Hateful Tendencies: My Experience With Racism in Cambodia

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Although, I am surrounded by people, I often feel spurts of loneliness. Not because I am homesick and not due to a lack of friends. It’s lonely because I feel as though I shoulder the burden of racism here independently, the one target, the one unwanted. Being the only “dark skinned” black woman in a city swimming with racists ideologies can be tolling emotionally and mentally. There is no black community here, no support system, and no shared experience. I didn’t come here necessarily looking for that community but I also did not expect to experience overt racism in a country pervasive with brown skinned people; call me naive if you will. Although I have found two other black women who I am more than grateful for, I will be the only one that I know of when they both return to the USA.


Conversations with Cambodians about Race
Most Cambodians have been very nice to my face. However, even my co-worker, who has been the most welcoming Khmer I’ve encountered, told me that my skin is unpopular. She explained to me that most Cambodians do not like black people and after I informed her that I thought this was racist, she told me that her skin is also unpopular because she has brown skin as well. As if this would make me feel better!


Today I went out to lunch with a different Khmer co-worker and her friend, who was exceptionally pale compared to other Cambodians. They were really nice and friendly to me but suddenly in the middle of our meal, my co-worker’s friend randomly said “I like black.” Then she continued, “not black like this,” pointing to my arm. She went on searching my arm, twisting it and turning it until she found the lightest part of my arm near my palm and proudly said “I like black like this, I want to be this color.” She thought that comment made her cool and unique going on to explain that all of her Cambodian friends “don’t like black” and that they all want to be white.

Even when I went to get passport photos taken for work, they photo shopped my skin to be so light that I hardly recognized myself! The photograph was me as a white person. And yes, they did all of this to the tiny photos for my work application that no one even pays attention to.


Racism in Cambodia compared to Ignorance in China
Firstly, I do not mean to use the word ignorant in a condescending way; ignorance literally just means a “lack of knowledge” and that is how I am using it in this context. Chinese people were very ignorant about black people, black culture, and anything pertaining to Africa or the African Diaspora partly as a result of China’s homogeneousness. However, most Chinese stared at me out of curiosity and since I could speak Mandarin I understood as many of them said I was pretty, beautiful, and cool. They took pictures of me and followed me around as though I were a celebrity. Most Chinese people who had never been outside of China did not even know that black people existed outside of the African continent and many were incredulous when I said I was from America. Even though I am well versed in their history, they knew absolutely nothing about mine.


Cambodian people may not know much about my history but they do not stare at me in awe either. Similar to the Chinese they are fascinated with my hair but the only people who stare and take pictures of me in Cambodia are the ones who do it out of spite. I’ve had a Khmer man take a picture of me and laugh and a Khmer girl glare and snarl at me in the supermarket. I’ve never had experiences like the aforementioned in China, even though Cambodians are much darker than Chinese people! To escape brownness, skin whitening lotions, soaps, and solutions are sold in every single store. Many Cambodian women also wear sweatshirts and long pants while they are outside so that they will not get tanned from the sun, even though it is 90 degrees Fahrenheit or higher most days here. It was the same way in China actually. When it’s nighttime in Cambodia and the sun is no longer a threat, I’ve seen many wear more non-conservative clothing than they do in the daytime. In light of all of my experiences in Cambodia thus far, I was not surprised when my black friend informed me that the Khmer towel guy at the gym called her “n****r,n****r,n****r.” Yes, the “n” word.


The Value of My HBCU Education
Even though I have always appreciated my HBCU, this experience has made me value my experience there even more. In a world that teaches black people to hate themselves their entire lives, I think that spending four short years at a place like Spelman is important for the intellectual growth and psyche of black women. Societies around the world marginalize black women and place us in the lowest social category. When a society systemically and subliminally perpetuates a certain standard of beauty that is the opposite of anything black people naturally look like, humiliate black people, and portray them as villains, that has a psychological affect on black people. In addition, black women’s bodies have been exploited and de-humanized throughout history. I can go on forever explaining the institutions that are still working today to keep black women oppressed but that is for another post. Spelman combats the worldwide oppression of black women as the one place in the world that actively uplifts black women while simultaneously providing a community for intelligent black women to uplift each other. The experience is empowering and unique. It nurtures some of the brightest black women to fearlessly encounter, conquer, and change a world full of racism, hate, and injustice. Sure, I may have been successful without a Spelman education but if you can have an experience like this as black woman, why not? I thank my institution for not only preparing me for life as a black American but for preparing me for the world.