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EDITORIAL: Slaves to conformity

“My Family’s Slave” tells a story that feels very wrong yet very familiar. Maybe it’s time to let that weirdness sink in.    
This week, The Atlantic published a controversial piece entitled “My Family’s Slave,” written by the late Pulitzer Prize-winning Fil-Am journalist Alex Tizon. It told the story of a woman that he and his family called “Lola,” the family helper who migrated with them to the United States and took care of him and his siblings. She cooked their food, did their laundry, and cleaned their house. It was a story familiar to all Filipinos who ever grew up in a household with helpers, except Lola wasn’t your usual kasambahay. She never went home to her family. She never had days off. She was never paid. She was, for all intents and purposes, a slave.

Tizon writes the story in straightforward but caring prose. It is at once unsettling and moving. The initial reaction was mostly positive, with many readers praising the author for his bravery and honesty. But it didn’t take long for the backlash to come. Critics were angry at the Tizon family and even at the author himself for his complicity. He should’ve reported his parents to the authorities when he was old enough to do so. Lola’s illegal immigrant status and the risk of his parents being deported was not a valid reason to perpetuate an injustice.

The criticisms were fair, except one in particular: that Tizon made excuses for what he and his family had done. I thought he made it pretty clear that the reasons for his inaction were wrong. The piece to me read like a confessional that also functions as a tribute. It was full of love for a woman who raised him as if he was his own mother but was treated unfairly for most of her life. His accounts of this maltreatment — his mother making Lola take her punishment for her when she was a young girl, his father physically hurting her, their refusal to give her “allowance” — were a protracted contrition.

Ignorant Westsplaining

Many readers — mostly white Americans — accused Tizon of whitewashing: a weird accusation, considering that the word “slave” is literally in the title of the piece. What they view as “whitewashing” is really Tizon’s nuanced portrayal of what happened. Despite the many instances where he mentions his hatred towards his parents, Tizon still takes flak for mentioning his mother’s achievement as an Asian-American physician; a detail he mentions only to point out the tragic irony of his mother’s life. We are uncomfortable with any portrayal that humanizes oppressors because we refuse to confront evil as a uniquely human attribute. This, to me, is the real whitewashing. People have called the Tizons monsters, obviously out of anger, but perhaps also out of a need to separate themselves from something this unspeakable. When you’re white, you get to do that (and you’ve likely become experts at disassociating yourself from all sorts of oppression). But not when you’re a Filipino who grew up in the Philippines, where Lola’s experience, albeit extreme, sounds uncomfortably familiar.

It was fascinating to see the same people who chide the president for chalking up his boorishness to “cultural differences” use the same “Filipino context” argument to defend Tizon’s piece. But while cultural context is hardly a valid explanation for rape jokes and mass murder, it is an important requisite to fully understand Tizon’s story. One of the many things I found unsettling about “My Family’s Slave” is seeing the word “slavery” attached to a story that is, at its fundamental level, very Filipino. “Slave,” in the American context, carries a heavy historical weight. It brings to mind the Antebellum South and African slaves working in plantations and being treated like cattle. The Tizons’ relationship with Lola was similar, in that she was never compensated for her labor (one of the definitions of slavery). But everything else — being regarded as a family member yet being treated like a second-class citizen — is a more common Filipino experience than we care to admit.

Messy Filipino family dynamics

This is why a Filipino reader is more inclined to read Tizon’s piece as a heartbreaking family tragedy. Yes, by all sane definitions, Lola was a slave, but her story is also mucked up by the messiness of Filipino family dynamics. The scene of Tizon’s distraught mother being cradled by Lola after her husband abandoned the family was layered with so many complex emotions. This person has made her entire life miserable and yet here she was holding her, keeping her from falling apart. Is it because she’s family? Because she loves her? Is it a case of Stockholm Syndrome? It was one of the hardest anecdotes to digest. But this is the complexity that Filipinos have to face. A genuine love between helpers and their masters can exist, but why doesn’t this love translate to the improvement of helpers’ lives? Why is the convenience often one-way? When we treat them as family members, does that change their actual status in the household and in life? Or is it more a gesture to make us feel better about the inherent awkwardness of the arrangement?

In the piece, Tizon tells the story of when he finally accused his mother of keeping a slave:

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“‘A slave,’ Mom said, weighing the word. ‘A slave?’

The night ended when she declared that I would never understand her relationship with Lola. Never. Her voice was so guttural and pained that thinking of it even now, so many years later, feels like a punch to the stomach.”

I believe Tizon’s mother. Not her insistence that Lola wasn’t a slave, but her incredulity at the idea. People always wonder how evil happens, how the African slave trade happened, how Hitler happened, and the answer is so simple and mundane that we choose to ignore it or brush it off as something that is non-human. People do evil things precisely because they do not believe it is evil. They believe it is normal. Tizon’s mother grew up at a time when servants working for wealthier families in exchange for food and shelter was a normative experience. It was all she knew growing up in a post-war Philippines where the gap between the haves and have-nots widened to a crater. It does not excuse her behavior — but if you want real answers on why injustice exists, then you have to stare at unpleasant realities rather than dismiss them as “excuses.”

Having house servants in the Philippines is a phenomenon that has long puzzled Westerners. Most of us pay our helpers but it is worth noting that what seems normal to us looks weird to others. I’m not suggesting that we aspire to the Western model of living, only that we embrace universal truths: that sometimes, when ideas leave the household and hit real air, they evaporate for a reason. “My Family’s Slave” tells a story that feels very wrong yet very familiar. Maybe it’s time to let that weirdness sink in.

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Tweet the author @ColonialMental.

 

 

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