Brown and out? Black family in land of stares

Brown and out? Black family in land of stares

An African-American mother and daughter share their experiences in Bangkok dealing with the incessant glares of locals where when it comes to complexion, lighter is often considered better

A motorcycle taxi driver slips off the bike he had been perched on at the mouth of a soi. A tuk-tuk driver rear-ends a car stopped at a red light. A lady walks straight into a lift door.

OUTSTANDING: Latoya Brown and her daughter Shachaamah say that they receive plenty of attention in Bangkok because of the colour of their skin. PHOTOS: CARLETON COLE

Latoya Brown and her 14-year-old daughter Shachaamah have an uncanny talent for distracting locals in Bangkok. The thing about the Browns is that they are black. While Thais often euphemistically refer to the dark brown skin of their compatriots as ''black'', the Browns have the even darker skin of millions of others of African descent, which can be thought of in Thai as si dam pi _ really black.

''Just the other day I saw a young Thai woman walk into the door of an elevator,'' says Ms Brown. ''She thought that the door was still open, but was so busy looking at me so she hadn't seen that the door had already closed. So I walked up to her and said, 'Don't you feel stupid?'''

While the 37-year-old American acknowledges that there are not all that many blacks in Bangkok when compared to larger amounts of other foreigners, and so are something of a novelty and can evoke natural curiosity, it still isn't easy being the focus of inquisitive eyes, day after day.

She prefers to respond directly to those who judge her by the colour of her skin _ or are perhaps simply not used to seeing it. On the sensitive issue of racism _ specifically in terms of that against blacks _ she says: ''America has grown up in regards to addressing this over the last few decades, while Thailand is just beginning to address this, so it's hard to compare the situation in these two countries. I don't know if I would put the racism in the US and Thailand in the same category. They don't come from the same historical background.''

The Browns have lived in Bangkok since April. It is the latest stop on a tour to see more of the world, which Ms Brown wants to expose her daughter to, both the good and less so. They hail from St Petersburg, Florida. Before coming to Thailand the two spent several months in Ghana, while Latin America is on the agenda after about a year more in Thailand. The nature of Ms Brown's work _ online marketing via social media networks to help companies in various countries sell their brands online _ is conducive to a life hopping from continent to continent, feeling local rhythms along the way.

Ms Brown has plenty of stories reflecting the never-ending amount of attention that she attracts in even a relatively cosmopolitan city such as Bangkok.

''One morning as I was walking down a street near my home, this motorcycle taxi driver sitting on his ride at the end of the soi was staring at me and was swivelling so that he could keep looking at me as I passed him. Then he suddenly just fell off his bike and landed on the pavement. It was hard not to burst out laughing.''

Shachaamah has been the centre of intense interest as well.

LIGHTENED UP: The light depiction of the singer Beyonce in some adverts has prompted criticism.

''Once when I was walking down the street I saw a tuk-tuk driver who was looking right at me run into the back of a car that was stopped at a red light,'' she says. ''In the beginning, being stared at was something really different. Now I'm used to it. They see me coming from a long way away. I never start these staring contests, but I always win them.''

Unfortunately, it's not just being looked at _ the sometimes unkind reactions of some Thais that can be harder to accept.

''I've had people pick up their children and turn away from me on BTS,'' says Shachaamah.

Says Ms Brown, ''Once an older lady was emerging from a nice car and scrunched up her face in a way that was as if to say, 'What is this?' or 'I don't have to answer to you.' It was a look of disgust. And on the BTS, I've had people turn their backs to us. Maybe our darkness is contagious.''

As the Browns grapple with the life of being a minority in Thailand, Ms Brown is hoping that her daughter can gain a measure of toughness, as she home schools her, aided by the internet.

''One of the rules in our household is that outside forces don't define you,'' she says.

''I can tell when people are nice or rude, even though I don't speak Thai. You can see it in their eyes. When people are being rude, they point at you and laugh and turn to their friends and whisper something. It's pretty obvious. If it gets pretty blatant, I just approach them and ask, 'How can I help you?' or 'What did you say?' And that always solves the problem since this is a society in which confrontations are to be avoided.''

Ms Brown says that she has had mostly positive interactions with the Thais she meets in daily life.

''I was on the BTS and saw a Thai lady who was crocheting. I crochet and knit myself, so there was some camaraderie there. I told her that her work looked nice and she smiled and said, 'Thank you.'

''The people at my local 7-Eleven are okay too. They try to get me to buy stuff, but they smile and I can tell that they are sincere,'' she says. ''Most Thais are nice to me. If it was more negative here, we'd probably leave sooner. For those who ask questions about me, I'm happy to answer.''

Sometimes, though, her listeners wish that she was perhaps a bit more exotic in origin. ''When I say I'm from America they look kind of disappointed.''

Many of Ms Brown's best memories in Bangkok are forged in the sweat and grit of the muay Thai classes she regularly takes at a gym near the flat she shares with her daughter in Saphan Khwai. And she has come to win the respect of her sparring partners, although she says, ''At first they were like: 'What the hell is this girl doing here?' But I wanted to fight in a local environment, not one geared around foreigners with air-conditioning. I wanted an authentic place to practice.''

Both Ms Brown and Shachaamah appreciate how sport historically has been a great equaliser for people of colour, although Ms Brown adds that ''not all blacks can be [Miami Heat basketball star] Lebron James. We're just normal people.''

Meanwhile, Shachaamah is a rising tennis star who has won so many trophies and medals at US Tennis Association competitions in the southeastern US over the last seven years that she's lost count. She generally fares well each time she takes on any of the racquet-wielding members of the sports club off Sukhumvit Road that she belongs to.

She's eagerly gearing up to attend an International Tennis Federation competition for young players at Impact Arena in Muang Thong Thani later this year. Shachaamah is a big fan of Serena Williams ''because she's a winner''. She adds that the fact that the top-tier tennis star is black is ''just an addition''.

A regular partner with whom Shachaamah plays says, ''Everyone loves her at the club. She almost never loses, and regularly beats older tennis players who are a lot more experienced than her.''

But Shachaamah has had a more difficult time adjusting to life in Bangkok than her mother. While at home in St Petersburg, and in rural Ghana, she was accustomed to being one among many black faces, she is now learning to deal with feelings of not fitting in. ''The same people I see every day when I walk down the street in my neighbourhood always point and laugh at me.''

Unlike her mother, who often confronts people in such incidents, Shachaamah chooses to keep walking and ignore such insensitivity. She breaks into a wide smile, though, when mentioning the affection she always receives from her favourite chicken vendor in a market near her Bangkok apartment. Without any hint of animosity, and a large amount of streetwise sensitivity, she just shrugs off the ill treatment as something to be dealt with _ and overcome _ in life.

Ms Brown reckons that the sensitivity of youth contributes somewhat to Shachaamah's more negative characterisation of how she is treated in Thailand. ''She's younger, and her approach is kind of hands off, where I'm more confrontational. But I want her to fight her own battles, on her own terms.''

Ms Brown says that her daughter's struggle has not swayed her at all from arranging for Shachaamah's half-brother Asad to spend some culture-shock-tinged quality time in Bangkok with her later this year. After being immersed in Bangkok life for many months, Asad will return to live with his father in Kansas City, in the midwestern US. Ms Brown is determined to see that her children have life experiences, and see what the world is like firsthand; in July, Shachaamah will be taking part in a volunteer programme taking care of pandas in Chengdu, China.

''Usually the negative comes first, when people judge you because of how you look,'' says Ms Brown, adding that if you make a concerted effort, however, you can show them the reality of who you really are.

Aside from being ogled a lot, the Browns face the indignity of having to choose between higher-end skincare products with whitening agents or very cheap and less effective ones that don't have them.

''I recently tried to buy some sugar scrub ... It smells good and exfoliates the skin. But all the ones here I've seen have whitening agents,'' she says. So many skincare products and even many of the deodorants promise to make me creamy white. The culture here is everyone wants to look light and bright and white.

''All of this makes me wonder about Buddhism, and how locals would have responded if Buddha had asked: 'Do you need to be white?' I've always thought about Buddhism as focusing on being balanced, and this is not balanced. You see this focus on whitening everywhere.''

She notes with concern but not surprise that in the images in Pepsi advertisements of Beyonce peppering many Skytrain stations, the black singer's face is presented to look very, very light.

''Image is everything, here and elsewhere. Once I was talking to this woman from a school to help a friend who was looking for a job as a teacher in Bangkok, and the woman said, 'Sorry, we don't hire brown people,' despite knowing that my friend was well qualified.

While in Vientiane, Ms Brown recalls her and her daughter passing a group of children sitting outside a building. ''They kept tapping each other on the shoulder so that they did not miss a chance to gawk at us in a mean way. I told one of them: 'You are being disrespectful.' And I didn't say it nicely. I yelled at him. But you never say anything and not be prepared for the consequences. I was ready for confrontation.

Ms Brown says that people in the region need to start asking deeper questions about why dark skin is seen as something bad.

''Multiculturalism is coming. So these questions of skin colour are coming too. You have to deal with yourself first. I already have two children and I don't want to teach any more people. I don't want to be an advocate. I'm not Martin Luther King. I just want to live.''

LIGHTENED UP: The light depiction of the singer Beyonce in some adverts has prompted criticism.

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