[OPINION] Anti-Black attitudes among Filipinos, in the context of the U.S. Empire

In the era of #BlackLivesMatter, Filipinos must reflect on the anti-Black attitudes that circulate in their everyday life. In the Philippines today, public figures with dark skin are commonly ridiculed. Blackface is normalized in Philippine festivals such as the ati-atihan – a “tradition” that supposedly honors indigenous Aetas (this issue is itself complex and will need another essay). Dark-skinned actors often play comedic roles. African Americans with Filipino heritage are caricatured in teleseryes.

Filipinos carry with them these attitudes in the diaspora, often perceiving Black people as dangerous, backward, and undesirable – echoing racialized hegemonic consciousness that favors fairness and whiteness. How come Filipino postcolonial sensitivities side with the white colonizers rather than with the formerly colonized (such as ourselves) and enslaved peoples? (READ: [OPINION] Black lives should matter to us too)

To answer the question above, I draw from my research among Filipino Americans in the US Navy, and discuss how the US military superstructure may have contributed to the formation of anti-Black consciousness in the Philippines. Black and Filipino people crafted paths within the limited choices that were available to the historically enslaved and newly colonized. US imperial exploitation of the Philippines included labor resource extraction.

At the turn of the 20th century, the first Filipinos were recruited to join the US Navy as stewards – the racialized lowest rank, into which no white Americans were recruited. In 1970, American journalist Timothy Ingram called US naval ships “floating plantations” in reference to the historical organization around slave labor of agricultural production in the American South. However, such appropriation of the discourse of enslavement to refer to the experience of Filipinos on the US ships needs to be critically assessed to consider how the US imperial advance in the Pacific not only produced new oppressions, but also stirred anti-Black sentiments among the newly colonized peoples, such as Filipinos.

Below, I raise 3 points related to Filipino participation in the US Navy that could be used to reflect on anti-Black discourse. Black lives should matter to Filipinos. We need to confront our willful ignorance in perpetuating anti-Blackness that denies humanity to fellow people of color. (READ: [OPINION] Witnessing #JunkTerrorBill alongside #BlackLivesMatter)

Rethinking solidarities with Black people

First, it is critical to point out that the segregated steward rank in the US Navy initially recruited predominantly Black people. Historian John Darrell Sherwood writes that post-emancipation, steward rank wages were so low that they could attract only Black people who were purposely left with very few viable occupation choices. In 1896, two years before US naval ships arrived in the Philippines, ships were officially made segregated (read more here). This shows us how empires have historically capitalized on racialized labor. Frantz Fanon reminds us, “It is the racist who creates his inferior.”

Second, there is a need to reassess the projects for “self-improvement” that were crafted within the civilizing discourse of the American colonial period in the Philippines, and that influenced Filipino desires for success that fit within the needs of the US. Filipinos eventually carried these desires in the diaspora; in the US, these conveniently fit into the “model minority myth” that divides Asians and Blacks in the US.

Former Justice of the Supreme Court of the Philippines FC Fisher said in 1927: “At the end of the 19th century, the Filipinos, as a whole, were woefully ignorant.... This, however, was due only to lack of opportunity.” Speaking nearly 3 decades after American arrival in the Philippines, Fisher evaluated the degree to which Filipinos benefited from the American policy of “benevolent assimilation.” According to Fisher, “The Filipinos have been quick to profit by the facilities for education made available to them under the new order.” The creation of these “opportunities for self-development” needs to be understood to consider the recruitment of colonized peoples as disciplined participants in a racialized order. On the ships, Filipinos worked alongside Blacks who held comparable desires for uplifting themselves within the limitations framed by “the so-called dependency complex of colonized peoples,” which Frantz Fanon argues, “proceeds from the arrival of white colonizers.”

Third, examining the relationships between different groups of people of color in the context of empire exposes the historical production of ambiguous attitudes of oppressed populations towards each other. Filipinos and Black people in the Navy were pitted against each other in a system that was racist to both groups in the first place.

My interviews with Filipino-American US Navy retirees are telling of the ambiguous racial climate affecting those working together in the racialized steward rank. A Filipino-American retiree who served in the Navy after WWII told me, “When the Filipinos were colonized by the Americans, the Filipinos replaced the Blacks.” Another retiree said that Filipinos took on the role of “jokers” who could navigate between Blackness and whiteness. An informant talked about his confusion of figuring out if he should sit in the “whites only” or “colored” section of the bus. Their testimonies reveal the ambiguity of racism in the US as it applied to Filipinos, who felt a sense of proximity to whiteness cultivated in a colonial environment that was labeled benevolent to the US’ “little brown brothers.” (READ: Basagan ng Trip with Leloy Claudio: The relevance of #BlackLivesMatter to Filipinos)

As Fanon says in Black Skin, White Masks, colonized peoples become whiter as they renounce their Blackness and “jungle status.” While Filipinos could occasionally deploy their proximity to whiteness, an informant testified that “The Blacks were just discriminated outright.” This “outright discrimination” ties in with the US imperial project that created new forms of exclusion for Black people. From 1919 to 1932, the enlistment of African Americans in the US Navy was halted as the recruitment of Filipinos intensified. Robert Emmett, head of enlisted training division, said in 1932 that Filipinos “are cleaner, more efficient, and eat much less” than the Black crew.

It needs to be pointed out that the sentiments of Black people towards Filipinos during the US colonial period were divided, as argued by Ingrid Dineen-Wimberly. For some Blacks, US expansion in the Philippines opened a gateway for “upward mobility while they subverted domestic racism.” T. Thomas Fortune, a mixed-race and Black-identified newspaper editor and prominent leader in the Afro-American business community who served as Special Agent to the Philippines from 1902 to 1903, saw potential for African Americans in the context of the US occupation. Fortune advocated for Black emigration in the Philippines, arguing that African Americans would be able to supply the labor that was needed in the Philippines while pursuing liberty and happiness in the rich and fertile islands.

Meanwhile, Scot Ngozi-Brown argues that Blacks found themselves conflicted about the “imported Jim Crowism” in the Philippines. There was also the case of David Fagen who defected and joined the early Filipino rebellion against the US. These examples of varied Black sentiments expose the divide-and-conquer strategy of the colonizers – both at home in the US and in the overseas territories. On this, I recall philosopher WEB Du Bois’ remark about colonial expansion that divides “the darker world” for the benefit of empire.

Anti-blackness and colonial baggage

Thus, Filipinos absorbed the discourses about the universal “savagery” of the colonized Other. Those discourses were used to describe us, and also shaped our perceptions about our own brownness/darkness, and thereon also instilled stereotypes about Black people as another breed of “savages.” Filipinos soon started identifying more closely with white Americans even if, according to Ngozi-Brown, both Filipino and Black crew members were called the N-word during the early years of American occupation of the Philippines. Filipino-American US Naval retirees recalled that their relations with white officers were often friendly. Conversely, a Navy retiree referred to Black shipmates as “troublemakers” who would often use “discrimination as an excuse.”

However, African American navyman William Norman expressed concerns in 1970 about white officers’ adoration of Filipino stewards. That Filipinos were the favored “sacred cows” in the Navy, according to Williams, hampered real institutional reform towards racial equality. Given the context above, I leave readers with the question: what knowledge and tools do we deploy today in reshaping attitudes and building solidarities in the context of very heavy colonial baggage? – Rappler.com

Dada Docot is an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at Purdue University. She is an anthropologist of her hometown in Bicol, and of the Filipino diaspora.

This essay is an extended version of the contributor’s presentation made on June 13, 2020 at the Filipinx for Black Lives Panel organized by FilAm Arts.