Talking About Race in the Philippines

With the Halloween season comes the deluge of Instagrams, Facebook posts, and Snapchats, as our loved ones document their transformation into whatever person (or animal, or object) they’ve chosen to be. Halloween is the one night a year when wearing a costume to a party is required, and really, the bigger the better—because if you can be anything, why not go all out?

This year, in the American city where I live I spotted a Teletubby, a posse of Star Wars characters, many ‘sexy’ animal costumes, and a dog dressed as a spider. I saw a man get onto a train car dressed as the train itself. Scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed, I longed to see how people at home in the Philippines chose to celebrate the holiday as well. But along with the pirates, vampires, and yes, more sexy animals, there were also Native American costumes. Geisha costumes. Philippine Senator Tito Sotto appeared on popular TV show Eat Bulaga in an ‘Arab’ costume, with the support of other Filipino celebrities.

In my small, liberal slice of the United States, anyone who wore these costumes to a party would be quickly directed right back out the door. The U.S. is a melting pot of cultures and races, but it still seems to have trouble navigating its own diversity. Cultural appropriation –‘borrowing’ pieces of another culture for your own benefit or entertainment—is a hot issue here because in this country, the oppression and erasure of other cultures was, and still is, very real.

But in the Philippines, where an overwhelming majority of the population is, well, Filipino, how does an issue like this compute? Historically, the Philippines has not propagated the oppression of other races, as the Western world has. It is difficult to imagine that racism exists, or even applies to our country, when there aren’t many other races to interact with in the first place. One may be tempted to call racism a ‘Western’ problem.

But why is that when a Chinese-Filipino gets achieves a record-breaking high grade at her university, we throw her shade for her ethnicity? Why is it that, when Pacquiao lost his fight to Mayweather, the insults from Filipinos flooding social media were racial (and sexual) in nature?

Racism, and in our country’s case, cultural erasure, can manifest itself in different ways. But along with hurting others, are we also hurting ourselves?

Internalized racism in the Philippines

Take a look at the last names of many of our top celebrities: Wilson, Curtis, Heussaf, Milby, Crawford, Guidicelli. Take a look at high-end Filipino magazines or fashion shows, and notice the ratio of British, American, and Brazilian models, to Filipino models.

Our own media has created a highly unattainable standard of beauty. Our white-washed celebrity culture is a poor representation of what real Filipinos look like—perhaps to the point of doing our kayumanggi beauty an injustice. How much money have Filipino women spent on whitening creams, or blonde hair dye? How many hours have been spent worrying about the sun darkening our skin, instead of enjoying the bliss of our country’s beautiful beaches?

Our internalized racism stems from our long colonial history. Being under Spanish and American rule also meant being subjected to their beauty standards. But we are no longer an oppressed country. When will it be time to show the world true Filipino beauty?

Diversity in the Philippines

The Philippines is by no means homogenous. Our language, skin color, religion, and features vary as much as the 7,107 islands that make up our country.

But again, looking at Philippine media, any casual observer would believe that our country was 100% Catholic. This is simply not true. Our brothers and sisters of Muslim, Buddhist, animist, and other denominations are just as deserving of representation and support from our government.

“This display betrays an insensitivity by [Eat Bulaga] hosts,” said ARMM Governor Mujiv Hataman, in reaction to Gov. Tito Sotto’s recent ‘Arab’ costume incident, “as they equated the Muslim costume as something to be feared, in the way that zombies and ghouls are to be feared.”

Yes, for Filipino Catholics, it might be easy to write off a nun or priest costume. But Muslim Filipinos are already so underrepresented in Filipino governance, and people of the Muslim faith are oppressed and even injured for their beliefs all over the world. They cannot afford to take this issue lightly, because it affects them every single day.

The Philippines on a global stage

It is important to mention that Filipinos probably do not mean any harm when they don a racially-inspired costume. After all, Filipinos are not immune to oppression and stereotypes from other countries.

But when a person dons a Native American headdress, for example, will it do to ignore the history of systematic murder of Native Americans? Does that person know how Native Americans are forced to allow American tourists to touch their religiously sacred headdresses, because it gives them a source of income in reservations where they live in poverty? Will it do to stay ignorant of world history, as the rest of the world works hard at globalization?

Our country gains more economic traction with each passing year. We’ve become global players, and in the end, we need to act as such. Cultural and racial sensitivity is just another step in Philippine progress, and by doing so, we create a safe space for our citizens, regardless of race, gender, religion or skin color. We advance of not just our economy, but the well-being of our citizens.