Sunset over the ocean

Young white male asks me for money. Thoughts on #whiteprivilege from a tropical island

I feel like I almost got scammed. I was waiting to get on the ferry off of the island in Thailand to make my way back to Bangkok to catch a flight.

While sitting on a bench, a young white male comes up to me and starts talking to me. At first I don’t understand what he saying, partly because he has an accent and partly maybe because he was speaking quickly. He repeated himself, “Could you give me 100 baht for the ferry…”

My gut immediately refused him. I said I’m sorry but I don’t have any change. Sure, 100 Thai baht is little more than 3 US dollars, but I didn’t feel compelled to give this young white guy my money. Why should I when this person, just by luck of birth, has all the advantages in the world. Why should I, a young, poor, female, minority (in my country) student, give him, a young, seemingly healthy, white, man, my money?

I saw him ask other people for money. Two different older, white men, and two white girls who looked like they were traveling together. Then he grabbed his bag and walked off in the opposite direction of the ferry.

Was he scamming people?

This thought crossed my mind, but I wasn’t sure. I didn’t see him come back to the ticket window. Maybe he didn’t get enough in the end to buy a ticket. Who knows?

What pissed me off the most was his attitude in response to me. I guess maybe I would have responded in a similar way, but he seemed to know that I was making up an excuse because I just didn’t want to give him any of my money. He had a tone of knowing. And he said “whatever.” That word alone in this tone and context made me angry.

Maybe my tone was part of the problem. I can’t tell because I was just saying what I felt like saying on impulse, but maybe I had a slight condescending tone. I said I didn’t have change, but I didn’t check for any either. Maybe I just know very well what money I do have on my person, and also I just didn’t want to give him money.

In any case, that interaction lasted all of 20 seconds and he walked off without any money from me. I don’t know what happened to him, and I don’t think he remembers me for a second.

Bottle Beach on Koh Phangan, your typical touristy beach in Thailand

Bottle Beach on Koh Phangan, your typical touristy beach, white males included

I left this post a bit half done because I accomplished what I meant to do already. I let off some steam and put down some thoughts.

I’m letting this go now. It’s done. I may have been wrong, maybe I was right. It doesn’t matter.

I’ve been reading a bit about Buddhism, and mindfulness, and meditation, and if I’ve learned anything it’s that these types of things are transient. So I’m letting it go!

  • Nat

    I think I would’ve reacted the same way as you did, both internally and externally. I want to help out everyone that I can, and it’s not like I can judge people’s life circumstances (and if they actually do need my help or not) without knowing them. So I feel obligated to help anyone who asks, and always feel a bit guilty if I don’t… although giving money to strangers always feels like such a hollow, superficial gesture.

    It’s worth considering that he may have actually mistaken you for a Thai woman, or maybe just a rich traveling American. It can be hard to tell that someone’s an impoverished grad student 🙂

    • Thanks for reading and the comment, Nat! I do want to help people, but I couldn’t judge whether if he really needed the money, because he looked like he was doing ok. If he could make it to a tropical island in Thailand, I think he can make it (or he should have planned better…). I wasn’t so bothered by the fact that I don’t have much money, but by his assuming that I would just give him money for no reason other than I’m a fellow Western traveler. Maybe that wasn’t so clear in my post. Lots of mixed up feelings and ideas around this!

  • Wolfgang Maehr

    Ignoring the racial aspect of your post, I think the interesting question would be: Assuming everything else equal (reason, troubles, demeanour, etc.), would you give a traveller/visitor 100 baht—now what about a local?

    • Wolfgang Maehr

      To think this whole scenario through a little further, I think for me there are two questions to evaluate if I’d give:

      1. Does it help or harm in the larger picture?
      2. How likely is this person able to solve their problem—is it an “unfortunate coincidence”.

      That creates a simple matrix which in general would mean for me:
      1. Don’t help locals who beg on a daily basis. That’s a structural problem and giving is just vanity.
      2. Do help locals in turmoil if their local structures cannot support (e.g. in case of a calamity)
      3. Do help non-locals that have no other option to receive help than asking you or others.
      4. Don’t help non-locals that have other options (e.g. stay there for a few days and do labour, notorious leeches…)

      Therefore I don’t think it should have much to do with #whiteprivilege as the person in need could have been a Singaporean traveller, an Indian traveller, an African traveller. The fact that they can travel there means that they are all privileged (the #affluentprivilege which is a superset of the #firstworldprivilege).
      It could have also been a lazy runaway beach bum…

      Without a conversation with the person, hard to tell. 🙂

      Bonus question: What if he would have sat with you for half an hour and you’d have had a nice chat. Would you then have given him money? 😛

      • Hey Wolfgang, thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts! In short, I would give a fellow traveller money, but if I knew and trusted the person. I can’t really explain it, but once I got the message that he was asking me for money (and not asking about me, and where I was going, etc.), my gut immediately decided that I wasn’t going to give him anything.

        I like your questions. For the first one, that is a good point. In the larger picture, maybe it doesn’t matter if I gave him money. It only matters as much as it matters to me.

        For the second one, I’m not sure. He didn’t take the time to argue his situation.

        I agree with your resulting matrix. I think you’d enjoy reading this: http://www.theprofessionalhobo.com/2014/07/how-tourists-cripple-local-economies/
        Your addition that they are an affluent traveller is completely on point. I agree, if they could make it there in the first place, they have the means to get by. I was thinking this at the time too. I was also thinking about what you list in #4. For me personally, I can’t explain fully why him being white (and a man) made it different, I may be making this more racial and gendered than it needs to be. I don’t want to say that I felt he was “insulting” me in some way, that is too strong a word, but I think I felt something maybe along those lines.

        I think if he sat with me, I would have felt better about giving him money. If it was a scam, this wouldn’t make it any less of a scam, but at least I would know more about the human being I’m giving money to and I would know more about whether I want to give him money or not. Part of the reason I didn’t give money was that I wasn’t 100% sold that he couldn’t afford the ferry fare (it was about 400 baht).

        • Wolfgang Maehr

          Many ways to skin cat… in the end you weren’t conpelled and he obviously wasn’t trying too hard to make a case.

          Morale of the story: if you allow them to actually have a conversation, you’re more likely to give money. 😛