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Do 'Black Lives Matter' to Filipinos? A call for empathy

“Do you think 'nigger' is still the right thing to call African-Americans today?” I managed to respond.  

“You know, my father was a slaveowner back in the day,” our host said. “He never mistreated his slaves; he gave them food and shelter. It was a good thing for them.” 

“But they were still his property and they could never be free. Just because they were dark-skinned,” I said. “What if we became your slaves?”

The man insisted that we were Filipinos and not blacks, two completely different things.  

Throughout this exchange, my Filipino companions – all of whom are well-educated and high-achieving citizens – stayed silent. 

At some point, a Filipina lady tried to explain our host’s position on the advantages of slavery for blacks, as if I didn’t fully understand the argument. As if – in helping him better elucidate its nuances – she might gloss over its ugliness and take comfort in the thought that slavery wasn’t all that bad. 

I found her attempt to side with our warm, hospitable, and yet racist host absurd. I know we were guests in his home – and Filipinos consider such hospitality sacred – but certain basic human rights are worth sticking up for.    

Later, on our way home, another one of my companions admitted that she did not want to challenge people like them because they would “never change their minds.” 

Plus, she pointed out, even though she genuinely liked certain black people who worked hard, many whom she had met were “rude” and tried to “take away jobs” that she and her husband had felt they deserved more than they did. 

“I just don’t like some of them,” she said. 

#BlackLivesMatter 

About two weeks later, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were shot dead in two separate incidents by white police officers in Louisiana and Minnesota.

Their deaths were the spark in a powder keg of racial tensions that have been simmering in America since the 2013 shooting death of Trayvon Martin, along with countless other black men across the country who have died at the hands of police. 

BLACK LIVES MATTER. A small group of Black Lives Matter protesters meet on the Ronald Kirk Pedestrian Bridge in Dallas, Texas, USA, July 10, 2016. Photo by Erik S.

Lesser/EPA

Once more, the same resounding outcry of injustice - “Black Lives Matter!” - reverberated throughout all corners of American society and even managed to cut across color lines. But nowhere was the silence more deafening than in swathes of the Filipino-American community.  

Except for the usual suspects - the young and educated, the artists, the academics and intellectuals who voiced solidarity with the movement - there was radio silence from our elders. 

The indifference toward the plight of black Americans may have originated from the racial attitudes we were forced to adopt when Spain colonized the Philippines in the early 1500s. 

The Spanish - and later on, the Americans - inculcated the mentality among us Filipinos early on that “white is right.” Over time, the brown skin of our ancestors became associated with poverty, lack of education and hard, physical labor. (READ: 'After I moved abroad, I learned to love my brown skin' )

Now, our preference for whiteness manifests in the multi-million peso industries of skin whiteners and plastic surgery, the bleached-white stars that dominate our screens and billboards, and our unquestioning love for Western culture. 

It should come as no surprise that the northern, mountain-dwelling Agta tribe – one of the earliest inhabitants of the Philippines – continues to suffer widespread discrimination because of their dark complexion and kinky hair. Foreigners of African descent who visit the Philippines today are often called “negros,” “nog-nogs” (the Tagalog translation for the n-word), or “balugas” (Agta-like).   

This attitude seems to have persisted long after we immigrated to America. Now, after seeing countless media portrayals of African-Americans as deadbeats or thugs, our elders think of them as a no-good, lazy, and violent people, save for a few exceptions. 

Some even believe that blacks harbor antagonism toward Asians in general because of our relative socioeconomic success in America.

After all, despite the rampant anti-Asian racism and discrimination at the turn of the last century, we rolled up our sleeves and eventually managed to get a piece of the American Dream. Why should others get special treatment?

As they rise to the top of the minority pecking order, our elders believe they can rest on the laurels afforded to them as the “model minority” in America. A desire to remain insulated from the racial realities of black and other brown people, including their deaths, has followed. 

Racial prejudice

It doesn’t matter how many awards or degrees you’ve gotten, how much money you’ve saved, how big your house is, or how many cars you have. It only takes one comment to remind you that you are and will always be a foreigner in America.   

This was a Facebook message that I received from a resident of Theriot, Louisiana, one of the isolated Cajun communities I used to cover for The Houma Courier and Daily Comet as a crime reporter.    

CLIMATE FRONT LINES. Filipino activists and domestic workers actively participate in the People's Climate March in New York.

Photo by Ayee Macaraig/Rappler

As I recounted my frustrations to another Filipina, she essentially told me to grow up because there were harsher ills in the world. She tried to comfort me with the idea that the man was an uneducated bigot who did not deserve my time. It was good advice coming from someone who had experienced her fair share of tribulations in this country, but it did not help with the ensuing self-doubt that shook me to my core. 

While these situations are hardly representative of my interactions with white Americans - and indeed, I have been in a loving relationship with a puti for almost five years - it’s the spectre of difference that always hangs over your head. It’s this spectre that drives small-minded comments regarding the validity of your immigration status, the quality of your English, and the level of your education. 

Excellence does little to protect us Filipinos and Asians from the spectre of racial prejudice in America, which continues to lurk in the background even as we nest in our cocoons. 

Call for empathy

As America pushes to bridge the rift between black and white communities, amid a rapidly diversifying society in which minorities are poised to become the majority, Filipino-Americans cannot pretend we are insulated from the effects of racism any longer

Instead, we should come together in solidarity and realize that we have a responsibility - for better or worse - as the “model minority” to bridge the growing divide between blacks and whites in America. In general, we are in a unique position to benefit from the favorable treatment of whites. Let’s make use of it for something bigger than ourselves. (READ: 'Filipinos in the US: A hundred years of migration' )

As for us Filipinos in the Philippines, it’s important to recognize the inherent diversity within our culture and pay respect to all of our ancestors, no matter the color of their skin. We can do better than succumb to the colorism and the “white-is-right” mentality brought on by centuries of Western colonialism and imperialism. 

It’s about time. – Rappler.com

 

Born and raised in Manila, Maki Somosot is a 25-year-old journalist who has lived and worked in the U.S. for the last 8 years. She is currently searching for her next reporting gig after covering crime and courts in south Louisiana's Cajun Country for nearly two years.