In 2006, Dwight Turner, a twenty-eight-year-old Atlanta native, moved to Thailand. Not long after arriving, Turner told me, he went to a prestigious Bangkok elementary school to interview for a teaching position. But when the administrator saw Turner, who is African-American, he made it clear that Turner would not be hired. “You’ll scare the children,” the man said.
As many people of color who have lived in Thailand can attest, problematic racial attitudes are commonplace in the country. Black people frequently face discrimination in the workplace and scrutiny from police; many Thais have an aversion to dark skin. In the World Values Survey, which measures attitudes on a variety of issues, twenty-eight per cent of Thai respondents said in 2007 that they would not like to have neighbors of a different race. That compares with less than five per cent who said the same in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Brazil, and Norway, among other countries.
Thailand is by no means an outlier among Asian countries: the proportion of respondents who said that they wouldn’t like to have neighbors of a different race was lower in China, Taiwan, and Malaysia, but higher in India, South Korea, Vietnam, and Indonesia. But in recent months, a series of controversies over the depiction of skin color has focused attention on racial attitudes in Thailand, in particular. In August, a strange advertising campaign appeared on Bangkok’s mass-transit train system. Posters showed a woman, her face painted black and her lips bright red, holding up a black donut; it was a promotion for a new Dunkin’ Donuts treat. The accompanying television ads, which carried the slogan “Break every rule of deliciousness,” portrayed a light-skinned young woman eating the donut and then turning black.
The ad attracted international criticism. Human Rights Watch labeled the advertisements “bizarre and racist,” and Dunkin’ Brands’ chief communications officer, Karen Raskopf, apologized. But the C.E.O. of the separate Thai franchise, Nadim Salhani, initially called questions about the advertisements “paranoid American thinking.” He told the Associated Press, “It’s absolutely ridiculous. We’re not allowed to use black to promote our doughnuts? I don’t get it. What’s the big fuss? What if the product was white and I painted someone white, would that be racist?” He added, “Not everybody in the world is paranoid about racism.”
More recently, ads for a skin-whitening product, Unilever’s Citra Pearly White UV body lotion, appeared on TV and online, offering a thirty-two-hundred-dollar prize for a university student whose photo of herself, in her school uniform, best showed the lotion’s “product efficacy.” Unilever apologized for any “misunderstandings,” but the contest continued as planned.
Many people in Thailand—and throughout Asia and other regions—take rigorous precautions to protect their skin from the sun, preferring a light complexion that has historically indicated that one doesn’t labor outdoors. A common perception in Thailand is that those who have lighter skin come from higher social strata, while those with darker complexions hail from the country’s poorer, rural regions. Television advertisements for skin-whitening products are commonplace during daytime soap operas, and billboards for cars and other high-end goods typically feature light-skinned actors. Turner, who now works as a social-media expert, told me that the constant barrage of skin-whitening commercials sends a message that dark skin isn’t acceptable, and that everyone should yearn to be as white as possible.