In fourth grade Mary Beth Sammon told me I should be partners with David Arundel because we both had dark skin. I had nothing against David but the comment still stung. Mary Beth was a freckled Irish Catholic with translucent white skin and I felt ashamed of my southern Italian and French roots that brought with them dark Mediterranean skin and dark features. It was the '90s. The Kate Moss heroin chic look was in. And although I was “white” I still didn’t feel “white enough.”
Last week a student asked me “Do you like black people?” I was tutoring and the question caught me off guard.
“Yes, I like white and black people,” I answered in a measured tone. My students had chosen Almost to Freedom by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson to read, a story about a slave girl in Virginia escaping to freedom. “Do you like black people?”
My student wrinkled her nose and putting her thumb and index fingers about an inch apart said, “A little.”
The stereotypes Lao people have about black people aren’t that far off from those held by racist Americans. They’re loud. They’re lazy. They beat their wives and girlfriends. They fight and are violent. They urinate in public. The thing is, all of these stereotypes could just as easily be describing the philandering over-boozed, under worked Lao men who drive home drunk, and fritter the money that’s supposed to go to their families. It's easy to turn self-loathing into hating "the other."
Explaining American slavery to students who have a shaky at best understanding of their own country’s history in words basic enough for English language learners to understand was an incredible teaching challenge. The GDP per capita in Laos is $2,300. The slave cabins depicted in the book and conditions working in the cotton fields on the surface look an awful lot like the bamboo shacks and rice paddy farming that make up the existence of so many rural Lao.
I try not to discus politics or policy too much here. The walls have ears and the communist government is already suspicious of American volunteers and our capitalist ways. Slavery looks very different in Laos than in America. Officially there are 170,000 migrants legally working in Thailand, where laborers can earn a higher wage than they can in rural Laos. Factoring in illegal migrants would likely double to quadruple that number. Employers of undocumented workers can exploit their workers, offer sub par pay, living and working conditions and threaten to turn workers into authorities if they complain. Plenty of Lao who have paid agents to get them work across the border are totally unaware they are being trafficked. Some find themselves working in prostitution.
While poverty is so often measured by the absolute, if arbitrary, poverty line. It is, in reality, relative. Many of my students on the south and west sides of Chicago lived "in poverty." And yet more often than not they owned multiple pairs of clothes and shoes, had access to electricity and running water, and went to technology and resource-rich schools. My classroom in Laos has a chalkboard, benches and long wooden tables. There are ceiling fans but no air-conditioning. The temperatures can be brutal in the afternoons. The listening lab has been closed down. So has the canteen. The squat toilets don’t have running water. One flushes by pouring a bucket of water down the bowl. Teachers are rarely paid on time and are absent or ill prepared a lot, often due to holding second and third jobs or caring for their families. And yet, my students are the ones privileged enough to have finished secondary school, there are many young people in Laos who are far worse off.
Wealth is relative too. My stipend is a quarter of what my salary was in Chicago. Yet, my roommate and I live in a 5-bedroom 5-bathroom house larger than the one I grew up in. We each pay $300 per month. It's a fraction of what I was paying for rent in Chicago, and yet Lao people assume, not entirely incorrectly, that I’m rich. Comparatively, I am. My Lao tutor said that if she were rich, she would pave the dirt road her family’s home is on so she and her motorbike wouldn’t be wet and muddy every time it rains. She's studied in Singapore and Luxembourg. How must she view Laos' development relative to those places?
The bottom line here is that white skin is beautiful because it’s so closely associated with riches, upwardly mobile and people who don’t work in the fields. People, who can afford to, cover themselves with hoodies, stockings, gloves, face masks and hats to keep the sun from tanning their skin. Swimming pools are empty during the day and come alive in the evening when the sun is past its peak. Whitening agent is found in makeup, deodorant, and moisture lotion. White skin as a mark of beauty and dark skin as a mark or sin and shame is not a relic from colonial times but actually goes back much farther to legends and folklore in the region extending to Thailand, Vietnam and China.
Speaking honestly and critically of one’s own and other’s appearances is commonplace in Laos. Here are a smattering of actual conversations I’ve had in Lao or English with locals: You have a beautiful nose. Did you buy it in Bangkok?… I’m fat, but you are beautiful… Are you Sri Lankan?/Indian?/Mixed? … Why are you so skinny? Other Americans are fat… You have beautiful hair, can I touch it?… You speak Lao very well… You’re white but your skin is so black… Are you black in your country?… White people like black skin and Lao people like white skin.
I deflect these comments to a point. But when whitewashed billboard advertisements and TV commercials hawk illusive pre-packaged products synonymous with money, status, and to a lesser extent the West, I cannot help feeling angry and helpless. Decades of war followed by decades of a corrupt, collectivist government whose policies deter upward mobility and erode public trust have lead to a litany of problems whose solutions, I've found, are anything but black and white.