There’s the Rub

Black and white

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On the face of it, it’s a minor, or indeed inconsequential, to-do. Lucy Liu said something not very nice, and Filipinos took offense. Specifically, she told David Letterman, “I run in a machine, which is easier for me. Also if I get really dark, I’ll start to look a little Filipino, it wouldn’t match.” Many netizens found the comment racist and complained so in the social networks.

That at least was the initial reaction. Subsequent ones criticized the initial reactors as being “OA,” or overly prickly. They explained Liu’s remarks as having been occasioned by Letterman himself who said at one point “a lot of people think you’re Filipino.” Liu swiftly apologized to Filipinos, explaining that she didn’t mean anything pejorative by “Filipino,” and that the context of her statement was that she was doing a show where she could not afford to look too dark because it would clash with the background. Although someone commented that if that was what she meant, she could very well have said so, without reference to any particular ethnicity; most other comments were conciliatory, if not forgiving.

I found the incident interesting however, for something bigger that it points to. The initial reaction of netizens we can only attribute to a reflex response to wounded pride, or to circling wagons when one of our own is attacked. Over the past several months, a couple of Filipinos have also gained attention overseas over cases of far clearer discrimination. Dindi Gallardo has sued Frank Miller (of “300” fame) and girlfriend over a mind-boggling case of maltreatment—the girlfriend at one point called her an “ugly Asian” and made fun of her “funky accent.” And a Filipino nanny, Erlinda Elemen sued Sharon Stone for pretty much the same thing, Stone among others apparently ordering Elemen at one point not to talk to her kids because they might “talk like you,” a reference to her accent.

Filipinos on the whole have been supportive of Gallardo and Elemen, and for good reason. As well indeed as non-Filipinos, as seen from the reactions to the news stories about them. One reaction to Gallardo’s tormentor put it so well, “The girlfriend from hell!” The reaction to Liu’s apparent transgression was far muted, for good reason too, but it shares in the same spirit of collective bristling at perceived slights, however slight.

Which brings me to why the last story interested me. The reaction was understandable from one point, but not from another. Specifically, why should we bristle at other people deliberately or unwittingly belittling our color when we do a good job of it ourselves? Indeed, as resolute and nasty a job of it as you can get? In the United States, as I’ve seen from many visits there, many Filipinos look down on African-Americans—or blacks, as they used to be called before that politically correct term—ostensibly because they are drunks, freeloaders, and rip-off artists (quite apart from rap-on ones), stereotypes imbibed from predominantly white society, but in reality simply because they are black. In the pecking order of color, many Filipinos there see themselves as lower than whites but higher than blacks, the latter they continue to refer to as “negro,” with all the bile our colonial past has conferred on that term.

That attitude was not born in America, it was born right here. Only recently we had someone call an aspirant to the DILG post after P-Noy took power, “pandak, maitim, at maligno.” Which of course caused a minor furor, but only because people thought it was thoroughly uncalled for, not because it put pandak (short) and maitim (dark-skinned) on par with maligno (evil, or a creature of the, well, dark). Pandak and maitim are the natural attributes of most Filipinos. Which raises the all-important question: What in hell is wrong with being short and dark-skinned?

It’s no small irony that Gallardo, who is tall, fairly fair-skinned and a beauty queen should be called an “ugly Asian” by someone in the United States, however that someone is obviously battier than a bat. Which only shows how tall and fair-skinned are relative: All the mestizas in local show biz would be considered fairly short and colored in the Western countries. Korina Sanchez would be called pandak and maitim in America. Even Ruffa Gutierrez would be deemed colored. Which again raises the question: What in hell is wrong with being so?

Sadly, cruelly, in our case, because we ourselves have made it so. It’s incredibly masochistic, to regard your natural attributes as signs of ugliness, but that is what we have done. Nothing shows that more than my pet peeve, which is the skin-whiteners. Sometime back, an American in Cebu made a video of the things he didn’t like in this country, one of which was the plethora of skin whiteners in drug stores and supermarket shelves. The video stoked many of us to outrage. But that part of it at least hit the nail on the head, though we seem to be in the, well, dark about it. Can anything more openly insult the race?

So why do we bristle when other people make seemingly disparaging remarks, outrageous or subtle, innocent or ill-intentioned, about our color, or height, or accent? The last we’ve made a staple of our movies, or indeed sitcoms, particularly the Tagalog of people from the Visayas. The opposite of “pandak, maitim at maligno” is “matangkad, maputi, at mala-anghel,” which is how we describe someone we presume to be lovely. The racism does not begin in other countries, it begins right here. The discrimination does not happen in America, it happens right here. Why shouldn’t others belittle us when we belittle ourselves? Why should we get angry? As you sow, so shall you reap. That’s as clear as, well:

Black and white.

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