Filipinos and racism
In the community where I grew up, there were nasty rumors about our Maranao neighbor, which was why when his nephews came over for vacation, we initially didn’t welcome them to our games.
Fortunately, we were children then — young and open-minded — and when we saw they were no different from us, they ended up becoming our playmates anyway.
In my elementary school we had foreign classmates, and it pains me to remember that some of them were bullied for their physical appearance. Of course, we all experienced some form of bullying, but again, looking back, it must have been especially traumatic for kids who find themselves in a strange land.
These two unpleasant memories came to my mind when President Duterte called Barack Obama “so dark and arrogant” a few months ago. That wasn’t the first time he made such remarks; in his recounting of a transit through the United States, for instance, he poked fun at a “black guy in uniform,” and previously he has also thrown similarly rude remarks about Jews, Indians and Muslims.
The President’s statements, of course, are troubling in their own right. But beyond their political ramifications, his language raises a broader and equally disturbing question: Are Filipinos racists?
The best case for the affirmative is the Filipino propensity to make fun of other peoples — an attitude that was on odious display with the comments Filipino netizens made about Miss Universe contestants — and how some foreigners, even PBA imports, are treated in our country. Among the “horror stories” I heard was a student from Nigeria whose Filipino friend, while they were at a fruit stand, handed him a banana.
On the other hand, it might be argued that Filipinos have no history of subjugating other peoples or of segregating from them; neither do we possess a racial ideology — either from religion or science — to inform a sense of superiority. And unlike in some countries, our Constitution does not privilege one “ethnicity” over another.
In fact we have been on the receiving end of racism, from the “racial science” of the early 20th century to today’s more subtle forms of discrimination. This troubled history makes understandable our insecurity or outrage whenever someone makes fun of our people, be it a Greek dictionary defining “Filipina” as “maid” or a Filipino couple being verbally abused in a Vancouver train.
It also explains in part what some scholars have called “internalized racism”: negative attitudes about our own ethnicity that makes us regard our own culture—and perceived physical characteristics—as undesirable.
To say Filipinos are “racists” without qualifying what it means is to conflate our attitudes with the violence — both structural and real — that peoples have inflicted on others as a result of racial ideologies; it is to diminish what racism means in its fullest, most pernicious forms, and to detract from the damage it has wrought the world over.
But at the same time, to deny our racism is to deflect inconvenient truths in our society. There is racism when Chinese-Filipinos are questioned whether they’re Filipino enough; when “mixed” Filipinos’ opinions are discredited for the same reason; when some local government units seek to register all “Muslims,” or when we participate in the “exoticizing” of indigenous peoples using the same logic that Americans used to “exoticize” us.
There is also racism when we allow our prejudices to color aspects of our everyday life, be it our beauty standards or sense of humor. And it is made all the worse when we allow these prejudices to reach public — to say nothing of presidential —discourse.
And yes, there can be racism even when we, too, have suffered from it. Victimhood does not equate to righteousness, and having been looked down upon does not give us the right to look down on others.
Addressing what Vicente Rafael calls “racial ambivalence” is admittedly a difficult exercise, but it is not a futile one. By confronting this conundrum, and engaging with various voices in the process, perhaps we can finally address the different forms of prejudice in our country, from those we inflict on others to those we inflict on our own selves.
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