachers implant racist teachings into children without repercussion?
It ultimately comes down to the Thai attitude: to prioritise agreement over objection, complacency over resolution, image over voice, peace over justice. We have been trained over generations that ignoring conflict is a better solution than confronting it. In a predominantly religious society, the Buddhist philosophy of "letting go" teaches Thais to be perfect diplomats at the expense of expressing our beliefs.
I was taught that those who choose to be outspoken are jeopardising their own happiness. Happiness, apparently, is contingent on the number of people you ideologically please, so to remain neutral or to "walk the middle way" is the only way to avoid displeasing anyone including yourself. This endorses a collectivist culture in which dissent leads to a sort of moral stalemate.
But in the face of this global movement, to pretend this issue doesn't exist would mean to surrender to a world rife with racism among other forms of injustice. We can no longer afford to feign nonchalance or feel greng jai; instead, we must show up for the black community everywhere by making sure that Black Lives Matter in Thailand. Even if racism is disguised in a different form here, it's important we don't feel alienated by this movement and use our voices to call out racism in our local communities.
This does not mean to become a performative or optical ally either. It may be a great first step to speak out and share resources on social media, but being an actively anti-racist ally takes more than the lacklustre effort of sharing a post every now and then.
In addition, let's try to educate parents, siblings or relatives who may believe or perpetuate racist stereotypes. Reach out to creators of offensive content to express contempt, whether that be a racist billboard, soap opera or textbook. Hold friends and colleagues accountable for their racist banter. Refuse to support businesses that appropriate, belittle or capitalise on black culture and identities. Read and research on the issues of race that are prevalent both locally and globally. As global citizens, we bear the mutual responsibility of standing up against prejudice no matter where from.
You have a platform and a voice. We were never voiceless per se; we're just learning to use it.
If doing your part feels like treading on foreign territory, believe me: it's a step in the right direction.
Palis Pisuttisarun is a teenage social activist currently studying at Harvard University.