I am a traveler and a mixed race woman of color. When I visited Thailand my junior year in college, I moved through that world as all three: a traveler, a woman, and a biracial person. In the year and a half I was away, I only recall seeing 10 black people and no biracial travelers like me. My gender and biracial background prompted me to analyze my travel experience from a different perspective that most people don’t have.
While traveling, I had to fight to be considered biracial and American– two concepts that were considered mutually exclusive to so many people in the area. People assumed Americans were wealthy and white. Black was bad. Biracial was inconceivable. A Thai tuk-tuk driver told me, “No, no, you are not Western. Too short. Too brown.” The “melting pot” concept didn’t seem to exist in Thailand as it did in the States.
Blackness in general or anything dark was also seen as connected to poverty and ugliness, whereas whiteness signified wealth and beauty. That concept is ancient, deriving from old systems that validated fair skin over dark skin because the latter represented peasantry. Not only was white skin praised–as made evident by the skin-bleached billboard models throughout Thailand and my inability to find any beauty product without whitening cream in it– but white people were considered more respectable, because they had fair skin and, presumably, more money.
The bias ran in many. I saw countless dark Thai men and women hold onto the arms of white foreigners exclaiming how beautiful they were, “White skin so pretty.” “White skin more beautiful.” On the other hand, I was being hassled by beach kids for being “so black” and “so ugly”. There were almost unbelievable parallels between this and slavery ideals in America: dark field negro versus light house negro. I never went a day without someone remarking on my complexion, features and hair.
Months after arriving in Thailand, my light brown skin had turned a deep, reddish dark brown, and suddenly, in the minds of local and foreign men alike, I was considered a prostitute. Catching a motorbike was hell–I was being asked for the fare instead. Old white men grabbed my arms and ass and said:
“Ah, where did you come from? Can you take me tonight?”
My sun-darkened complexion classified me not only as a person of undesirable socioeconomic status, but also categorically as a sex object. It was disturbing to watch my white counterparts bask in the sun and frolic on sandy beaches while I was being hounded into sex for money by young locals and old white expats. I felt tense wherever I went, as I watched people attempt to make sense of who I was.
Sometimes, being perceived as attractive transcended the negative perceptions of dark skin and black people. People walked a tight rope to balance their actual perceptions with their bias. I’d often hear “Oh, you’re so beautiful, but so black,” as if they really wanted to say, “Black people can’t be pretty, so why are you?” The Thai lady who served lunch at the university I attended told me the same thing every day, repeating in awe, “so beautiful, very dark” with disbelief she didn’t apply to the blonde German girls in my course.
I felt that my mixed race background and skin color isolated me amongst the majority of my fellow backpackers; and I thought even harder and deeper about the sociocultural beliefs entrenched in the places I visited. The inability of so many of my white peers and friends to understand how different my experience was compared to theirs left me frustrated. I envied white travelers for their privilege of not being confronted with the same issues. Most would laugh off any upsetting experiences I had, while I was fighting this constant battle to simultaneously assert my identity and blend in. White backpackers would just nonchalantly say,
“Oh my God, I don’t get it. They all want to have fair skin, while we’re sitting here baking in the sun!”
I became close friends with a Belgian woman who too often felt that I was being hyper-vigilant about the negative attention, and excused the behavior by saying, “but this is how they are.” Only when a young Khmer boy said, “Skin so black, very ugly girl,” did she finally berate him. She was one of the few to understand the privilege that comes with fair skin, even as a foreigner.
Often, white travelers also confused me for a local or half Asian, as many Asian features bear a striking resemblance to the full lips, almond shaped eyes, and dark skin typical of African-descent people. I overheard a German man say to a friend when he saw me, “Wow, some of these people look black.” I smiled coolly and said “Surprise!” in my obvious California accent.
When my then-partner introduced me to some other travelers, one of them said, “Wow, she’s so beautiful, does she speak English?” I smiled and (again) said “Yes.”
Despite the gender and racial discrimination I encountered on my travels, I wouldn’t discourage any black people from traveling to the other parts of Asia or the world. I still believe in experiencing other cultures even if it means being the odd one out. My experiences in Southeast Asia made me realize the importance of being secure in my sense of self. In fact, the bluntness of many Southeast Asian people ultimately forced me as an explorer to look critically at my experiences, since so many others didn’t have to. In the end, I became more solid and resilient.
Despite these experiences, I met many forward thinking people living and traveling throughout Asia: friendly non-judgmental people eager to learn and share. When I could talk with locals, I was grateful for the chance to educate them. I remember being on a beach in Southern Thailand renting a kayak. Two Thai men approached me and asked to touch my hair. I let them. They smiled and said, “Wow. So beautiful.” That’s the type of experience I want more locals to have, and want people of color to give them. If I am privileged enough to be in a foreign place to learn about them, I can be grateful for the chance to teach them about me.