Thailand is the only southeast-Asian nation that was never colonized by western powers, and the Thai pride themselves on being a “land of the free.” But now it seems that some in the West want to impose a bit of cultural imperialism on the Thai.
Recently American media have criticized racist advertising in Thailand. Time complained about a Dunkin’ Donuts ad that featured a woman whose face was painted black, and then The New Yorker rehashed that story when complaining that Naomi Campbell appeared too white on the cover of Vogue Thailand.
According to these media outlets, Thailand has a problem with racism. The Thai consider light skin beautiful; therefore, they must be racists. The manipulating of skin color in advertisements offends some Americans; therefore, the Thai must be racist. The companies involved have issued non-apologies for these transgressions against American sensibilities; therefore, the Thai must be racist. All this hand wringing is nonsense, and if anyone has a right to be offended it’s the Thai.
In these articles, Americans take up the white man’s burden to bring the light of political correctness to a benighted nation. These articles insist that other peoples conform themselves to the concerns of American society, and if they don’t we can brand them with our harshest epithets.
We need to exhibit a bit of cultural sensitivity and look at the issue from the Thai perspective. The issue isn’t about racism at all. It’s about aesthetics. For as long as anyone can remember, the Thai have thought that lighter skin is more beautiful than darker skin. This aesthetic shouldn’t be considered racism because the Thai, a relatively homogeneous people, apply these standards of beauty first to their own people, then to secondarily to outsiders. Yes, color preference exists in Thailand, but Americans need to stop seeing themselves every time they look at the world.
The Thai prefer lighter skin tones because they believe lighter skin communicates higher social status. America used to prefer darker skin tones for the same reason. In America a higher social status meant that you could lay on the beach all day. But skin color is merely one component of Thailand’s aesthetic ideal, which also includes things like body shape and double eyelids.
I believe that Thailand could benefit from relaxing its standards of beauty a bit. But is America really ready to step in and have that conversation? What if we calculated all the money that Americans spend on cosmetics and cosmetic surgery? What if we added up all the money that the Thai spend on cosmetics (including sunscreen) and cosmetic surgery? Which country would seem more obsessed with idealized beauty? I don’t know, but I have my suspicions. The log in our eye is so big that we can’t properly identify the speck in our neighbor’s.
[Cross-posted at First Thoughts]