Acknowledging My White Privilege in Southeast Asia

July 11, 2017

Red and gold Thai temple

I’m considered exceptionally beautiful in Southeast Asia. Multiple local men stare at me as I walk down the street, and I have been propositioned by men several years older than I. My Thai cooking teacher referred to me as a “supermodel”, because I have the long legs that Thai women do not. I don’t attract this attention at anywhere near the same level at home in Australia. I get it in Southeast Asia because I am white. This is a characteristic of my white privilege; I am the beauty ideal because of my skin colour.

Pale skin is one of the biggest markers of beauty in Southeast Asia. You have to be careful when trying to buy skin products in supermarkets, because a large quantity of them have skin-whitening chemicals in them. Billboards of celebrities are whitewashed beyond recognition. If you have darker skin in Southeast Asia, it generally means that you are of a lower social class that has to spend time doing manual labour in the sun. In the same way that being tanned is associated with leisure and wealth in Western cultures, pale skin is a status marker in Asian cultures.

Whiteness is not just associated with beauty in Southeast Asia. The Western world in general represents knowledge and power. This study on volunteers working in Vietnam identified that many of the organisations looked to Western university students as the pinnacle of knowledge, regardless of whether the locals had more experience in the project. It outlines that the local workers believed that because the volunteers were from an Australian university, that they were associated with ‘an image of advanced Western knowledge and education’. It can be seen that whiteness is equated with both beauty and knowledge in the Southeast Asian context.

I was vaguely aware of these attitudes towards white skin before travelling to Asia, but it took that experience for me to open my eyes and fully realise how I am perceived in the world because of my skin colour. I fully realised how deeply privileged I am.

What is white privilege?

The theory of white privilege is that people who are white, or appear to be white (white-passing), are granted a variety of opportunities in life that are not afforded to people of colour. This can range from being the accepted standard of beauty, to having most positions of power in mixed race countries, to not being the subject of repeated patterns of police brutality. You can see a more comprehensive list of the characteristics of white privilege here.

A Vietnamese farmer in the countryside

White privilege within the travelling community

White privilege is rampant in the travelling and blogging spheres. The majority of hostels are full of white, Western travellers, and some establishments even go so far as to discriminate against guests based on their race or ethnicity. This popular hostel in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, even states on their Hostelworld page, that they ‘are only able to accept online bookings based on availability and discretionary basis, which may exclude bookings from Malaysia, India, Africa and Middle Eastern countries.’ This is clear racial discrimination, showing the kinds of backgrounds that they want their guests to be coming from. I am certain that this isn’t the only hostel that uses these methods.

I know that it also makes things so much easier to be a white traveller. My friend with South American heritage is constantly stopped by airport security and heavily scrutinised, despite being an Australian citizen. He is given the kind of treatment that I, as a white traveller, would never have to endure, unless I showed physical signs of carrying drugs or weapons.

White travellers also dominate the blogger sphere. Although there has been an increase in the number of diverse bloggers, there is no avoiding that the most successful are white, and usually male. Bloggers of colour face unique issues that white bloggers could never understand because of our different lived experience. It is important to amplify the voices of bloggers of colour and contribute to the diversity of the market.

Although not restricted to white travellers, English-speaking travellers have the most privilege. In hostel environments, English is usually the go-to language for groups, even if it is the second or third language for many travellers. If you can speak English, it is almost expected that you will be able to talk with travellers no matter where you go. Many travellers are also conceited in their unwillingness to learn any of the local language and will expect that locals will have some level of English to understand them. The tourism industry in Southeast Asia, for example, is so established with locals that have learnt to speak English, that learning any of the local language is barely needed. This is true privilege.

Thai temple in gardens

White privilege in Australia

I think it would be wrong and short-sighted to draw attention to my white privilege as a traveller, without acknowledging how it impacts me at home in Australia.

I was quite frankly embarrassed when a Colombian man asked me to explain our relationship with the Indigenous people of our country. I was embarrassed, because the Australian government, and so many Australian people, are deeply prejudiced against our Indigenous Australians. Few people outside of Australia seem to realise how truly racist we are in our policies and our attitudes.

Indigenous Australians are incredibly marginalised, in ways ranging from a far shorter life expectancy to much lower rates of employment. A more comprehensive analysis of the different statistics between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians can be found at this site. To be white in Australia means that you are far more likely to be employed, have better access to healthcare, and an overall better quality of life.

Many Australians also hold the attitude that our Indigenous people are welfare-bludgers, alcoholics, and abusive towards their families. These attitudes seem to ignore that colonisation completely stole all the land and rights from the Indigenous Australians, and rendered them second-class citizens. To be Indigenous in Australia is to be at a great disadvantage compared to white Australians, and to not have the same opportunities available.

So what does this all mean?

If you have white privilege, that doesn’t mean that you are inherently racist or that you will never struggle with anything in your life. It just means that you were born with a set of characteristics that give you leverage in many aspects of society. Unfortunately, white skin is still associated with status, power, and knowledge, both implicitly and explicitly.

It is important to recognise the privilege that you hold, and act as an ally to communities of people of colour. You should focus on listening to their struggles and concerns, and amplify their voices when possible. When it comes to travelling, it is important to act inclusive towards travellers of different backgrounds and languages, without making assumptions. If we want to move towards a more equitable society, then we need to do it together.

21 Comments

  1. Reply

    Tara

    I’m from America and have spent the last two years living in China and traveling around Asia. I’ve always been aware of white privilege back home, but it’s very different in Asia. I didn’t expect to be treated like a super model everywhere I went or have people constantly requesting pictures. Apart from noticing it socially, I’ve also witnessed the effects professionally. After working in China for two years, I’ve seen a major difference in the way the foreign teachers are treated compared to our Chinese counterparts. It ranges anywhere from pay and benefits to workload and expectations to verbal abuse from parents. I think it’s important, whether at home or abroad, that we acknowledge the privileges we experience and act as an ally to those who don’t, as you’ve said. Great post and very well-written!

    1. Reply

      Her Travel Therapy

      Thanks for reading! It is incredible how much it pervades every part of society, even down to the attitudes of the parents of the children you are teaching!

  2. Reply

    Natalia

    This is such an interesting read! When I was travelling Africa its a different vibe, but people look and treat you so different because youre white, I’ve experienced it in Asia as well especially India. Its shocking how much is apart of a lot of socieities.

  3. Reply

    Lisa

    A good post Kate, and something that isn’t easy for people to talk about. I think you’re right about the most successful bloggers being white, but I thought they were female, and not male. It’s encouraging to see other female bloggers, and those of colour, who are also climbing the ranks in the blogging world. Southeast Asia has always been, and will always be like that. For me, it just makes me laugh, as it’s something almost ingrained in their upbringing!

    1. Reply

      Her Travel Therapy

      I’m not too sure about the gender split of bloggers, but I would say that the ones who are making the most money (e.g. Nomadic Matt) are men. Yeah I’m definitely seeing a lot of diversity emerging and it’s really good to hear different voices.

  4. Reply

    beccajtalbot

    I had a similar experience in India, actually. I was constantly asked for “one selfie” or “one photo with my wife”, and I felt like a bit of a sideshow freak as people tried to sidle up to me so their friends could take pictures of them stood next to a white girl (with blonde hair and blue eyes too, so added freaky-ness). Over the week it did start to grate on me, and my tour guide could see I was getting annoyed with the constant hassle when I was trying to learn about the buildings and tourist attractions I was visiting. So he explained that many of the people at the tourist attractions were from poor, remote villages and so would have never seen a white person before. This made me feel special, and after that I took more time to talk to them when they approached me x

    1. Reply

      Her Travel Therapy

      It can be a bit confronting to realise that you are a novelty in many places that you visit, but as you said, it is usually coming from a harmless place.

  5. Reply

    Shaun Robertson

    I feel like you are stretching what white privilege is here. I think there are other factors in what makes a white women desirable in an area where there are so few. I am aware of the products for skin whitening in Asia but what about bronzers in Western culture? You’re reaching a bit.

    1. Reply

      Her Travel Therapy

      Like I wrote in one of my paragraphs, the relationship between skin whitening products and bronzing products in Western culture is that both represent leisure and wealth. It’s just one aspect of white privilege in that cultural context, and there are many other factors which affect other parts of society.

  6. Reply

    Medha Verma

    I’m brown and have often faced racism in either obvious or subtle forms in many places but the most in Southeast Asia! People of my own colour have discriminated against me and that’s probably the worst thing ever. In Thailand, one woman even threw food at me only because I stopped at her two-wheeler shop to ask the prices for rentals and she didn’t want to deal with any ‘Indians’! Shocking behavior.

    1. Reply

      Her Travel Therapy

      Wow that’s intense that she threw food at you! I have heard that it’s particularly bad in Southeast Asia. I am really sorry that you have had these experiences.

  7. Reply

    jusztravel

    this is so true. In the Philippines, if you are a white person, you get treated differently and that can go both ways, good or bad. Servers, hotel staff, bank personnel, security guards will definitely be more patient and attentive to your needs, but other people may also take advantage of white people since there is this mentality that white people are rich, so there is a higher chance of getting robbed, looked down upon if you don’t tip well, etc.

    1. Reply

      Her Travel Therapy

      That’s interesting, thanks for sharing your experience in the Philippines!

  8. Reply

    forever roaming the world

    When I traveled through S.E.Asia a German white friend of mine traveled with me and it was the same for her. We had noticed through our travels about the skin whitening too. I have to say as a brown person from England, in all my years of traveling I’ve never had any racial problems while traveling.

    1. Reply

      Her Travel Therapy

      I’m really glad that you’ve always had positive experiences while travelling 🙂

  9. Reply

    yasmina

    I’m Somali and African American so whenever I travel, I get alot of experiances relating to either being black or being a specific culture (especially from other cultures). I’m nervous about traveling as a black person to places like asia, but I think it’s good to be open and aware how first impressions of others impact us as travelers!

    1. Reply

      Her Travel Therapy

      Thanks for sharing your experience 🙂

  10. Reply

    Rebecca

    This is so insightful! Living in London as a white female ive never really looked at this from this angle. When travelling to countries such as Egypt and morroco the difference in everyone’s view of race is so easy to see. I cant’ pretend that it hasn’t made me feel nervous at times. My day in Cairo was unforgettable for all the wrong reasons.
    I’ve enjoyed this read and I’m heading to se Asia and Australia and hope to share my own experiences honestly. Thank you!

    Rebecca x

    http://Www.londontoeverywhere.com

  11. Reply

    Suman doogar

    Interesting read, like how you have put forward your experiences and opinions.. Where as white is considered superior as responsible citizens of the world we should not fan these sentiments and discourge them. I am not white and I would definitely get offended when people get white privilege over me just bcz of the skin color. It’s good to know that you don’t adhere to such ideals..

  12. Reply

    baldthoughts

    I haven’t experienced this personally, but I can totally understand how this happens to you. An old girlfriend of mine worked at Disneyland and many foreigners would request to take pictures with her. She often said yes until a friend told her than these men would take the pictures home and brag to their friends that they “conquered” an American woman.

    1. Reply

      Her Travel Therapy

      Oh wow that’s so creepy!

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