Racism in the Philippines: Does it matter?

The recent spike in racist violence in the United States along with the anti-Muslim “war on terror” led me to wonder about race and racism in the Philippines. 

The experience of racism is nothing new among Filipinos, nor is it so simple. The term “Filipino” after all began as the racial designation for Spaniards born in the Philippines to distinguish them from those born in the Peninsula.

Because of the accident of birth, Filipinos, like Americanos, were regarded as “creoles.” Raised in the supposedly “backward” conditions of the colonies, creoles were treated as a race apart, seen by Europeans as beneath them. It was only in the last years of nineteenth century that youthful nationalists began to re-appropriate “Filipino.” They changed it from a racist term into a nationalist watchword to mean all those who suffered the common fate of Spanish oppression, and who felt a common stake in the future of the colony.  

Nick Joaquin has written suggestively about “Filipino” as a creole identity located in between the white European on top and the dark skinned indio below. Not quite white and not quite native, the racial ambivalence that inheres in “Filipino” is everywhere evident today. On the one hand, there is a tendency to accept white norms of beauty and normalcy that denigrate non-white others. On the other hand, there is also a fascination with and acceptance of these same others once Filipinos come to know them. 

The same can be said about white people.

Filipinos move between suspicion and trust, rejection and acceptance, depending on their relationship with them. Even Filipino-Americans with their white-like accents and behavior, are greeted with a similar ambivalence, regarded as estranged kin as much as foreign presences. We can see this, too, in the treatment of South Asians. The distinctions between and among Indians, Pakistanis and Sri Lankans tend to be conflated into the sinister turban-wearing, child-snatching, “5/6” figure of the “Bombay.” At the same time, there are few obstacles to their integration into successful members of rural and urban communities. 

Koreans, Arabs and African-Americans are treated with similar ambivalence.

Their appearance and smells are the subject of deprecating comments meant to mark out their foreigness. But they are rarely targeted for violent assaults and manage to live relatively undisturbed in Filipino neighborhoods. The Japanese were once hated in the aftermath of World War II, but that memory has been largely set aside and they are now seen as friends and allies. There are no state-sanctioned policies or other institutional barriers to keep foreigners from inter-marrying with locals and living in the country. Their differences can be accounted for and they cease to pose a threat. Indeed, no anti-foreign riots have occurred, to my knowledge, since the seventeenth century pogroms against the Chinese. 

Racial opportunists?

Among Filipinos then, racial feelings are loosely structured, unevenly policed and highly flexible. They run wide but shallow, capable of changing directions, largely dependent on social context. The thinness and contingency of race consciousness makes it seem as if Filipinos were racial opportunists. 

As heirs of a racially liminal identity, it’s not surprising that Filipinos display racial sentiments that are characteristically protean. For example, the Philippines has a long tradition of anti-Chinese racism, as scholars such as Edgar Wickberg, Carol Hau and Richard Chu have pointed out. Spanish and American colonial policies cast the Chinese as foreign Others. Nonetheless, the Spaniards encouraged Christian conversion among the Chinese. They also promoted inter-marriage between Chinese men and Christianized native women as a way of assimilating the former. As a result, entire generations of Chinese mestizos emerged, many of whom made up the earliest generations of nationalists, including Rizal. 

Yet mestizo nationalists, incorporating Spanish prejudices, were often virulently anti-Chinese themselves. This sort of nationalism yoked to anti-Sinicism dressed up as anti-comprador or anti-imperialist politics, is not entirely gone. It still rears its ugly head even within academic and literary circles today. The “Chinese,” imagined as an alien presence, is also seen as polluted and déclassé among the rich, and, in light of the conflict over the West Philippine Sea, grasping and greedy among everyone else. 

American rule further heightened this sense of racial ambiguity. On the one hand, Americans invaded the Philippines in the wake of the most genocidal phase of white settler wars against Indians in the Southwest and at the height of anti-black lynching in many parts of the country. Many of the US officers who were veterans of the Indian wars did not hesitate to use the same exterminatory tactics on Filipino insurgents and civilians. 

On the other hand, the Americans quickly realized they could not simply kill all Filipinos. They needed their help to end the war and govern the colony, and so embarked upon a policy of attraction and Filipinization. Dependent on the collaboration of Filipino creoles and mestizo elites, they could not afford to impose Jim Crow laws in the colony. Instead, socializing across racial lines, especially among colonial elites, became common. Where race relations were concerned, colonial Manila proved to be far more liberal than the segregated metropolis of Washington. 

Still, the racist logic of colonial rule remained unassailable. It was encapsulated in the notion of “benevolent assimilation”: white Protestant males and females tutoring mestizo and brown Catholics and Non-Christian natives in the rudiments of Anglo-Saxon civilization. Filipinos came to incorporate these civilizational notions and saw themselves as more advanced than the non-Christian population of Moros and lumads. Filipino nationalism forged in the crucible of colonialism had an inescapably racist dimension.

Still, conflict always alternated with co-existence and cooperation in the relationship between these groups. As Patricio Abinales has pointed out, Muslim elites were far more politically integrated with the American colonial and Republican government than they had ever been under Spain and after Marcos. Religious differences were never simply cast in racial terms, but always inflected by class, ethno-linguistic and regional distinctions. They were often subsumed, at least in official discourse, by a nationalism that says: in the end, “we” are all Filipinos. However, as the current debates around the BBL show, the nationalization of minority groups tends to be provisional and tenuous. Many Filipinos still regard Moros either as a colonized population with lesser rights, or an alien people who threaten national sovereignty. 

Dealing with lower classes

The use of racially tinged categories to both denigrate and embrace the Other continues to be a common practice among upper and middle class Filipinos when it comes to dealing with the lower classes. Thus are the poor often racialized, treated as if they were a different species altogether. 

As in other countries, the outer limit of middle class life is defined by poverty. The “poor” exist as the accursed Other, living beyond the village gates. They are allowed inside only as servants. Like migrant workers in a foreign country, their movements in and out of the village are closely monitored and regulated by heavily armed security guards. Associated with ignorance and criminality, the poor pose a permanent existential threat to the middle class and the rich. The physical and cultural markers of class segregation – high walls, air conditioned cars, linguistic honorifics – regulate the proximity of the poor and neutralize the dangers coming from this putatively inferior race.

Take for example Vice President Jojo Binay and his family. They have been vilified in the press and social media for their corrupt practices. Mixed with these criticisms, though, is no small amount of racial animus. The Binays are seen as indio usurpers daring to claim for themselves mestizo social privileges. They stand accused not only of corruption but also of not knowing their place in the racial hierarchy. 

The racialized denigration of the poor, however, has another side. They are also idealized in Catholic and nationalist discourses. For the Church, their abjection is construed as an invitation to exercise pity, or awa. Occasioning charitable acts, the poor can help us save our souls. 

For nationalists, the poor comprise the majority and thus make up the “people.” They are thus not only the targets of development but also the agents of national liberation. The rural poor, along with non-Christian groups, are often fetishized as the repositories of cultural authenticity, of real Filipino “values” and pre-colonial “traditions.” This exoticizing regard for the poor and the non-Christian forms a durable substrate of nationalist fantasy. To wit: it is the poor and the non-Christians who are the real agents of historical change. Class differences can eventually be overcome to produce one race – a united nation as progressive as it is compassionate. 

Today, skin color continues to serve as the gauge of social difference and the sign of class inequality. Light skinned mestizos – whether Chinese and European – tend to be endowed with considerable cultural capital regardless of their actual economic standing. The lightness of their skin serves as their calling card. It is the rare politician or celebrity – Nora Aunor comes to mind – who is not light skinned. Darker skinned folks become famous precisely by poking fun at their appearance, unless they are well-paid indios (think Manny Pacqiuao) or Filipino African-American athletes. 

Light is still right: hence, the popularity of skin-lighteners and, for those who can afford it, cosmetic surgery to streamline bodily features along more Caucasian lines. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine any one of any social class preferring to look darker rather than lighter, to have a flatter rather than a straighter nose. Judging from the billboards that populate Manila, light skin continues to be the horizon of popular aesthetic aspiration. Lightness retains a certain socio-cultural caché, whereas darkness brings only ridicule or, at best, indifference. 

Racial injustice

How can we understand the tenacity and flexibility of racial hierarchies? Why does race continue to be this vexed but ambiguous thing, omnipresent yet hard to pin down? And why does it even matter?

Race matters to the extent that racial injustice persists. In the US, white supremacy and the oppression of black people are two sides of the same racial coin. If anything, racism has taken on greater currency in the age of Obama. It is rooted in the unresolved legacy of slavery. If blacks are regarded as inferior to whites, it is because, for over 250 years, the former were legally available as the property of the latter. Slave labor is extorted and uncompensated work sanctioned by the State and exclusive to blacks. Simply put: to be white is to own your labor and its products; to be black is to be owned by whites. Despite a Civil War that abolished slavery and a civil rights movement that sought to restore blacks to full citizenship, problems of inequality and discrimination continue. 

Small wonder, then, that first-generation immigrants – especially Filipinos – seeking to fit into the US quickly learn the language of racism and tend to identify upwards with the more dominant whites. The second generation, however, grows up in the US without the creole entitlement and anxieties of their parents. Instead, they are daily confronted with racial injustice and begin to identify with blacks and Latinos. The generational rift between first and second generation Filipino Americans in part comes out of a radically different understanding of the history and effects of racism and its close relation, sexism, in the US. 

In the Philippines, the situation is, of course, different.

Given the absence of a history of racialized slavery, the problem of race tends to be folded into the language of class. The binary of white supremacy and black oppression are transmuted into the tension between the wealthy and the middle class versus the poor (and the non-Christian). Alternately, anti-Chinese racism also takes on a class character when the Filipino sees himself in the place of the poor native exploited by the wealthy predatory foreigner (even though, of course, most Chinese are neither wealthy nor predatory, much less foreign). 

Once again, we see the protean nature of racial identification. The middle class can assume the position of the white colonizer when confronted with the dark Otherness of the poor. But it can also take on the position of the poor – the “people” in the nationalist imagination – when faced with what it considers to be an exploitive foreign presence. The post-colonial middle class, like its creole predecessor, seemingly can have it both ways. Historically in-between, it draws prestige from above when it feels menaced from below, and takes on prestige from below when threatened from above.   

Prejudices vs OFWs

Let me end with one last example that shows why race matters.

This has to do with OFWs. Among Filipinos, they experience perhaps the most brutal forms of racial injustice, especially domestic workers. In places like Singapore or the Gulf States, they tend to live in slave-like conditions. Unprotected by local laws, they are subject to gross exploitation by recruiters, employers, and even Embassy personnel. They are also vulnerable to being trafficked and sexually abused. Symptomatic of this racial abjection is the way “Filipina” has come to be synonymous with “maid” or “care giver” in many places abroad. 

Like slaves, OFWs are held captive, their movements severely restricted and monitored. Their employers usually keep their passports to prevent them from leaving. They are given very limited days off, or none at all, and they are often forbidden to inter-marry with locals. Those who escape are referred to as “runaways,” as if they were slaves. Local courts treat them as fugitives guilty of breaking their contracts, rather than as victims of abuse. When caught, they are subject to imprisonment and deportation.

Thus are OFWS positioned by the host country as a race apart. Their slave-like conditions reveal with great clarity the tight chains that bind racism with the gendered exploitation of labor that is an integral – and tragic – part of our current history. – Rappler.com

 

Vicente L. Rafael teaches history at the University of Washington, Seattle