Being Black in Thailand: We’re Treated Better Than Africans, and Boy Do We Hate It

Black expats in Thailand and Australia describe the guilt they feel living fairly privileged lives in comparison with the discrimination that African immigrants and Aborigines face.

By Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele

This article was published at The Root on May 26, 2015.

In all fairness, the Thai police officer was absolutely right for approaching the swing set and telling Stephanie Stew’s friend—a grown woman in her 30s—to get off the swing.  

Even though Jane (for anonymity, we changed her name) was swinging next to her young daughter, the swing set was intended for young children, and the added weight of an adult could pose a safety risk.

But when the officer issued his request to Jane—a black woman he might have assumed was Ghanaian or Nigerian, living and working in Thailand—and she responded with her black American accent, he immediately switched gears and insisted that it wasn’t a problem.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” the Thai officer said. “You can stay.”

When he realized that she was a black American, Stew explained to The Root, the officer didn’t want to inconvenience Jane.  

Stew—a 38-year-old black American who moved to Thailand last August with her husband and 3-year-old daughter—says that’s just one of the many examples of how African-American expats practically have the red carpet laid out for them in the Southeast Asian country and are treated like gold, especially when compared with the black African immigrants who live and work in Thailand and are treated like, well, less than gold, and at times like s–t.

“That’s not the first time,” Stew explained, “that someone has mistaken us for an African” and then dropped their attitude or condescension once they realized that Stew and her crew were, in fact, American.  

“We’re treated better. … We’re treated better,” Stew said twice, as if it’s an idea that she still can’t comprehend, or a guilt that’s just too hard for her to swallow.

Stew recalls the time an African hair-braiding stylist was trying to get up to a hotel room where Stew’s sister-in-law was staying so that she could braid her hair. The hotel receptionist would not let the African woman get past the lobby, thinking that the hairstylist was a prostitute—even though the woman was older and not dressed scantily—because what could an African woman possibly be doing in such an establishment? (Stew says the hotel was not that fancy.) Stew’s sister-in-law had to come down to the lobby and escort the hairstylist up to her room.  

Stephanie Stew and her 3-year-old daughter in Bangkok

Stephanie Stew and her 3-year-old daughter in Bangkok.

Tomasina Boone is experiencing something similar in Australia.

Boone—a 45-year-old black American who has been living Down Under with her husband and two daughters for eight years—immediately picked up on the way white Australians treated her, as opposed to the way they view and treat Aborigines—the country’s brown-skinned indigenous people who are perhaps more comparable to Native Americans of the U.S.

“It’s the craziest thing in the world. Australians do not view us as they view their Aboriginals,” Boone said. It’s a reality that bugs her because Aborigines view their treatment as comparable to the racism that black Americans experience in the U.S.

“I’ve never experienced racism here as a black American,” Boone put it plainly.

Stew and Boone are two black Americans living fairly privileged lives because of their ethnicity and nationality. Living—dare I say—like many young and middle-aged white Americans live in the U.S., since, on one hand, they’re not contributing to and certainly were not the perpetrators of the ethnic hierarchies in Thailand and Australia—hierarchies that place black Americans on a level several notches higher than that of Africans and Aborigines.

But while they certainly didn’t cause the discrimination, boy, are Stew and Boone inadvertently benefiting from it—and, at times, feeling awfully conflicted about that.

Stew described how she used to give the universal black-people greeting—the nod—to Africans she saw out and about in Thailand, but unfortunately the gesture wasn’t reciprocated.

“They don’t like African Americans,” Stew said matter-of-factly. She described how the Africans “look away” when she tries to make eye contact with them or when she tries to establish that quick bond that black people often form when they are among the few brown faces in a sea of white ones.

Stew says it’s a “weird feeling” because she wants to get to know the Africans but can’t, because “they don’t want to be bothered with us.”

Boone is not sitting back and taking comfort in the privileges she’s afforded. She is working to make sure that the Aborigines’ social standing in Australia improves. Fortunately for Boone, the Aborigines she has encountered are much more welcoming to African Americans (as opposed to what Stew is experiencing in Thailand) and are extremely impressed and inspired by the civil rights movement in the U.S.  

“[The Aboriginals] call themselves black,” Boone said enthusiastically. She and other organizers held a viewing of the film Selma earlier this year to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Aborigines’ civil rights movement. Boone also takes her daughters to events and initiatives that advocate on behalf of aboriginal culture.

tomasina attends aboriginals event_2

Tomasina Boone and another black American attend an event at the University of Technology, Sydney, aimed at helping Aborigines get their college degree.

Both Boone and Stew point to “anti-immigration” as the type of “anti-black” racism present in both Australia and Thailand. It stems from the economic anxiety and concern that immigrants are coming into European and Asian countries and taking low-paying jobs from working-class communities.

That kind of discrimination is not reserved for Africans; it’s also directed at other groups.

“[The Australians] discriminate against the Asians, the Lebanese, the Greeks,” Boone said. “It’s about, ‘We don’t have a lot of pieces to this pie, and they’re taking our pie,’” she explained.

Stew echoed that analysis of how race relations take shape, although she noted that the black immigrants seem to get the worst treatment, presumably because of their race.

“The racism [in Thailand] is against Africans first. And then with the [non-Thai] races who are here: the Burmese, the Filipinos,” Stew explained sadly.

It’s on “another level,” she added.

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  1. wow. so should i move to thai or australia or NAH ?

  2. Did Ms Stew get off the swing because the officer was actually correct or use an entitled American attitude?

  3. As a African in America (black) that bo th the two lady separate themselves from the African in this article. This is the residue of colonization.

    There are some deep wonds that we have to heal in order to really bind on the spiritual level.

  4. Louis Bolden says:

    I am new to this site but I am glad I discovered it. I enjoyed both your features about Thailand, and Australia. It is good to know how life is in other parts of the world. Now I know I don’t have to solely rely on U.S. publications for information. By the way, I don’t believe Hillary is our best choice and I hope most Blacks agree. She is certainly depending on the Black vote but I hope we are not fooled this time around. Now is the time for the end of things as usual” . I am tired of my vote being taken for granted and for the same old reasons. Bernie and Trump, they both want to put an end to this Old White Man dominated political system. My vote is going to be well spent this time, like it was last time.

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