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Beneath the skin: the reality of being black in Cambodia

Beneath the skin: the reality of being black in Cambodia

Amid a series of high-profile arrests of Nigerian drug traffickers, and a cultural preference for light skin, what is it like for people of African descent living in the Kingdom? Will Jackson heard six people’s experiences.

Maggie Kim, a teacher from Kenya, says racism is a problem for her in Cambodia.
Maggie Kim, a teacher from Kenya, says racism is a problem for her in Cambodia. Charlotte Pert

Maggie Kim, 26, from Kenya. Teacher.
Cambodians are very racist towards black people. It’s not even an opinion. It’s a fact. But I think there’s a difference if you’re Western or [if you’re] African.

First of all it’s very hard to find a job, regardless of whether you have experience. Like, I’m good at what I do and I have a lot of experience and with the feedback I’m getting, I know I am doing something right. But regardless, schools blatantly say they do not hire black people, like, you go to drop off your CV and they tell you just to take it back.

I remember one time I was jobless for almost eight months.

Some of the people who I have asked flat out “is it because I am black?” say: “Actually, yeah, but it’s because of the parents, not us. The parents do not want their kids taught by a black person.”

Outside the school, the environment is the same.

I cannot extend my visa for one year. No black Africans can. And there’s no explanation, there’s nothing. We’re only given a maximum of six months. And for that six months we pay double what everyone else pays. So for my six-month visa extension I pay $260. And there’s no explanation. No nothing. And getting a visa for other countries, like Thailand or Vietnam, is practically impossible.

Cambodians stare, they point, they’re curious, they want to rub my skin, they want to do this and that but I don’t think that’s racism. I think that’s just curiosity and I just look different. So they’re just intrigued. I think racism is when the institutions treat you differently. Because outside in the street, people do not have the power to affect your life.

I remember I was in the market one day and I heard one woman say that because I have dark skin my heart is dark and I’m probably an evil person, in Khmer. And I remember thinking, wow … she was just talking to a friend. But that doesn’t really affect my way of life. What does affect me is me not being able to get a visa, not being able to travel, and not being able to get a job. Those are the things that affect me.

But I have absolutely no trouble making Cambodian friends. They’re lovely people. Even the woman who said that I must be evil because of my skin colour – if I had talked to her she would have been absolutely nice to me. I have never met one Cambodian who made me think, “oh my God, that’s a horrible person …” except when I’m fighting with tuk-tuk drivers. But that’s normal.

Niles Lashway, whose mother is the former US ambassador, says he hasn’t experienced discrimination.
Niles Lashway, whose mother is the former US ambassador, says he hasn’t experienced discrimination. Charlotte Pert

Niles Lashway, 28, from the US. Teacher.
In my experience, I haven’t really noticed it [racism]. Though I’m only half. I speak enough Khmer to know … when I walk by I normally hear compliments. I don’t hear the word “Afrique”, unless they’re trying to describe me to someone. I normally hear compliments, or I hear “curly hair”, which is not offensive. It’s a description. And it’s normally in a positive sense. And they can kind of tell I’m American. They call me “barang” more than anything else.

My parents worked for the American embassy here when I was a kid. I went to school here back in the day in the ’90s. And I came back here three and a half years ago, while my mom was the ambassador, and haven’t been home since.

I remember going around on a moto as a 12-year-old and literally people would come along beside me on the motos and slow down and just stare. That was in 1999 or 2000 when I was one of only a handful of blacks in the country before the West Africans came.

Unless I’m in the countryside, I don’t get stared at. But even there they smile and say hello. It’s not like a negative stare. And I can understand them, in my broken Khmer, and they’re just nice.

Nana Tweneboaa believes her experiences in Thailand were worse than those in Cambodia.
Nana Tweneboaa believes her experiences in Thailand were worse than those in Cambodia. Charlotte Pert

Nana Tweneboaa, 32, from Ghana. DJ and event organiser.
I was very worried about racism before I came to Cambodia. I didn’t know how much there would be, but I just knew that whenever I travelled I did encounter some level of racism. But I love Cambodia. The only problems I’ve had were with immigration officials.

When I got to the Phnom Penh airport they separated me off and went through all my documents and kept me there for about an hour and a half. I’ve also had to pay higher fees to immigration officials to renew my visa because I’m an African, do extra paperwork and last time I renewed it I had to provide a police report to show I wasn’t a criminal.

It’s hard to tell whether it’s colour or just bureaucracy, because there was another Kenyan girl, who was a white Kenyan, where I used to work who also went through a lot of stress when they were processing her documents and had to pay the higher fees.

My experiences in Thailand were much worse though. I don’t like it there. On the way over from Ghana to Cambodia I was held in isolation at the Bangkok airport, after having my documents taken away for 12 hours, and was only allowed to continue on to Phnom Penh after I had bought a return ticket with Thai Airways for $600.

Then once when I visited Thailand by bus they stopped me at the Poipet border for 10 hours, body searched me, rifled through my stuff and had sniffer dogs search me and then a “visa agent” forced me to pay a $300 bribe.

Everywhere I go in Cambodia, they say “srey sa’at” [pretty girl] all the time. Of course, people always react because I am black. Sometimes they laugh or whatever, but actually most of the time I’m treated really well.

I think if you are rich it changes some things. Or if you are well-educated, like me. I’ve seen people react differently to friends of mine who have thick accents because people cannot understand them and it’s also made them come across as more “tribal”. So it’s not just black and white. There are many grey areas.

NaCole Smith has been shocked by racist comments from Western people in Phnom Penh.
NaCole Smith has been shocked by racist comments from Western people in Phnom Penh. Charlotte Pert

NaCole Smith, 31, from the US. Teacher.
When I initially got here, I was getting off the plane and I was the one who was stopped. They took a knife to my vacuum packed bags, brought in a doctor to see what medication I had, which was just for malaria. And I was like: “OK, this is how it’s going to be the entire time I’m here.” But it hasn’t been.

I get people coming up to me saying: “Oh, you’re pretty … but you’re black. You’re so dark.” Or “Oh, same same.” And that’s cute. And they’re fascinated by my hair. They love it. When I’m at the grocery store sometimes I just feel random hands in my hair … and I’m like “Oh! Oh, OK … yeah, alright cool. Touch it.” So it’s not like I feel it’s malicious or anything like that.

Because my school is international, I’ve got all sorts of kids who have already been exposed to different races. I had one kid when I was tutoring ask me, “Teacher, why are you black?” And I didn’t really know how to answer. Because my parents are black? But that’s just one of those innocent questions. It’s not negative. It’s been ingrained in them to think that lighter is better, which is kind of the same as in the black community, like black skin is better. I can’t blame them for thinking the way they think.

It’s a little bit better than in the States because at least they ask questions – it’s more overt in a way. So at least you know the people who are curious. Whereas in the States people will look at you and smile at your face but behind your back they’re saying certain things.

What’s really blown me away is the things I’ve heard from Western people here. Things like, “You’re hot for a black girl” or “I don’t usually date black girls or find them attractive but you …” or Yyou can’t be from America; where did you really come from? Were you born there? What about your parents?”

This weekend at the reggae bar I heard some guy say, “Whoa, a black girl!” and then try to talk to me. I gave him a piece of my mind, dammit. He was from Canada, apparently.

I did have an “elite Khmer” acquaintance who asked if he could say “n---er” around me because he says it all the time to his friends. I had to tell him no, obviously. He also asked why are our butts so big, after someone said in Khmer that I had a nice ass. He told me he had heard it’s because after birth we are held by our feet and our asses are massaged so that all of the fat ends up there. I’d never heard that one before, but you just have to shake it off.

Austin Koledoye helped establish the Northbridge International School in 1997.
Austin Koledoye helped establish the Northbridge International School in 1997. Will Jackson

Austin Koledoye, 47, from Nigeria. Teacher and president of Nigerians in Diaspora Organisation Cambodia.
I came to Cambodia to establish the Northbridge International School in 1997 – which was just a rice paddy then. When we came here, there were only a few Nigerians, and we had no problems, nothing. These same people were so accommodating.

They gave us everything. But one day now they say no, we are not going to do this again.

Back then people didn’t treat me any differently because of my skin colour. Not at all. They were more fascinated because it was their first contact. So there was no kind of racial prejudice.

Now it is time to do some soul searching. Why are these people changed to me? As a community leader, I say let’s go back to the drawing board, let us be law abiding here. This is what my message is about. Then leave the fight for us as the leader to pursue that. But if you are continually breaking the law, people will generalise – and that’s a problem. So we are saying, telling our people in our meetings that one action, one illegality from one person causes a lot of discomfort for everybody. We say that in our meeting. We say: “You guys stop all your negativity.” If it’s only fighting in the streets then OK, but if it’s drug dealing then they’re going to generalise, you cannot stop them.

So we know this as a reality. Not 10 years, not 15 years, not 50 years, 100 years back. We know this as a race. Why are we now battling with this at this stage? We’re not going to battle. Because these people opened their door to us, when we came to Cambodia before, visas were free. Everything was free.

I want to combat what is bad on the side of my own people. I know the deputy prime minister. I know the minister of the interior. They say: “You see your people [are in trouble] again?” And I say: “It’s only one.” We go into this discussion with them, so we know the challenges we are facing here. When I can combat what is bad with my own people then I will have the power to say “look, don’t treat us differently”.

National Police spokesman Kirt Chantharith said that the Cambodian government did not have any policies that discriminated against black people or citizens of African countries in regards to border controls or visas.

“We consider them the same as other nationals,” Chantharith said.

He said any immigration official who asked for more than the standard $20 or $25 for an entry visa was acting corruptly and should be reported.

He added that if anybody asked for more than the standard rates for visas or extensions should contact the Department of Immigration hotline on 017 812 763.

Nigerian teacher Harry Spice, 25, says he was told by an advertising firm that he wasn’t suitable for a job because he wasn’t white.
Nigerian teacher Harry Spice, 25, says he was told by an advertising firm that he wasn’t suitable for a job because he wasn’t white. Charlotte Pert

Harry Spice, 25, from Nigeria. Teacher.
I have experienced a lot of bad stuff in Cambodia. The most ugly experience I had here was coming back to Phnom Penh by road after a visit to Thailand. I was delayed at the border for seven and a half hours because they demanded $500. I had the money, but said I only had 300 baht.

But I don’t take any racism seriously coming from any Cambodian because I think it’s just [lack of] awareness.

When you walk in the street as a black dude, people say things, terrible things, but I’ve realised that things that are offensive to you are not to them. But by the time they get to know you, they see the difference in you and they will be the first to say: “We actually thought you were this and that, but now we know you it’s much better.”

I’ve had a girl at a bar just walk away when I tried to order a drink, and another time, a girl right in front of me once told a friend of mine “Oh, he’s black. I don’t like black men.”

I have taught in schools and universities here where, for example, somehow the light just goes off in the class and they make jokes like “oh my god, where is the teacher?” They think it’s funny. I try to lecture them that things like that are inappropriate, and quite offensive.

But, if I’m with Western people or enlightened Cambodians, those who have been abroad, when they say racist things I get really mad.

Recently, I applied for a job at a Cambodian advertising company but the manager – who had lived in America for a long time – said, “actually we’re looking for a white dude with glasses, who will look more decent in our office, to work here”. When I was leaving everyone was just laughing. It was kind of embarrassing but I don’t really take things like that seriously in my life. It kind of breaks you down. But what do you do when you’re in the midst of people and your mind is more broad than theirs?

Racism here, it will take years to overcome. And I don’t see it happening in 10 years. For me it’s fine, if I don’t want to be here I get out. If I’m here it’s because I want to be here and I have to deal with it. Try to control my emotions, my anger, not lose it.

But I do hope that at some point people will be more enlightened, that people will realise the consequences and how it feels [to be discriminated against].

All interviews have been edited for length and clarity.


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