Whitewashing My Heritage

How I Came to Embrace My Non-white Skin

In 1998 during my senior year of high school my AP English class was working on final team projects, which were modern interpretations of Shakespearean plays. My group of four had chosen to make a video along the lines of a clichéd Hamlet in the Hood (yes, we were young and stupid). After school, we would pile into my mother’s Chevy Cavalier to film some scenes in the suburbs of Quartz Hill, home of mostly well-to-do families working in the aerospace-defense industry, about an hour north of Los Angeles.

One afternoon as we drove out to shoot our first scene up in the hills, a police cruiser tore out of a cul-de-sac and signaled me to pull over. Being the polite, overachieving, and eager-to-please-authority kid I was, I calmly pulled over and wondered what I had done wrong, given my young driving record. We sat quietly in the car for a few minutes before the officer cautiously walked up to my window and asked what we were doing there. I explained our assignment after which he asked for my license and registration and walked backed to his cruiser. Another few minutes pass, he walks back, returns my documents, and curtly tells me to be on my way, with no explanation of why he flagged us down to begin with. I didn’t think to ask.

I looked around at my friends in the car, who were all some shade of brown, and they were just as confused as I was. That was the first time I genuinely realized: I am not white. My light brown skin wasn’t enough to convince me of that fact until that moment, no matter how much I may have deluded myself in the years before and, as this incident and others like it faded in my memory, in the years to come.

Most of my life I spent distancing myself from my Filipino heritage. My father, who was white and of German descent, passed away when I was two years old. My mother did her best to ensure that I had an appreciation for my father’s family history and was dead set on raising me as a full blooded, English-only speaking, American man, with an ambiguous European tan, one rich with opportunities that she believed a bilingual Filipino boy with a light brown complexion might not be afforded.

Growing up this way had its pitfalls, most notably being an outsider in my family. At family get-togethers, being the only one who couldn’t speak Tagalog, I would often sit by myself in a dusty chair at the corner of the living room, playing a Game Boy, or reading a Scary Stories book that I had brought along for moments just like this, while loud and lively family discussions took place in another room. Every once in awhile, someone (usually one of my many Aunts) would notice me and announce, for my benefit, “magsalita ka ng Ingles!” (Speak English!).

There were also the occasions where family acquaintances might mutter under their breath conversations about the “kano” or “pute” boy; it wasn’t hard to decipher that they were talking about me in an unflattering light. On the other end of the spectrum, I lost count of the times relatives would tell me I should be an actor back home in the Philippines, since I was a handsome American-raised boy with light skin; I know they meant that to be flattering, but comments like those were more awkward than anything else.

My unfortunate default diversity survey answer.

As I grew older, that cultural gap would only widen, and I unintentionally began to see my family as having this weird culture foreign to mine, who did and said things that I just didn’t understand. When filling out HR diversity surveys, I would always select “white” without a second thought, because that’s what was engrained in my head to think was the right answer. I even dated white, completely ignoring other ethnicities because I thought that what I was supposed to do as a white guy. Even today as I pick out a Filipino accent in a crowd I occasionally have this weird Pavlovian instinct that gives me goosebumps.

It’s all inevitably a shame, as I’ve missed out on being proud of the accomplishments of many great Filipino-Americans, including a few people I already admired and didn’t realize I had a common heritage with, such as Flickr founder Caterina Fake, singer Bruno Mars, and actress Hailee Steinfeld, to name a few.

Now that I’m in my 30s I find myself torn between feeling incredibly lucky about my career successes and feeling that I missed out on being closer to my own rich cultural heritage. I’ve heard similar stories from friends about working in this society that prefers you to be white, so they embrace the default history that comes with that, sometimes forgetting the rich ones that their parents brought with them to this country.

I often wonder what might have been if my mother had raised me like many of my other first generation Filipino cousins, who still had one foot firmly in their Filipino community. Would I have had as much opportunity as I do today? Might I have had more? Would I be closer with my family? I realize that my experience isn’t the typical Filipino-American, as many I know have experienced some shade of grey in between.

I have no doubt that my mother raised me the way she thought was best for me, but the fact that my mother felt that she had to raise me the way to ensure that I’d be more successful is what makes me sad, not just for my own selfish reasons, but for the way our culture subtly implied to her that success meant being as typically American as possible.

There’s this popular Filipino proverb:

“Ang hindi lumingon sa pinanggalingan, hindi makakarating sa paroroonan.”

It means: “A person who does not remember where he came from will never reach his (or her) destination.” I’ve made that mistake, but it’s my hope that those younger than myself don’t repeat it. As younger generations continue to define what it is to be an American citizen, we should be vigilant to celebrate not only other’s backgrounds, but the ones unique to us that make up who we are. We must stand up to the boisterous, narrow minded that try to sell us that being American means one thing, lest we lose the diversity that makes this country so great and the bright future it provides.