TWB: Traveling While Black

Prior to my move to South East Asia, I’d heard that fair skin was the standard of beauty, and that many locals bleached their skin in an effort to achieve a more desirable “European” look. I had read many articles about colorism and how people with darker complexions were treated poorly in Asian countries. The most common complaints of black travelers were; being stared at, having their photo taken without permission and having their personal space invaded by curious locals. They had taken the liberty of touching the black traveler’s hair or skin, again, without permission. There were also issues with finding employment because of their skin color. All of that information was quite discouraging and I was just about ready to abandon my plans of living abroad in Thailand, but then I had a moment of clarity. As a black woman in America I had been subjected to worse, much worse. Surely, I wasn’t going to let a group of curiously ignorant people hinder my plans, so I moved forward.

I continued to read articles about the black experience in Thailand. Outside of the issues regarding colorism, which overall were pretty minor in comparison to the plight of blacks in the US, I hadn’t read anything alarming.  There were no grievances about feeling unsafe, the crime rate was lower and cost of living cheaper. I didn’t find a pattern of black people being harassed or targeted by the police either. Overall, it seemed as though black expats felt that they had a better quality of life in Chiang Mai than in the States.

In America however, I’ve been told to go back to the ghetto where I belong, called the n-word, and a black bitch among other things.  I’ve seen people’s job applications thrown away based on how “ethnic” their named sounded. I’ve also been involved in several unsettling encounters with the police, which is basically a rite of passage for many black Americans. I’ve been questioned as to why I was in a certain area; FYI, it was a public park. The officer asked if I lived nearby or worked in the area. Why? Completely unwarranted. There was another time I was threatened with arrest for trying to write down a badge number after being spoken to in a sexually explicit manner by an officer. But the most memorable incident was when I was pulled over, asked to step out of my car and had a gun drawn on me while the police officer shouted instructions over the loud speaker. All of this was because I committed the potentially fatal mistake of not realizing that the temporary license plate on my car had flipped down and you couldn’t read the expiration date. It was one of the most terrifying and humiliating experiences I’ve ever had. Those are just a few examples, sadly I have many more. All these events took place in America, the country where I was born and raised.

So, colorism in Asia? Piece of cake.

After weighing the pros and cons of moving to Thailand, the positives greatly overshadowed the negatives. So, I made the move to Chiang Mai and hoped it would be a great experience, despite what I had read about the attitudes towards people of color in Asia. It’s been 10 months since my move overseas, and I have no regrets thus far. Since I’ve been in Thailand, I personally haven’t experienced any discrimination, as far as I know. I’m free to walk around a store without being followed because they are waiting for me to steal something. I feel safe in my neighborhood any time of day or night, and I’m not overcome with anxiety and fear when I encounter the police. They’re actually quite friendly here. I also don’t feel targeted by them whenever I’m stopped at a check point because I’m black. They target all non-Thai drivers. They assume, we don’t have the proper license to drive our motorbikes, and theyre looking to shake us down for money (more details regarding that in a later post). Most importantly, I’m not afraid that I’ll be shot, arrested or both when I interact with Thai police.

 When I arrived I was met with stares before I even left the airport. Honestly that still happens from time to time, but it doesn’t bother me. People also stared at me in the States if I were in a high-end store or neighborhood where I “didn’t belong”. I have also experienced people taking my picture without permission, but in general the people here are quite friendly and smile when they see me. There have been a few locals that were courteous enough to ask if they could take a picture with me, and not of me as though I was on display for them. I assume they needed photographic evidence of their encounter with a real-life, black person. I’m also okay with that, I personally find it more funny than offensive. Occasionally I’m complimented by the people here, which I find surprising given what I’d heard about the culture of skin bleaching.

I can’t speak to the level of difficulty in finding a job as a black person because I work online, but I have heard of a few people with several years of experience being passed over for jobs teaching English. On the other hand, I know several other black people that have had no issue finding employment. I’ve also met white, non-native English speakers that have found employment as an English teacher with no training or experience. Interesting.

But I digress, no place is perfect. I don’t know what type of issues concerning colorism await me in the future while living in Asia, but I’ll be ready for them. I’m sure none of it can compare to the harassment many black Americans are subjected to daily in our own country. At least the people in Thailand have a more legitimate excuse for their narrow-minded way of thinking.  They have limited exposure to black people, especially in the more rural areas, so they’re curious. Unfortunately that curiosity may cause them to act in a rude or inappropriate way. America on the other hand, is a country of immigrants. Most of us have been exposed to people from different races and ethnicities our entire lives. So, what’s America’s excuse?