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.

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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.

‘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.  

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

Courtesy of Stephanie Stew’s blog

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.

‘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.