Having grown up in the Philippines where colonial mentality is deeply ingrained in the culture, I (and most everyone I knew) was taught that whiteness was the standard that everyone needed to aspire to. I was taught that whiteness was superior and my own culture was uncivilized, something to overcome instead of something to be proud of. It was evidenced in the number of television advertisements hawking whitening soaps, the association of fairer-skinned Filipinos as more beautiful, more sophisticated, more affluent. One would see Filipinos swimming in beaches fully clothed so they don’t tan. Being brown- or morena, as we called it- is undesirable, you see.
It started with my parents. My name, although it has a unique origin that stems from my grandmother (whose name is Estrella — Spanish for “star”) and I sharing the same birthday, was non-traditional of Filipino kids. My mom would read books to me and sing songs to me in english. We spoke English in my household, although the dialect would inevitably come up during conversations. English was foisted upon us as children in schools, often at the expense of the regional dialect or the national language. I remember being penalized for speaking the dialect in one class (you had to literally put your head down on your desk if you racked up too many tallies of uttering the dialect — the audacity of not speaking English). A voracious reader, I dove into English literature, devouring classics such as the works of Shakespeare, Twain, Austen, Orwell, Poe and Alcott with gusto. Although I watched a few Filipino movies and TV shows, I patronized American media more. From Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Dawson’s Creek, Sex and the City and Beverly Hills 90210. In high school, when we were given a book written by our national hero to read, I bought the version that was translated into english. Even though I had access to my own culture’s media, I deemed white media more superior. I dreamed of living in the US one day and being among people who I felt culturally closer to.
Fast forward a few years later and I now live in the US. I get comments from white friends and co-workers that they don’t think about me as Filipino. They don’t consider me an other. These comments are often accompanied by an expression of surprise at my command of the english language, or amazement at my awareness of American pop culture references. I’m not ‘other’ enough to them because I don’t speak in broken English, or act in ways that whites consider “FOBby” (fresh off the boat). Interestingly, the reaction has had the opposite effect on me. When once I used to yearn to be white, now I want to embrace my otherness. The very instance of being told that people don’t see me as an other makes me feel like I’m an other. That white friends feel the need to point this out to me, as though this was the highest compliment they could bestow upon me, made me feel uncomfortable. It was slow, but I eventually realized that in suppressing my own culture and venerating another as more superior, I was denying what made me uniquely myself. I’ve now learned to acknowledge that and take pride in my own culture.
Thanks for writing this article and being the voice for so many people around the world who have had similar experiences.