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.

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13 thoughts on “Hateful Tendencies: My Experience With Racism in Cambodia

  1. Diana

    I loved this article. It is well written and on point. So glad that you are getting to be a citizen of the world and have enlightening first-hand experiences to share with the rest of us. I am happy you are not afraid to speak against the foolish prejudices that are pervasive in a modern world which largely stands on the shoulders of the massive exploitation of Africa and her people and of people of color around the world who have been taught to hate themselves. Good for you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Linda Troutman

    What a great article and a great experience! How refreshing to know that you are a part of a generation actively participating towards the advancement of Blacks in this country and around the world. So very proud of you. Thanks for your enlightenment!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Alva Bullard

    I enjoyed reading this article and appreciate your comfort in expressing the truth. I encountered the same experience as you when I went over to China for work, but am shocked to learn of the prejudices of the Cambodians. Again, I appreciate you sharing and educating my Spelman little sister! Alva Bullard, Ft. Lauderdale, FL

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Novice Johnson

    I am proud of what you are writing and why! My prayer is that God will continue to bless you with eye-opening experiences as you live, learn and laugh…and do find time to laugh…one of life’s free medicines! Proud of you my Spelman little sister!
    Wander on!

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  6. Francine Baugh

    Excellent Post!! Thank you providing us with a portrait of life in Cambodia. The subject of colorism and racism in the Eastern culture is an interesting read and I encourage you to continue to write about this. Additionally, you could compare the Asians in America to those you encounter in Cambodia. Do the Asian-Americans share the same sentiments regarding race and color?

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    1. Hi Francine. Thank you for your comment! I have not met many Cambodian Americans but some of the Chinese Americans I have met I have become extraordinarily close with and will say that those friends have been more understanding and empathetic than most of my white counterparts, perhaps because we have a shared minority experience in America. However, I have also experienced Asian- Americans who have displayed prejudice to black Americans but I don’t think that necessarily has a connection to Asia, it could easily be a result of systemic and institutionalized racism in America. However, I do not claim to be an expert in the area and by NO MEANS am I claiming that all Asians or Cambodians are racist, this blog post was just about part of my experience in one country in Asia.

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  7. Melissa

    Hi there,
    I wanted to comment on your experience of racism in Cambodia but I also want to do so without diminishing the legitimacy of your own personal encounters as a black woman in Asia. Hopefully my perspective will make you feel a little better about the Cambodian context and understand how to address prejudices on the street or at work.
    The expression of a forthright opinion, with little to no regard for the feeling of a person being spoken about, is cultural in Cambodia. Absolutely one of the less redeeming cultural habits of Khmers but universally known throughout the country. Many of my friends who lived and worked in Cambodia alongside me, hailing from all over the world, have anecdotes galore about being maligned, dismissed and called ‘fat’ (for want of a better word) by characters of all sorts from market vendors to tuktuk drivers. I put this observation down to a few things — a woman size 10+ is perceived in Cambodia to have lost her youthful shape, and is therefore less beautiful; a woman size 10+ represents gluttony in a nation of extreme haves and have-nots; Khmers have an acerbic, slap-stick sense of humour that borderlines on mean but does not come from a place of hate.
    You often hear people commenting insensitively about the intellect, beauty, success (or lack thereof), and skin colour of others. Think of it as like the stock-standard topics for idle gossip. Very dark Cambodians are colloquially referred to as ‘Krohbey’ or buffalo, and a child born with darker skin may be given the nickname Krohbey. Similarly, a child more rotund than his or her siblings is likely to be called ‘Chrouuk’ or Pig as a petname. This custom is equal parts mean/endearing/amusing to Khmers. Many western visitors, including Cambodians who have been naturalised in other countries, find this very difficult to understand.
    Even those more caramel coloured among us, who enjoy acquiring darker tans from the strong sun, are chastised for ‘getting too black’. Wearing gloves and long sleeves while out on a moto has nothing to do with safety and everything to do with staving off your everyday tan. And you’ve seen the supermarket isles saturated with whitening moisturisers etc so I don’t need to explain how being white is also an aspirational thing… that can become very dangerous should it perpetuate because prejudices about status being associated with whiteness come into play. On a superficial level, whiter Chinese Cambodians (who are heavily implicated with the Khmer Rouge) are perceived to be leaders of success and prosperity. They do much better than your garden variety Khmer rice farmer, so if you can marry into a Chinese Cambodian family or you’re a whiter Cambodian, then you’re setting yourself up for success.
    In my personal opinion, the mentality is a hangover of colonialism, which Cambodia has a complex and ever-changing relationship too and in very conflicting ways. The country does not have the same history of empowerment, academic discourse and ongoing discussion about race relations that African Americans do in the US. And if you wanted to open a conversation about race relations, people naturally contemplate their ‘other’ — eg, the Vietnamese or minority muslim populations. It would occur to very few, if any, Cambodian citizens that prejudice towards darker people of their own race (however overtly this plays out on the street) was an actual issue.
    And I offer my attempt at deconstructing some of these unsavoury cultural habits, all the while maintaining that it is one of the most beautiful and loving Asian cultures in the region – truly. Cambodia is a nation still reeling and recovering and getting to know itself again, grappling with the notion of democracy, facing incredible tensions with respect to gender equality, and still so vulnerable to competition and exploitation from its ASEAN neighbours and further afield.
    Just believe me when I say that these derisive comments to or about you, have nothing to do with you and do not seed from hate. It’s critical to talk about your experience with openess and honesty, so that it is addressed and doesn’t manifest into hate (because God knows Cambodia has enough problems) but something more positive. To better understand, I urge you to look deeper into sociological factors tied to the Kingdom’s colonial past. You might find some uncomfortable parallels to early black slavery. I recommend the archival video montage arranged by Rithy Panh called ‘France is our Mother Country’.

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    1. Thank you for your comment. I am aware that Cambodia, as well as much of the world outside of Europe, still suffers from adverse impacts of colonization. Although this historical event can serve as an explanation for the oppressive mindsets of some Cambodians, it does not negate the fact that they have hateful tendencies. However, hate is defined as intense dislike, aversion, or hostility. Yes indeed, many Cambodians hate their own skin and the skin of their kin and peers but just because they have those feelings about their own does not change the fact that it’s hate. I have met many Cambodians that have broken out of this oppressive mindset and have been very kind and loving towards me, and much more accepting than my white American counterparts in many regards. Several Cambodians have even called me beautiful. However, this blog post was about those who in fact hate brownness, blackness and black people. For a group of individuals to make fun of me and talk about me in the elevator because of my skin is hateful. I appreciate your comment and look forward to watching the movie “France is Our Motherland,” but for you tell me that I am not experiencing acts of hate I believe is inaccurate. The overt acts of aversion and disgust that certain people go out of their way to enact is more than a blatant lack of censorship.

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  8. 213r255l

    Wow! I just ran across your blog, and share many similar sentiments about China and Cambodia. I’m also a black American living in Cambodia for the past 2.5 years. I understand very well about the frustrations about living in Asia as a black person, as previous to living in Cambodia, I lived in China for 4 years.
    However, in my experience, I found Chinese to be more aggressively racists and I chose Cambodia to live in, because I found the people here to be, not so friendly or welcoming, but more dismissive about my race. Their inability to openly make notes about my race puts me at ease here. I can’t say it doesn’t happen at all, because it does, but in far fewer incidences than the nonsense I was put through in China.
    Also, as Melissa mentioned above, digging deeper into Cambodian culture and colloquial behaviors you’ll find that they say things to each other that I deem insensitive. I have heard people clown each other on skin tone, acne, weight and even jacked up teeth! They have no chill when it comes to telling you about yourself.
    I have also picked up a few lbs since living here, and my co-workers, neighbors, coconut dude and even familiar beggar have just HAD to let me know that I’m getting fat! (as if I didn’t feel the extra snug in my shirt)
    Culturally, they dislike dark skin, as much of the world does (including Africa! surprisingly), but we, as black women have to remember to keep our heads up in a world content on worshiping everything that we aren’t.
    Bless Sis!

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    1. Thank you for your comment! Would you like to link up some time and talk more since we are both living in Cambodia? And I agree with everything you said. I think that black women are the most oppressed people on this planet. I recently just did a photo shoot with a Khmer photographer and all of his Khmer followers (as well as his own caption) said “beauty come from inside, not only white skin.” Which implies that my brown skin makes me ugly or not as beautiful as white skin but that I have beauty on the inside. It’s so sad because I was very excited about my photos but I feel as though their comments tainted my happiness, though I know it shouldn’t.

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