Phil America’s privilege as a white man prompted him to learn about the people of Thailand and abroad.
In the East, there is a general ambition to be whiter. In my pursuit of answering the question “Why?”, I moved to Bangkok in search of not only the answer to why but to express it through the language of art.
As a white man, my vision is a product of white privilege. Life has always forced me to question beyond all reason forced onto me by the media, so growing up in a country where skin color is much different than it is in the East.
Also, I wanted to know why most South East Asians go to great lengths to be whiter.
Bangkok is currently the most visited city in the world. People from everywhere take the long flight to write a new chapter in their lives. My Bangkok was different than most. I didn’t run to Khao San Road or take a bus to Koh Phi Phi (the island where The Beach was filmed). I didn’t chase the paths of the people before me. My focus was on understanding–understanding of a culture so far from where I come from.
As a foreigner, I can’t be so presumptuous as to assume that I understand the innate ideals of beauty or the reality of one person, let alone 70 million people. I wanted to attempt to explore the realities of the people and their culture so I could better absorb the beauty of South East Asia. A beauty in the colorful streets, the golden temples, the statues and the lush jungles of not only Bangkok, but all of Thailand. It is in the air, in an invisible code that seemed to be overlooked by most foreigners visiting the Kingdom.
A code that defined beauty, which was much different than the one I was used to. Personal beauty was based on a very reductionist perception, with one of the key factors being the color of ones skin. I quickly learned how having light skin was a virtue that was equated with intelligence, attractiveness, and most importantly, with social class.
Ideals of beauty are not static, and are quite different cross-culturally. However, there is one pervasive idea that has seemed to develop globally across communities of color, albeit in different ways: that which privileges light skin and uses is as an indicator of beauty and status. It is a complex issue, with elements of race, class, and gender entangled within each other.
Every day, people all across the nation partake in rituals of self-whitening–including the use of whitening creams, skin bleaching procedures, special diets and cosmetic injections. They also adopt their own behavior with this goal in mind, from using umbrellas in the day, to wearing gloves, to staying out of the sun at all costs. Many people in Thailand are fascinated with attaining an unrealistic standard of whiteness.
They were the ones sitting under the trees at the beach, far out of the reach of any UV rays and using beauty products with whitening cream. They were the ones criticizing the migrants from countries like Myanmar and Cambodia and Thais from Isaan for the darker pigment in their skin tone.
When I first heard the term “whitefacing”, I was taken aback. I looked into the term more and realized it wasn’t used often in a colloquial context, but had been used by some to refer to a phenomenon in Asia for people that desire white skin as an indicator of class and beauty.
I went there with the intention of wanting to understand more and express this phenomenon artistically, and from this, White Ambition was born. It was a project that I used as a lens through which I could examine and study the cultural, social, and psychological implications of skin whitening. Through art, I wanted to manifest into reality the politics of whiteness.
White Ambition shows, through a narrative of video and photos, numerous Thai individuals in a public space being sprayed over their entire body with white latex paint pressurized in fire extinguishers. While nudity in public is illegal and frowned upon in every Buddhist and
Muslim country, all the performers in White Ambition, are nude to bring about an interpersonal dialog relating to Ethnographic photography and imagery that has become extinct in Thailand due to modernity.
From traveling to Bangkok, pressurizing and filling the extinguishers with paint, the act of spraying of the models from the first moments to the last, the permanent mark left on the city the residual outline of each painted model leaves on the city, and the proceeding photo sessions of portraits capturing the models’ paint-covered faces, the execution of the process was fully documented using both video and photography.
In 1967, Erving Goffman claimed in Stigma that a white face and skin are a form of performance. So, to explore the complexities of white skin as a performance, I took whitening to an extreme performance aspect and captured it on video to be shown later as a video and sound installation coupled with a sculptural aspect. The sculptural side brings something tangible, showing artifacts that relate to the industry that pushes whitening into Thai culture. It was first presented at the Museum of Modern Art in New York at the Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Education and Research Building in 2013 and in 2014 was shown at the Total Museum of Contemporary Art in Seoul. It will be shown later this year in the Nowon Culture and Arts Center, also in Seoul, Korea.
By applying white paint to their skin, I wanted to over dramatize the effect that it seems many people are seeking. I wanted to create whiteness as a physical layer, a surface applied artificially, much like the chemical products that produce the look of light skin, so that whiteness was at once removed and a part of oneself.
Whiteness is considered a very relevant element for one’s beauty, while darker individuals are considered lower people and of less beauty. Tua dam, or black body, is a derogatory term for a dark-skinned Thai belonging to a low social standing, as well as other terms such as e dam (black girl) and dam tap pet (black like a duck’s liver). Bombarded with billboards advertising lightening techniques, makeup, and creams made specifically to change the tone of one’s skin, Thais of all socio-economic backgrounds and genders strive to be lighter.
The desire for whiteness embedded in systems of colonialism and capitalism roots, but this didn’t entirely explain its role in Thailand. I had spent a lot of time in India, where they have the caste system, and the cultural equation of whiteness with social class almost seemed to make sense to me. India has a colonial history, and whiteness equated with social class could be viewed in a Eurocentric way, as the colonizers of the area had the highest status. This did not explain the internalization of whiteness in Thailand, however,
and White Ambition attempts to bring a conversation about this into the public consciousness.
The intention of this project is to initiate a social discourse questioning Thailand’s divided social status with focus on the lack of upward mobility. The yearning for access, acceptance, better chances, and desirability has brought about a cultural phenomenon that has seeped so far into Thailand’s society that it has become the norm. Nothing summed it up better than the ‘scandal’ of photoshopping Beyonce to look white in the Pepsi ads city center–or e model wearing blackface advertising a “charcoal donut”). Possibly worst of all, an advertisement for a drink that has skin, whitening in it with a black doctor, a brown bear and a Thai woman with blackface makeup.
As said in “The Beauty Myth”, “…Asian women undergo surgery not as a consequence of self-vanity, but in reasonable reaction to physical discrimination,” and men tend to desire whiter skin more out of a perceived standing in the workplace. While some might speculate at first sight the desire of Thailand’s population to have white skin is a grossly negative side effect of a nation’s deep-rooted social issues, the rapidly growing global economic cultural hegemony seems on the cusp of becoming a continent-wide phenomenon or a
humiliating thing of the past.
So the more I learned, the less I came to the answer of ‘why’. But, through it all, one thing was clear…the ambition to be white in Thailand is a conversation that needs to be had.