Aspiring to whiteness

by Guest Contributor Tanglad, originally published at Tanglad

As we celebrated the eve of November 4th, I was struck by a comment from New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. He pointed out with pride the role of the Latino vote in Obama’s election. I wish I could say that about my fellow Filipinos.

And yes, I know, the Filipino vote is not monolithic. I am specifically talking about Filipinos like me, who have immigrated here in our adult lives. We’re working to make ends meet. Many of you are raising families, go to church every Sunday, support extended families back in the Philippines. The Philippines that would theoretically be a very red state if it could vote.

So yeah, there are lots of factors behind this particular Pinoy demographic’s support of McCain and Proposition 8, but I will dive into the one that presents the most challenges.

Filipinos can be quite forthcoming when talking about race. In news interviews in the Philippines and in Pinoy gatherings, many immigrant Pinoys have made it abundantly clear that their “discomfort” over Barack Obama is not due to the rumors that he’s an inexperienced, socialist, Muslim politician. Their discomfort is from Obama’s blackness.

Filipino Americans have long been proud of our ability to assimilate into American society. Decades of colonization helped ensure that Filipinos buy into the American Dream completely — minimal input from a government that back home is often corrupt, working hard to pull oneself up, and evidencing said hard work through conspicuous consumption.

But as writer Benjamin Pimentel points out, buying into the American Dream also includes embracing “the views of the dominant white society – including the prejudiced, distorted image of blacks.”

Pimentel quotes Toni Morrison:

“In race talk, the move into mainstream America always means buying into the notion of American blacks as the real aliens,” she wrote in Time magazine in 1993. “Whatever the ethnicity or nationality of the immigrant, his nemesis is understood to be African American… It doesn’t matter anymore what shade the newcomer’s skin is. A hostile posture toward resident blacks must be struck at the Americanizing door before it will open.”

This aspiration to whiteness is not new, of course. It has been evident in our history, as Filipino elites supported revolution not because of nationalism, but on the grounds that elites were honorary whites themselves, or at least figuratively white enough to take on the “white man’s burden.” Decades later, this valorization of whiteness is truly entrenched in Filipino society. Just consider the popularity of those skin bleaching lotions that let the brown masses show their “natural whiteness.”

This home-grown tendency gets magnified once Pinoys set foot in the United States. In the strong desire to identify with the white colonizer, many Pinoys readily adopt the hostility to whoever is considered the Other. And for Pinoys already steeped in colonial mentality back home, it does not take much to stoke the disdain against those who are considered the Other — Blacks, Muslims, and gays.

At the heart of this disdain is fear, partly of the population deemed the Other, but also a fear of losing privileges. Deeply entrenched in the collective Pinoy psyche is the belief that we have a “special relationship” with America, one wherein Americans really really likes us. Or at least, America likes us better than the other minorities out there. So we aspire to be favored by the dominant group and act grateful for the small crumbs that thrown our way.

This mindset is a formidable barrier to coalitional work, and the Filipino immigrants’ misguided support for Proposition 8 illustrates the failure of activists to connect to this community. But this is also a challenge to the Pinoy immigrant community to see beyond the divisive rhetoric, build upon its strong traditions of bayanihan, and to take its place in the greater struggles for social justice.