If you have "no place to go," come here!

I bought toothpaste today

Here's the package:

Well, er...

Since I'm really white, as a friend who I'd previously only met online line remarked, IIRC -- suffice to say, I've never been asked "No, really, where are you from?" -- I probably shouldn't even begin to pick this apart. However, this super work of political satire may help to show the role white (or whiter) skin plays in Thai culture:

BANGKOK – Suthep Thaugsuban, secretary-general of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) took a break from his relentless anti-government campaign yesterday to undergo a preventive medical procedure to re-whiten his skin.

Citing “the need to maintain the proper image at all times,” the PDRC made the decision on Thursday to get Suthep out of the sunlight and into a clinic where he could have his entire body coated in the finest skin-whitening creams and chemicals available in Thailand.

“It was a hard decision, with the election just a few days away,” said PDRC leader Chumpon Julasai, “but we decided that in the long run, it was better to take a day off of the campaign than to risk our movement’s image with an insufficiently white-skinned spokesman.”

Suthep, who has walked over 20 kilometers in the last 30 days as part of numerous PDRC marches throughout the city, reportedly accepted the recommendation of his colleagues “reluctantly.” According to reports, he only submitted when fellow PDRC leader Issara Somchai held up a mirror to Suthep’s face.

“Once he saw that he was as dark as an uneducated Isaan farmer, he realized that he was risking losing everything we’d fought for,” explained Issara. ...

Although the PDRC leadership insists that it represents all Thai people, its support base of wealthy urbanites, middle-class professionals, and traditionalist royalists is believed to be highly intolerant of direct sunlight and people with dark skin, as evidenced by the nearly complete absence of protesters from the protest sites in daylight hours, as well as the tendency among protesters to post Instagram selfies using the ultra-brightening “Amaro” and “Valencia” filters.

Additionally, protesters’ signage and Facebook comments referring to government supporters and pro-election Thais as “buffaloes” and “dirty-skinned rats” has created an unspoken expectation among the movement that its leaders uphold the proper aesthetic.

Sathit denied that either the whitening procedure or any of his comments constituted any kind of racism or bigotry.

“We are all Thais, so how can we be racist?” he asked. Addressing the reporter, he added: “You are a farang, so you cannot understand.”

Thailand doesn't have our horrific and ugly history of having bought, sold, worked, and bred black people as slaves, or protecting our one-time massive investment in "human capital" with racist ideological justifications (for which see Thomas Jefferson). I don't pretend to understand why white skin plays the role in Thailand that it does; you see women using parasols to avoid darkening their skin. It's very strange.

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quixote's picture
Submitted by quixote on

Dark skin is a class marker. That "Isaan farmer" bit gives it away, doesn't it? I would think a politician in the US whose teeth somehow turned yellow during a campaign would also take all the time necessary to go in for whitening before the final marathon under TV lights.

Fascinating detail about the absence of protestors during day time. I hadn't heard that before.

Oh, and be careful of that toothpaste. If you start sprouting a bow tie, stop using it.

PunchnRun's picture
Submitted by PunchnRun on

Simple. Dark skin means you've been outdoors, probably working in the fields. Like a common laborer, not an elite master who hires others to work while she gives orders from the porch.

MsExPat's picture
Submitted by MsExPat on

Ha! Darlie is not a Thai brand, it's a famous old Hong Kong brand that used to be, yes, "Darkie" until it got a PC facelift a decade or two ago.

Old joke here, I'm afraid. The irony is that the Cantonese and southern Chinese have long been the Darlies of China.

Submitted by lambert on

Now I understand why it's so low on the shelf! Nevertheless, the branding does work.

But what is it with whitness, anyhow? It doesn't strike me as especially attractive; quite the reverse, the longer I'm away from it.

psychohistorian's picture
Submitted by psychohistorian on

Wild ass guess to follow about Thai complexion social bias:

How about if the Asians from back in the days of European and American slavery "heard" about such an abomination and said to themselves, wow, we don't want to be slaves and it seems like those of color are marked for such treatment so maybe we would be less likely to be enslaved if our complexion was fairer/whiter?

Or like MsExPat said about the bias structure all over China...North good, South bad....just like in America....grin

And as a dentist once told me, only brush the teeth you want to keep.......

Jessica Yogini's picture
Submitted by Jessica Yogini on

I strongly suspect that the preference for lighter skin predates anything Southeast Asians heard about race-based slavery in the Americas. At least the use of umbrellas against the sun goes way back.
Even in the West, paler complexions were considered desirable until the late 1800s, when they had come to be associated with (low status) factory workers. The shift came about the same time that the beach became a desirable destination rather than a place that only low-status scavengers lived near.

Submitted by lambert on

AFAIK, there's nothing approaching the Atlantic slave trade in Thailand's history, or the political economy of the Antebellum South, and there's nothing like racism as an ideological justification for slavery's "human capital." There's also nothing like the paradox to which Dr. Johnson alluded when he asked: "Why do the loudest yelps for liberty come from the driver's of Negroes?" That's what I meant to say, but didn't. There has been and is slavery in Thailand, but today it's more on the scale of everyday human badness, like Immaloka, or debt slavery. There is also a dying system of family retainers.

Jessica Yogini's picture
Submitted by Jessica Yogini on

"AFAIK, there's nothing approaching the Atlantic slave trade in Thailand's history, or the political economy of the Antebellum South, and there's nothing like racism as an ideological justification for slavery's "human capital.""

This is a widely held misperception and about as far from the truth as it is possible to be.
According to the Wikipedia, as of 1867, one-third of the population was slaves and most of the rest were subject to corvee. Also, in Southeast Asian warfare, since there was more farmable land than there were people to farm it, rather than seize land, victors seized large numbers of people and took them back to their own country. Large-scale immigration from China was encouraged during the 1800s because there was a lack of non-slave labor available for constructing a more Western style economy.
"The Art of Not Being Governed" is an excellent book about those peoples who chose to stay outside of the major polities of Southeast Asia. Some of their cultural and economic patterns were molded around the need to evade raids by slavers from the major polities.
The residual patterns from this history may not be too visible to Westerners and they may be erased from the versions of history believed by many of those with whom it is most easy and most likely for Westerners to communicate, but Thais, especially those opposed to the continuation of such patterns, are quite well aware of it. Obscuring this history and its continued effects is the ideology of one side.
A lot of the intensity of feeling on both sides of the current political divide is much easier to understand once one realizes this.

Submitted by lambert on

Here's a PDF of The Art of Not Being Governed. Really interesting. Have to change my thinking!

Funny, I'd thought to have arrived at a place where the disfiguring effects of slavery were not so prominent. Silly me!

500 pages of this to read, hundreds of pages of Elinor Ostrum, who seems incapable of writing other than at book length... All fun, I admit, but time consuming!

Although this:

This brings me to my second emphatic assertion. What I have to say in these pages makes little sense for the period following the Second World War. Since 1945, and in some cases before then, the power of the state to deploy distance-demolishing technologies—railroads, all-weather roads, telephone, telegraph, airpower, helicopters, and now information technology—so changed the strategic balance of power between self-governing peoples and nation-states, so diminished the friction of terrain, that my analysis largely ceases to be useful. On the contrary, the sovereign nation-state is now busy projecting its power to its outermost territorial borders and mopping up zones of weak or no sovereignty. The need for the natural resources of the “tribal zone” and the desire to ensure the security and productivity of the periphery has led, everywhere, to strategies of “engulfment,” in which presumptively loyal and land-hungry valley populations are transplanted to the hills. So if my analysis does not apply to late-twentieth-century Southeast Asia, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Clearly however the scars or distinctions ("residual tension") or whatever remain as they do in the US.

NOTE I like "residual tension," because the tension is inscribed in the actual body, as through for example literally lowering one's self. This too happens in the US.

Jessica Yogini's picture
Submitted by Jessica Yogini on

Yes, the self-governing peoples have now mostly been absorbed into modern states (where modern = more thoroughly ruled from the center). But it is important to understand what was there and the process of its elimination because both are mostly missing from the histories taught in national societies (including the US and Europe).
And in some places, the process seems not fully complete, for example the parts of the countryside in India where the Naxalite movement is strongest.
The pattern of pockets of not-governed-ness being laid siege to and incorporated into centralized power hierarchies plays out in other ways too. Examples include increasing corporate control of the Internet and American universities having been corporatized since the 60s. Even the gains in rights for African-Americans, women, and LGBT also had a side in which formerly excluded groups were brought into greater conformity with mainstream norms.
Perhaps most importantly, this perspective raises the question of where the pockets of non-governed-ness (even better, autonomy) exist today and whether/how any of them can serve as seeds for a society free of overly concentrated power in the future.

Jessica Yogini's picture
Submitted by Jessica Yogini on

Russian serfs were white. They were freed about the same time as slaves in the US. The residual tension from serfdom were a big factor in the Russian Revolution.

Jessica Yogini's picture
Submitted by Jessica Yogini on

Somewhere (southern Thailand?), a couple of years ago, I ran into what looked like another brand from the same company that makes "Darlie". It was called "Whiteman" toothpaste. I am not making this up. I wish I had taken a photograph.

Jessica Yogini's picture
Submitted by Jessica Yogini on

The main ideological justification for concentrated power was karma and other aspects of Theravada Buddhism.
It is also worth noting the role of debt in turning people literally into slaves or into de facto slaves, both in the Americas and in Southeast Asia.

Submitted by lambert on

IIRC, racism was invented; we can see it happen, historically, at least our version of it, in the Atlantic Slave trade; we can see Jefferson talking himself into it; we can see the "positive good" theorists coming up with elaborate justifications in the pre-Civil War South (see The Mind of the Master Class by the Genoveses). Presumably, if the slavers had been blue-skinned, and the slaves green-skinned, then "blues" would be "naturally" superior to "greens," there would be (or not) social distinctions like "forest green," "teal," etc. And "Just So" stories to justify the distinction.

But are there similar accounts for South East and East Asia?

Clearly we aren't talking about a cultural universal here, given that Russian slaves were white; but one wonders if the Russian masters invented similar markers.

Rainbow Girl's picture
Submitted by Rainbow Girl on

Dunno, that's a big question, though an interesting one.

I was just noting that India has a millenia years old caste system that coheres with degrees of whiteness or darkness, where the whiter you are the higher on the totem pole, etc.

I think the comment about dark skin being associated with manual labor outdoors is close to the sociological realiy. The theoretical/religious/philosophical superstructure (hi Karl!) would be the rationalization -- to justify the worthier-ness of the whiter guys doing the Brahmin Hindu rituals while the darker guys plow fields and pick vegetables and build houses, bridges and dams for pennies.

IIRC there's quite a bit of this from the British Imperial angle in Kipling.

On the broader issue of slavery, haven't done research recently, but I believe that the French, the Germans, and the Portuguese (and the Belgians) all had slave systems -- it's just that their slaves worked in the colonial territories rather than on the colonial powers's native soil. Those countries already had native white populations doing the farming that black slaves were doing here on Southern Plantations. I really don't think that slavery is an invention of America -- an instance of American exceptionalism to claim that perhaps? (Noting irony with exceptionalism used in this context :) )

Jessica Yogini's picture
Submitted by Jessica Yogini on

One marker that was used in Russia was language. The serf-owning class all spoke French. Some of them could not speak Russian properly.
There is a theory that much of the Russian Revolution, in particular the ferocity of the agrarian reform (collectivization, famine), is better understood if one thinks of the revolutionaries (other than the first-wave intelligentsia types who are most famous) as being people who had fled the villages and hated everything about village culture (which still retained much of the status/power imbalances of the serf days).

Submitted by mgmonza on

Also, like that other major communist country, Cuba, Russia did more than any other nation to follow through on its promises to women. Employed, integrated, educated. This from a status of being slaves to slaves. Unlike the U.S., where we're fast returning to legal chattel status.

Very telling that when Russia returned to capitalism, women were forced out of the labor market (much like we have been in the U.S. over the past couple of decades) and oh, quelle surprise, prostitution made a comeback.

Submitted by lambert on

... to consider the question of whether human labor power is or could be a common pool resource and, if so, whether it's being managed... Properly.

It is true that wage labor would also lead us to consider this, but wage labor is perceived as natural and immutable, where slavery is not (or at least not chattel slavery).

paintedjaguar's picture
Submitted by paintedjaguar on

There were plently of white slaves in early America too, you know. And I don't mean just indentured slavery, but chattel, though indenture could be just as wretched. Lots of these slaves were Irish, but others were English or Scots whom the authorities deemed disposable riff-raff for political or financial reasons. They were treated no better than were the black slaves of the time.

People used to know this before identity politics and general historical ignorance erased it. As evidence, re-watch 1935's Errol Flynn vehicle Captain Blood, based on Sabatini's novel wherein Peter Blood, an Irish doctor in 1685, is shipped off to Barbados as a slave. The 1922 novel is in turn based upon the true account of one Henry Pitman. Here's some of the interesting history behind the fictional tale --