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Tori Rogers founded Ebony Expats after she moved to Bangkok from Houston, Texas, in 2017. We spoke to her about her business, the impact of the ongoing George Floyd protests in the United States, and her recent involvement in Spike Lee’s upcoming movie, “Da 5 Bloods,” which was filmed partly in Thailand and follows the story of four African American veterans returning to Vietnam.
How has it felt watching events unfold back home in America and being so far away?
It is definitely a lot. First, as a Black person, you kind of have to prepare yourself to finally sit down and watch the video or read the story about yet another person from our community losing their life. The first thing I read on CNN is that Floyd, a Houston native, relocated to Minnesota to be his best self. And I’m like, that is literally my life—I relocated from Houston to be my best self. That broke me down. I love Houston, I love my city, and that really hit me.
It’s very emotional, it’s very heavy, everyone is kind of drained. We’re all so tired but we’re all checking in with each other locally to make sure we’re all OK. And we’re checking in more with our family and friends back home; because of the time difference, it means that we’re up later or earlier—especially at nighttime because all these different riots are crazy. It’s really hard to see our cities on fire. [With] the pandemic, it was already crazy to be far away from home, and then this. For everyone in our community, it’s a very charging conversation and the energy is really heavy.
Do you think this movement will help to raise awareness in Thailand?
Yes, I totally think so. It’s not like Thailand is not aware of Black people; the reason that you see so many Thai people joining the conversation right now is that they know it’s time for a change as far as we think about skin color—period. So, I do think that it’s probably going to help get the conversation started and allow us to be seen as allies to the Thai community.
I’m glad to be already prepared. Looking back, I now realize that I’ve been preparing myself for the last three years to just jump into the front lines and that’s exciting… I am expecting this to become more of a conversation, meeting with the ambassador, with officials, with people who I can actually start to have more of an impact with. The reality is that Black people are here. Especially just looking at tourism, in 2018, African Americans spent around US$63 billion on travel and tourism globally; however, Black consumers are vastly underrepresented when it comes to advertising, communications and marketing. It makes no sense! That’s only one small subset. How are we going to talk to that? I’m ready to get into that conversation. We’re here and we don’t want to be ignored.
What is your experience living in Thailand as a Black woman?
As a Black American woman, it’s fine. I think, as a Black person, I’m already going to have a certain experience because of the society we live in where racism and systemic oppression exists. Taking all of that into account, my experience has been pretty great. I’m here because I wanted to be my best self and Thailand has done that for me in so many different ways. Overall, I feel safe—I feel way safer than in America. I feel happy here. One thing I will say that I experience a lot is… the privilege of the American passport. Yes, I am [American], but that does not mean treat me better than the next Black person sitting next to me.
I always knew I was going to continue to raise my reach and start doing more things, but I’ve always felt I have to be very careful in Thailand. I remember when I did a photo shoot for a Facebook group that sells plus-size clothes back in 2018, and that photo made Thai news for them calling us very rude things for being plus-size. I think for the most part, the good thing here is that I’m a little bit removed from exactly what people are saying. For example if it made the radio, I wouldn’t know what they’re talking about, and that’s probably a good thing!
What are your thoughts on the Bangkok protest planned for this Sunday?
I don’t think people realize that “Black Lives Matter,” yes it supports justice for George Floyd but it’s not the same thing as calling out justice for George Floyd specifically, so I had to explain that. I didn’t want it to feel like I was being rude, because I wasn’t, but I have to be very clear, because if I’m not, how will you know? [The event name has now been changed from Black Lives Matter to “Justice for George Floyd (Peacefully Paying Our Respects)”]. We really have to be very sensitive, because the effects for a Thai person are not the same as a Black person and it’s not the same for a non-black foreigner, either. You need to be very careful [comparing] things happening in Thailand with the Black community here...but it's awesome to be a part of that.
[As for the logistics,] we’re still trying to figure it out. They contacted the police, but because of the emergency order they can’t necessarily permit any large events, so now they’re saying we would have to have a private venue, so we’ll have to see. [The event has now been moved online and will be held virtually.]
What advice do you have for people who want to become allies in this movement?
Try to step up and challenge your own thoughts and patterns. I don’t expect everyone to be out here, like, “I’m about to go riot”—hell no, I’m not even doing that! It’s dangerous and not the best way to seek change. But I do think it’s [about] education and having conversations. I don’t think people question their thoughts or beliefs enough. Everything that you know today is something you’ve been taught, and you have the power to change that if it doesn’t feel right. I think the issue that we have is that you know that white privilege exists because you feel it, you see it. Choosing comfort over courage to do their part and do the right thing to help drive change, even if it’s just changing your thoughts is the literal definition of the word cowardly. If you see a story or read something or watch something on TV, take a moment to question it, but also try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Actually join the convos and try to offer support.
What inspired you to start Ebony Expats?
Initially, I started it as a meetup group for Black people in Bangkok. I honestly didn’t even think I was going to be able to find three Black friends here; now, there are like 500 people in the Line group! Once I realized that so many people wanted to connect with like-minded people who looked like them, who they could resonate with, the same sort of questions kept coming up, like wanting to know where to get your hair done, where to shop for certain body products and clothes (they don’t fit the average American at all!)—just different things that are very specific for us—I realized that I’m a connector. Ebony Expats became an LLC in October last year.
What does the group involve?
Events, panel discussions, networking, workshops. We hosted a forum called “Thriving in Thailand” and invited speakers, including a Thai lawyer here, to educate everyone about how to make sure that you are being safe and are doing things that make sense for Thai standards, especially as a Black person—like if you get pulled over, here’s how you should handle it, or if something’s happening in a club, do not aggravate or do anything that will make things get out of [hand]. We started an expats news show with updates and interviews, and I also have a podcast.
I’m really here so people can have a space to be their best selves and to create opportunities and a space to show other Black people that there is more out there to see, do and experience—whether that’s through our content, resources, recruitment, study abroad programs, events, or festivals in the future.
How do you become your "best self?"
It starts with really getting clear about some of the beliefs you have. I think that a lot of people are walking around in a fear mindset, a “lack” mindset, especially Black people—we don’t think in abundance, we think in lack—and that is something I’ve had to [get past]. Because of slavery and all these things, I’ve been brought up in a world where I was raised a certain way and at school, in life, when traveling, I’m off top treated a certain way. I have unpacked that and realized we’re always going to have fear and we get into a cycle. I think sometimes we don’t realize what we’re holding on to, and we have to identify it, and then process it, and release it, so that you then have the space to fill it with what you do want in your life… I definitely think that moving away allowed me to step out of that environment. I didn’t feel like I was thriving [in America].
How did you get involved in Spike Lee’s upcoming movie?
Spike’s team had heard of this Black American named Stephan Turner who owns The Gate Theater in Chiang Mai, and Spike wanted to meet him. He said, “I need 100 people,” so the guy was like, “OK, we will get you 100 Black people!” He had to find 100 people in Chiang Mai in three days.They contacted me because of the Black expat group that I have. We had to take off work and everyone took a flight up to Chiang Mai. It was surreal, the energy in the room was really beautiful. Spike Lee’s...whole life’s work has been about telling the stories of Black people, so there’s this really deep respect within the community for him. For him, he got to see our insights into what it’s like for us to have taken this leap and live overseas and what life is like abroad. Every time a Black entertainer comes, they’re like “So you live here?!” I was an extra in an important scene; I’m excited for it.
What is the movie about?
The movie [follows] four guys, who come back to Southeast Asia to get the treasure they buried during the Vietnam War. But it also showcases what Black life [was like], all the things that were happening back home while they were at war, and they’re kind of tying it back into Black life today—we’re still on the front lines—so there’s a lot of interweaving, which is totally Spike Lee.
“Da 5 Bloods” will be released on Netflix on Jun 12. Check out the trailer below: