Dear white people in the Philippines,
Listen, really listen. I write this letter with urgent love – for my country and for you, too. This letter is for you – the white to my brown, the expat to my immigrant, the athleisure to my sando.
Don’t worry, this is not about the 300 years in the convent or the 50 years in Hollywood, although let’s face it, we talk a lot about colonialism and imperialism without talking about whiteness. Relax, this is not about that. Our own colonial mentality and perverse piety are already taking care of the punishment and complicated guilt. (READ: Racism in the Philippines: Does it matter?)
Let me first say that I am elitist. My attitude and behavior signal condescension. I don’t intentionally look down on others nor do I have any interest in doing so; I strive towards love. But I fully participate, despite my best intentions, in the self-delusion that I am rightly part of a select group. I cultivate the image of the Filipino-American ilustrado. I claim, with fervor, to have returned from the US “to do good, for good” – all in the built-in performance of social media. I operate on a set of assumptions that this beatific kindness entitles me to specific privileges. Yes, I am taking a risk in this very public space, but that is the market value my entitlement ordains me: I don’t have to care about what you think.
I concede to this tension so that I might dismantle it. But I doubt that I could ever walk away completely because I am indebted to the cocooned upbringing of my brown skin. The OFW industrial complex – to which my nurse-mother was a necessary devotee – formed my deepest worldview about human dignity and capabilities. The balikbayan boxes were rehearsals to our American life. There, Los Angeles and New York trained me to be hypervigilant about identity and visibility, a skill coursing through the veins of my work now as an academic. Years of doubting and questioning my own sense of belonging shaped my desire to tackle the greatest needs among marginalized and disadvantaged groups. There is no way I am giving up these instincts. Yes, I strive towards love, yet I am elitist.
And so I ask you, do you strive towards dismantling your own white resentment?
Hear me out. There you are minding your own white self, maybe walking into a freezing shopping mall without a light sweater, and without having your bag checked by the security guard. Then, you feel Oriental eyes on the pursuit. And if you are a white man reading this, you were imagining the grins and side whispers from the young women with their necks craned in the shadows of your long strides. (READ: [DASH of SAS] Brown is the color of my skin and passport)
And was there ever a time when Filipinos, total strangers, asked to take a photo with you? Or perhaps you’ve lost count of the number of times street children followed you, practiced their call-center English, and asked you for money.
You can see where I’m going with this – because we all know how hawk-eyed you are to the reactions to your white skin. At first, you might have enjoyed it. The attention was tolerable, maybe strange or even cute, but over time, your celebrity status – of the tokenism kind – snowballed into annoyance and perhaps anger. You probably tried to ignore it, but this only magnified the problem because their seemingly trivial or benign fascination you experienced as hostile and insulting. (READ: Bianca Gonzalez on being morena: 'Hindi kami kawawa')
I get you, I understand you. These are more than just hassles of everyday life. They can lead to stress that have detrimental consequences to mental and physical health.
But here is where you lose me – when you jump to “reverse discrimination” or “white victimhood.” Your grievance assails preferential treatment. There are those of you who will say that you should not be treated differently from Filipinos because of your skin. You might go so far as to protest that your race, gender, and socioeconomic class should be de-emphasized not only because it is discriminatory but also because you are, at the end of it all, not spectacular. You might even defend Filipinos by suggesting that bias towards your white skin devalues others’ brown skin. If you are saying these things, then you’ve stopped listening, really listening.
Your claims of reverse racism are precisely the projective disgust your white narcissism affords you.
Again, hear me out. I ask you to concede to your color blindness so that you may dismantle it. When you claim that your white skin should not matter, it also means that you are not willing to acknowledge or admit that indeed our skin colors do matter – for you and me both. It is dismissive that Filipinos should avoid explicitly discussing skin color, as well as the convent and Hollywood that lay bare its complex meaning.
You send the message that Filipinos should instead assimilate or acculturate to a warped worldview that is race-unconscious, the kind of distorted fear that underpins white victimhood against affirmative action. When you deny me and my brown brothers and sisters of our racial differences from your white skin – perhaps as a defensive move not to appear racist – you are also denying the gaping imbalance of power and privilege. Here in the Philippines, you are still the majority.
My white brothers and sisters, I ask you not to deny the racial reality of both our skins. The young women at the mall and the children on the street are racially biased.
But so are you.
Ronald Del Castillo
Dr. Ronald Del Castillo is professor of public health at the University of the Philippines Manila. The views here are his own.