For those of us who were born and raised in the Philippines, the stereotypes that were bequeathed to us – consciously or inadvertently by our elders -- were simple and straightforward: fair skin is beautiful, dark skin is not; “moros” (Muslims) are dangerous because they can run amok anytime; “intsik” (Chinese) are shrewd and dirty; “bombay” (Indians) are usurers and smelly; and “negro” (blacks) are ugly, violent and to be avoided at all costs.
The cultural put-downs and generalizations were not just racist, they were also regional. Ilocanos were seen as kuripot (miser), Ilonggos as spendthrifts, Kapampangans as traitors (although they sure can cook), Bicolanos (especially the women) as promiscuous, and Boholanos as hicks.
So pervasive were these cultural stereotypes that they became staples in comedy acts and other entertainment shows, never failing to elicit guffaws when the bumbling Chinese or the shady “Bombay” characters make their appearance.
Nobody gave much thought about the stupidity or the inhumanity behind these hand-me-down biases. Since the main contradiction in Philippine society, then as now, is economic -- rich vs. poor, landlords vs. peasants, corporate lords vs. workers -- race was a non-issue in a country where only very few looked different from most.
Thus it was easy to poke fun at those who were “not like us”; better to laugh at them than to laugh at ourselves. With the Catholic church instilling in us the concept of fear – of sin of hell, of the devil – it became second nature to us to extend that fear to include those who we had stereotyped as undesirable.
It was so much easier and satisfying to internalize and propagate prejudices than to ponder the complexity of diversity.
Race: 900-pound gorilla
When we moved to the U.S., where – no matter the denials on every side of the racial spectrum -- race is the 900-pound gorilla that pervades most human interactions, we had to downplay our deeply ingrained tendency toward racism in the interest of social harmony and yes, political correctness. We develop friendships with individuals of various ethnicities, allowing us to pat ourselves and declare that we have overcome our prejudices and we wholeheartedly embrace a colorblind world, free of the stereotypes that clouded our thinking.
But have we really? To be sure, racism and discrimination work both ways. Ignorance, after all, is hardly the sole prerogative of immigrants in the U.S.
All of us have, at one point or another, experienced the tightening in our chests when we are the recipient of a cultural put-down, no matter how subtle or unintentional. I remember bristling when a white office worker thought she was complimenting me when she effusively declared how impeccable my written and spoken English was, “considering that you come from a poor country.”
Other kababayans got treated worse. Who can forget Joseph Ileto, the postal worker who was killed by a deranged white man, because he didn’t look, uhmm, white and unfortunately got in his (the gunner’s) line of sight at that particular moment when he was itching to pull the trigger?
There is no end to the list of racial and discriminatory situations the ethnic communities have to endure here. It has become a given that our survival skills include fighting for our rightful place in this society. This, in fact, is the easier (not easy) task.
What is more difficult – but more important, I think – is our fighting to free ourselves of the prejudices that have become so second-nature to us that we fail to recognize, much less, admit it. The most potent among these is our attitude towards blacks, specifically African Americans, some of whom we may look up to, even revere, so long as they are out of reach or 500 miles away from our home, our family, the things we hold dear.
I confronted the ugly side of our generally sunny Filipino nature when I read Crushing Soft Rubies, a memoir by Janet Stickmon, an artist and writer, who teaches Filipino American studies at a college in Northern California. Her father, Fermon Stickmon, Jr., was African American; her mother, Lucrecia Mendoza, was Cebuana. Unfortunately, both parents passed away too early, leaving Janet to navigate the difficult racial divide of her dual heritage on her own.
Forced to live with her mother’s relatives in California, Janet was the unwitting victim of Filipino racism against the other half of her ancestry, and though she writes about it as a good storyteller would, it’s clear that she has been scarred by the experience: “The most distressing feeling in the world was not feeling at home in places that were supposed to be home. I was between races and between homes. Although the Black side of my family fully acknowledged my Filipino side and never insulted it, I still felt viewed as less Black, due to my speech, my light skin, my education, or my quiet nature. When I was with the Filipino side of my family, my Blackness was insulted and I became less Filipino because of that Blackness. I was without parents. And as far as I was concerned, I was without people who loved me completely, with the exception of a few. I had yet to find my home.”
Fortunately, Janet had the drive and the smarts to get herself two master’s degrees (in theology and ethnic studies) and thus was able to put things in proper perspective, which allowed her to free herself from bitterness and other negative attitudes that so consume others of lesser opportunities.
But what about those among us who continue to harbor the prejudices that we grew up with? Now that race is at the forefront of the coming presidential elections, it is our chance to look deep into our souls and ask ourselves how far we have evolved from the isms (racism, parochialism, ethnocentrism) that diminish us.
No matter whom we choose to vote for this November, let’s make sure that our decision is driven not by our narrow-minded, outdated and un-Christian prejudices, but rather by our concern for The Common Good. We owe our children nothing less.
(This first appeared in the September 2008 issue of Filipinas magazine.)