“The child who is not embraced by the village
will burn it down to feel its warmth.”
– Old African Proverb
By L.S. Mendizabal
“Baluga.” “Nognog.” “Pwet ng kawali.” “Ita.” Even “negro.” These are just some of the terms with negative connotation that Filipinos fling around carelessly about people who have darker complexions. And the majority of us are kayumanggi (brown skinned), so that’s saying a lot. You don’t even have to be Black to be called these words in the Philippines. Here, there’s no such thing as “racial slur” for we have made sport of physical appearances such as being pango (flat-nosed), pandak (short), tabatsoy (fat) and payatot (skinny) which are oddly what most Filipinos look like.
As a morena for most of my life, experiencing discrimination for not being light enough is not new to me. Mind you, I’m not even that dark. When I was in fifth grade, I had to hand an excuse letter on behalf of my little brother to his class adviser. He had fever and wouldn’t be able to take the exams that week. Upon reading it, the old mestiza teacher with a Spanish-sounding last name looked at me and asked who I was.
“I’m his Ate (older sister),” I said. She ogled me through her reading glasses with intense curiosity.
“Then why are you darker? You don’t look alike! I thought you were the daughter of the kasambahay (househelp),” she said casually, waving the letter to signal that I could go.
I don’t remember how I felt then, but I remember how angry Mama was when I told her later that day. I guess she just got so busy at work that it was never brought up again. Looking back, not only did my brother’s adviser reek of colorism but one that is borne of class consciousness as well. Darker skin is usually equated to being poor, uneducated and thus tied to physical labor in the service of lighter skinned employers. What’s sadder is that she was not a conventionally “bad” person. I’d even go as far as saying that she was one of the best teachers in our elementary school. Most Filipinos, especially from the older age brackets, “boomers” if you will, just happen to think that way. It’s normal.
That’s what you get after around four centuries of colonial rule—three years under the Japanese occupation, 48 with the Americans and 333 as territory of the Spanish Crown to be precise. As product of colonial interbreeding (not excluding the rape of our female ancestors), Filipinos have this concept of beauty centered on Western features: statuesque; blonde hair; a Grecian nose; and most importantly, smooth, radiant, fair skin. Just see all the local TV commercials, the billboards strewn along EDSA, the most popular local celebrities and our two most recent Ms. Universe titleholders who are all Fil-something.
Filipinos have been programmed to want to be Caucasians because for the longest time in our collective memory, they were our governor-generals, friars, lords, teachers, ideal husbands, messiahs who would deliver us from adversity. Heck, even Jesus Christ looks white in the portrait that hangs in every Filipino household! Not a hundred armed uprisings could’ve changed this mentality easily because it’s widely reinforced up to this day. We are still a semi-colony of the USA, granted that the Duterte administration has been turning its allegiance over to China, which if I may add, is a land of chiefly lighter skinned Asians.
Now, imagine being Black in America. Not only were they colonized, but forced out of their native Africa, traded across seas and oceans like silk and spices, then owned by pale strangers for their feudal and capitalist interests. For three centuries. For the color of their skin. After the Civil War that led to the Reconstruction Amendments which abolished slavery and recognized emancipated Blacks as American voting citizens, white supremacy was reborn in the form of racist extreme right-wing organizations like the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) which terrorized and killed them. The lynching of African-Americans by white mobs for crimes they did not commit or out of pure hate also became prevalent during this entire period. Then came the Civil Rights Movement in the 50s through 60s which condemned these racial injustices and put an end to the Jim Crow laws and disenfranchisement, among many other legislative triumphs. All these years of the Black Liberation Movement, however, did not arrive at the current global uprising that is Black Lives Matter without at least a million of them being continuously exploited, raped and slaughtered in order to bring a White-dominated USA to where it is now: the world’s foremost imperialist superpower. A steady offering of Black lives by white supremacists to Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty—this has always been the fuel to the American dream machine.
As per writing, 20 people, mostly Black, have been killed, countless are injured and at least 11,000 arrested since mass mobilizations broke out in the US following the May 25 incident when a white cop, Derek Michael Chauvin, knelt on the neck of a Black man, George Floyd, for eight minutes and 46 seconds, causing his death. Black women and children are being abducted and slain everywhere. And in a harrowing throwback to the Reconstruction, five Black people have been found dead hanging from trees. The police have ruled out foul play and classified these lynching as “suicide,” as if a bunch of African-Americans would not have chosen a more appropriate time to end their lives amidst a revolt that demands that all Black lives should matter, as if they could not have thought of any other means of dying but publicly hanging themselves as in the historical hate crime that killed thousands of their ancestors. All these happened in just three weeks since a series of racist killings have triggered massive protests across all 50 states of America as well as the world.
Undeterred by ongoing police brutality, the protests show no signs of letting up. Aside from their demands to defund the police and abolish the whole prison industrial complex, poetic justice is somehow served what with the number of police stations, capitalist establishments and other anti-Black institutions that are being burned down, of racist monuments and memorials uprooted and destroyed. The message is clear: businesses and buildings can be replaced; Black lives cannot. The dismantling of statues of slavers, slave owners and those responsible for Black genocide is nothing compared to everything that’s been wiped out in the name of the “the white man’s burden.” Calling them “George Floyd protests” is an understatement, for as much as the murder of Floyd was their catalyst, so were all the Black lives lost over centuries of systemic racism, their faces too many to count, their names too crowded in our collective consciousness that it’s difficult to learn them all. BLM began as a hashtag in 2013 but the broad movement that it has bred is but an eruption of generations of Black sentiment and dissent. Slavery, they’ve experienced, was simply reformed, not abolished, since their emancipation never quite translated into racial equality. America is literally ablaze with the flame of revolution and the rest of the world is catching fire, albeit long overdue.
“Why should we Filipinos give a damn?” some might ask. “Most of us are not Black.” “The Duterte diehard supporters (DDS) should have no business with BLM because they condone extrajudicial killings by the police!” “You’re just following what’s trending.” “We already have enough problems in our own turf! #BrownLivesMatterToo” are just some posts by random Filipinos that I’ve seen hovering on social media.
So why must we, regardless of ideology and political beliefs, support BLM?
1) Because all Black lives matter. Period! and
2) because we share a common enemy.
The white-dominated imperialist USA has perpetually fed on the exploitation of our people and natural resources, all the while presenting itself as savior and benefactor, for instance, by keeping the national economy afloat through debt so they can exploit more.
Neoliberalism has made the Philippines and the rest of the Global South beholden to white imperialist powers through the state.
Meanwhile, the AFP-PNP are the oppressive instruments of the state that ensure that the exploited remain exploited. State violence and brutality is not a mere offshoot of abuse of power or a mishandling of guns, but a very specific neoliberal design implanted in the workings of the establishment. The uprisings of all peoples of color against white supremacy in solidarity with BLM in the neo-colonies (our own backyards) as well as within the countries of white imperialists (the homecourts) possess the impact of a flurry of a thousand blows from all sides.
By “uprising,” we do not mean simply participating in Instagram story chains, or posting black squares hashtagged with BlackOutTuesday and calling it a day, or being passionate about BLM while endorsing or staying mum on the Anti-Terrorism Bill (ATB) which, if signed by Duterte, is worse than Martial Law with its draconian anti-people provisions.
I mean, whatever happened to “All cops are bastards?” Fascist violence is the universal language of the police. You cannot be for BLM and root for the PNP! Some Filipino makeup artists also thought it was a good idea to pay tribute to Black lives by posting blackface looks on social media. Blackface, originally sported in 19th century theatre to represent black caricatures, is repulsively unacceptable in 2020! These performative and selective types of activism are not only lethargic but as hollow as a national artist writing a poem on each day of the quarantine in an attempt to “encourage the public to read more poetry” while his fellow artists are starving during the pandemic.
Which brings me to a rather tough but necessary question: Are Filipinos merely uneducated on institutional racism or are we, as a people historically inclined to serve White men, inherently racist?
Let’s not even stray far into colonial history. In fact, let’s talk about how we currently treat our own Indigenous Peoples, the Aeta (“eye-ta”) population in the country. The Aetas, an Australo-Melanesian race, which may be traced back to Africa eons ago, are the Philippines’ oldest, if not first, inhabitants. Their culture and ways of living are often said to be “backward” but in reality, they are natural taxonomists, herbal medicine experts, not to mention excellent farmers and hunters. And yet, Aetas face constant abuse from their fellow Filipinos (“mga unat,” they call us). Not only are they completely ignored by the government but with its blessing, Aetas are frequently driven away from their ancestral lands by land grabbers, huge logging and mining companies and the AFP. The country’s upland regions, which are home to Aetas, are being used as the military’s counter-insurgency training and operations areas. Worse, the AFP usually tags Indigenous Peoples standing their ground to protect their livelihoods as “rebels” and enemies of the state, too. In addition to all these, Aetas, being darker than most Filipinos, are on the receiving end of widespread racial discrimination. Where else did “baluga,” “nognog” and “Ita” come from? Colorism is a child of racism. You don’t have to be a white cop lynching African-American kids to be racist. Anti-Blackness is a global thing, and it can be as subtle as the whitening lotion you slather on your body after bath every day.
Internalized racism is the culprit behind the thinking that it’s harmless to do blackface, or repost a #BlackLivesMatter story chain and nothing else, or call our darker-complexioned friends names that we think are hilarious. White racial antipathy has evolved in its different forms of expression, the less explicit being racial prejudice and racial apathy. Asians, despite being POC, are notorious for being racist at worst and racially apathetic at best. After all, the police officer who stood next to Chauvin kneeling on Floyd who was saying he could not breathe and did nothing about the murder is Hmong-American, while the convenience store that called the cops to report Floyd is owned by an Arab-American. Sure, we Filipinos love Black culture, fashion, athletes, rappers and Beyonce, but why did we laugh out loud at Elizabeth Ramsey, Blakdyak, Whitney Tyson and Wilma Doesnt when they popped up on TV? Their complexion was a comedic antic in itself! Truth is, we Filipinos still have a long way to go before we can fully overcome racial prejudice and apathy, let alone rectify centuries of reinforced internalized white supremacy. We’ve also suffered from white oppression and exploitation, yes, but it is important to note that the age-old problems of our Black sisters and brothers are rooted in the history of being enslaved not for differences in ideology, religion or culture but solely based on the difference of skin color, resulting into the very concept of “race” that’s anchored on lighter skin being superior to dark. This is what we mean when we say that “not all lives can matter until Black lives matter.”
While writing this, I’ve come to realize how it’s a privilege to read up on racism instead of having to fear being Black every day of my life. Signing petitions and sending money to donation drives (preferably by Black community organizers and protesters) in support of BLM, advancing or reopening of cases and bailing out arrested protesters is a good start.
We must also take the time to educate our fellow Filipinos on racism by sharing books and reading materials not just online, but most importantly, within our homes where prejudices are first learned and fortified. These days, when most of the world is mobilizing against many social injustices in the midst of a pandemic no less, there should no longer be room for bigotry, not on the internet or at the dining table where you say grace with your family.
Call racism out and educate the racists, including yourself. After all, this isn’t about you.
Furthermore, racial discourse does not stop online or at home. Filipino-American communities in different states have joined and organized BLM demonstrations. Here in the Philippines, Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) has led peaceful protests against the ATB, the biggest and most recent of which, dubbed as “Grand Mañanita” on June 12, had the protesters simultaneously take the knee in solidarity with the Black Movement. Anti-racism mass mobilizations have also been conducted in the UK, France, Germany, Japan, South Korea and countries across Africa, to name a few.
The latest pronouncements by the imperialist-sponsored World Health Organization (WHO) itself, expressing support for these worldwide protests in the middle of COVID-19 are proof that late capitalism—in which the principally white Global North, especially the USA, has reveled in through hundreds of years of exploitation of their own people and those in their neo/colonies—is clearly on its last legs. BLM as a movement against systemic racism and white supremacy could not have been a more fitting spark to start a prairie of fire, to borrow Mao Zedong’s words.
Even so, we cannot afford to let our guard down. This is just the beginning. As long as the carceral state is not abolished, as long as there is racial inequality, racial profiling, redlining of African-American neighborhoods and even misogynoir and transphobia within the Black communities themselves, the fight is far from over. As long as there is no justice, there will be no peace. In fact, we may not see the end of it.
Renowned activist, Marxist feminist and author, Angela Davis, shared in a recent interview that she often tells comrades “to consider the very long trajectory of Black struggles. Most important is the forging of legacies, the new arenas of struggle that can be handed down to younger generations.”
Indeed, Black Lives Matter is more than just a trending hashtag. It is a continuing revolution that will not cease until perhaps when our children’s friends call them by their real names and when grade school teachers do not perceive only the color of their skin. #