personal essay

Being Black and Living in Indonesia Looks Different to Different People

Ryan Haughton, a Black Canadian man living in Jakarta, reflects on race and privilege.
Portrait of the author
Portrait of the author by Meredith Peng

“Are you from Compton?”

This is what the guy next to me asked as I waited at the bar for another Bintang—smoking my preferred brand of camel whites and mouthing the words to the newest Drake song playing in the background. This oddly specific question in many ways sums up my experience of being black in Indonesia.

Before arriving in this populous archipelago, I remember being filled with anxiety. It was my first time in Asia and I was a black guy moving to a part of the world that has a terrible track record for its treatment of people that look like me. A quick Google search revealed tons of articles that did very little to suggest otherwise. There were stories on the use of blackface in Malaysian commercials and impromptu evictions of black tenants in Indonesia—the list goes on and on. However, despite these concerns I moved here anyway and prepared myself for the racism I thought I’d inevitably encounter.


But to my surprise I was, and continue to be, embraced by virtually everyone. Walking home from my office in Jakarta’s Central Business District, I’m usually met with a “what’s up bro?” and high fives from ojek drivers (motorcycle taxis) on the street. Since I started living here, I’ve also been invited to so many weddings that I have a stack of gold-trimmed, floral invitations in my kost. And whenever people learn I’m Canadian, it's followed by a proclamation of love for resident heartthrob Justin Trudeau. Even though this has been my reality, I’ve also had to adjust to the daily reminders that I’m different from everyone around me, a far cry from my life in Toronto.

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In my early days here, and to a greater extent now, I found the constant pointing, staring, and requests for photos annoying. It’s like being a celebrity but without the money or fame. In Jakarta, I’m mostly the recipient of snickering from school children and unadulterated fascination from strangers—I’ve been asked to explain why black men have big dicks. If I venture out to the eastern, beach-laden parts of the country, the novelty of my blackness results in someone yelling “Mr., Foto?” I’ve even had people sit beside me and start taking selfies, and as I lean out of frame like any good millennial, inch themselves closer signaling they want me in it.


Never before have I felt like an object of intrigue. But unlike my European-descendent counterparts or those who can pass for white, I’ve found myself enjoying privileges and kindness that is denied to others that look like me. When I order a latte in my Western-taught English, eat at a restaurant in Senopati with a gaggle of bules—an Indonesian word referring to foreigners, usually white—or attend a conference as a development consultant, the perception is I’m someone that “matters.” But even in the moments where I’m dressed down, ordering food from a street stall in Tanah Abang, I still find that I’m treated with overwhelming curiosity and respect.

But my stories don’t represent the entire black experience here. Take for example Adelaide, a cook and housekeeper from Mozambique who works for the family of a diplomat in South Jakarta. After coming to Indonesia to visit her sister, she later decided to stay because as she puts it, “life is better here.” But in this better life she describes she’s dealt with racism countless times.


Adelaide, a woman from Mozambique now living in South Jakarta. Photo by the author

“I got in a fight with a friend and he threatened to have immigration deport me for being black,” she said. “I’ve walked down the street and people have spat at me. I’ve even been to cafés where I was served last after the baristas let everyone cut the line.”

For many it might be easy to rationalize these encounters as the ignorance of a few. Some might even say that people here just haven’t been exposed to other cultures. But in a megacity like Jakarta filled with people from all over the world, this is hard to accept—especially seeing how I’ve been treated. Besides this, Adelaide’s story isn’t unique. Through a friend, I met Sulayman, an international student from The Gambia who moved to Jakarta on a scholarship to study at Universitas Islam Negeri, a decision that has left him with mixed feelings.


“I once asked a classmate for help turning off a projector and after calling his name a bunch of times he yelled, ‘Mau apa lu anjing! (What do you want, dog!)’” he said. “I’ve also come home to find my room broken into and my stuff stolen. Then I got text messages from someone telling me to go back to my country and threatening to kill me.”

What I would’ve previously labeled as your garden-variety racism was obviously something more. Regardless of the spaces I occupy, there’s a clear distinction between how some Indonesians see me versus other black people. Much like Peggy McIntosh’s invisible knapsack, I’ve come to realize that I have an unearned advantage in Indonesia, which has helped me evade racism. There is an air of privilege that surrounds me, allowing me to navigate life here with greater ease than black people from elsewhere.

This is interesting considering African American culture is so widely consumed here. You see this in the popularity of the Black Panther-influenced baju koko (men's Islamic outfit) last Eid al-Fitr, in the number of African-American artists that headline Indonesian music festivals, or in the little effort it takes to find a bar or club hosting a hip hop night. African-American culture is at the epicenter of what is considered cool and trendy. Yet, some people who visually reflect this are a social pariah.

It’s clear that more so than Adelaide, Sulayman, and others like them, I embody the black figures Indonesians see in media and the countries these figures come from, which are often associated with whiteness. It seems whether you’re an immigrant or expat, finding acceptance in Indonesia is difficult unless you fit a certain ideal.

What my friends call the perks of being bule, is in my case, the challenges of being "bule-adjacent."

Ryan Haughton is a freelance author. Follow him on Instagram.