Are Filipinos racist?

- Patrick Lacson - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - Afriend working at a culturally diverse organization shared a couple of anecdotes a few weeks ago: a few of his black colleagues walk into the office when he heard a coworker whisper mockingly, “What time is it? It just got so dark.” On another occasion, he overhears a discussion between two ladies in which one of them said that she would never date a black guy because she didn’t want to have children with African features. These people would, just moments later, smile and make small talk with their unsuspecting colleagues.

At a culturally homogenous organization I worked for, I observed similar attitudes. A respected boss once shared with his staff how blindsided he felt when a friend set him up with a North African woman. I once witnessed an argument devolve with one person yelling, “Take a look at your ID. You’re so dark!” A couple of people once laughed hysterically because a computer screen was too dark to make out a black person in a video. A colleague once returned to work with a golden tan only to be told, “You’re so dark. You’re not pretty anymore.”

Indeed, no corner of the world is free from small-minded views. One would be hard-pressed to find a truly post-racial society, even in 2012. But there’s a disturbing, heartbreaking reality that, as my friends and I have observed, persists in Philippine society. A CNN article published earlier this year put a spotlight on race relations in the country. What struck me was the story of a man who tried to get a job at a supermarket and was told that they couldn’t hire him because he’s black. Perhaps some people might need to substitute the words “black,” “African” and “dark” with words that describe their own appearance or background in order to empathize, but I hope you won’t need to.

Paradoxical behavior

There’s something paradoxical about Filipinos who harbor or tolerate these kinds of attitudes. Perhaps it’s because I’ve heard Filipinos cry racism only because their white immigration officer wasn’t smiling at them during their first time on US soil. Perhaps it’s because no one expects Filipinos — given the nation’s history and tourist-friendly reputation — to hold prejudiced sentiments. Perhaps it’s because the country is supposed to be one of Asia’s most diverse. Interesting, because a lot of folks expressed outrage over Spanish snacks called Filipinos, comments made about a Filipino contestant on Slovenian Big Brother, an expat’s tongue-in-cheek video about things he dislikes about the Philippines, and so on.

And yet when one takes a trip down EDSA, a billboard ad promoting the TV series Luna Blanca catches one’s eye — a series that depicts a dark-skinned character played by light-skinned actors in full blackface makeup. To be fair, the show’s audience has noted that precisely one of its main themes is society’s unfair treatment of those who are dark-skinned. That’s a shift in perspective for a primetime soap and for that its writers should be applauded. With that said, the use of blackface remains deeply misguided. Outside of a historical or satirical context, its only place should be in the annals of a bygone era, a time when the public saw nothing wrong with tribal peoples on display at expositions.

Consider the malice inherent in blackface, which stems from its being a medium for mocking blacks popular before the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. Unfortunately, it’s been slow to fade from view outside of North America. In 2009, a skit on an Australian variety show nonchalantly made use of it, sparking backlash from the American public. Multiculturalism in Australia only began taking shape in the late 20th century, while the Philippines isn’t an immigrant society by any definition. So does ignorance about other cultures simply thrive wherever populations are more homogenous?

Is it racism?

An even bigger argument often emerges during these incidents: is it racism? Both Luna Blanca and the Australian TV skit can be seen as examples of ignorance, but not racism, since there’s no evidence to suggest that anyone behind both shows holds any anti-black views. There is, however, a very fine line that separates the two, and whether something is racist or not can easily become the subject of heated debate. It’s one thing to laugh with an Indian friend about his strong accent and another thing to announce how upset you are after seeing a group of Muslims. Ultimately, what matters is not whether something comes from a place of bias and hate, or ignorance and tastelessness; what matters is that society recognizes that there is something unsettling about these attitudes.

I often find that the biggest challenge in communicating cross-cultural understanding is that many don’t think it’s a big deal when they say nasty things about those unlike them — blacks, dark-skinned people, Indians, Muslims, whites — often behind their backs after showing them some Filipino hospitality. Ask why, and you’re bound to get these responses: “They’re even more prejudiced.” “What I’m saying is true.” “You don’t think it’s funny?”

Yes, all of us have been guilty at some point. After all, human cognition is wired to simplify complex information; that’s how generalizations and stereotypes are born. But I know that there’s only one place for prejudice anywhere in the world, and that is in textbooks alongside the bigots who were on the wrong side of history.

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