I came to the United States in the late 1960s to pursue graduate studies at UCLA. Like almost everyone who was college-educated in the Philippines, and immigrated after the passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, we were beneficiaries of the removal of race-based immigration policies from the lawbooks.
Many of us and our children were able to gain admission into America’s elite universities thanks to affirmative action programs that were implemented to address racial bias in admission programs.
I took these for granted oblivious to the fact that my admission to UCLA may have been facilitated by the decades-long struggle for civil rights led by the African American community. I believed then that I was admitted largely on my own merit. I still think that I did help myself get to UCLA. But did I also get help from elsewhere? I now think that I did, given the context of the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s.
The 1960s saw the passage of landmark civil rights legislation, including the passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965. During the same year, President Johnson through an executive order announced a policy of affirmative action to help address the effects of racial discrimination in publicly funded institutions.
Not only was I oblivious to this history, I also drank the “Kool-Aid.”
My education in the Philippines, from elementary through college, was heavily influenced by the educational system established by Americans during the colonial period. The language of instruction was in English, textbooks in elementary and high school were those approved by an American centric Department of Education. I still remember learning jingles like “dashing through the snow…” and reciting my alphabet lesson, “A” is for apple…even though I had never seen snow nor tasted an apple. My history books taught me that “Magellan discovered the Philippines.” I was definitely full of that Kool-Aid.
The early 1960s, my years in college, also saw the genesis of a nationalism movement in the Philippines. Thanks to nationalist historians like Renato Constantino, I gained a new perspective of my own history. Then I immigrated. I brought with me, the racist preconceptions and biases, especially those implicit biases, which often trigger and unconsciously recalibrate our actions as we interact with folks out there.
I consider myself very lucky. After completing graduate studies, I had shared an apartment with two ex-Black Panthers, Ray “Masai” Hewitt, and Bobby Bowen. Bobby was also a Vietnam veteran. We shared that apartment for many years, enough time for me to learn about racism, and the anger and frustration from those who lived it. I learned of behavioral adjustments that they engage in, automatically, to live with that racism. For example, do not go shopping for food items in white neighborhoods, even if it’s just for bottled water or beer. They are not used to seeing you there, and might call security, or worse, the police. They are very conscious that white folks often weaponize their discomfort with black folks around their neighborhood by calling the police.
Over time I, too, learned these adoptive behaviors. But have I unlearned implicit biases from the Kool-Aid? I do not know. Some which have been surfaced, yes. But here are some simple tests, to find out.
Everything else being equal: Would you prefer to be treated by a Black doctor or a white doctor? If your son/daughter were to have a girlfriend/boyfriend, would you prefer him/her to be white or Black? If your daughter were to marry, would it matter if he was Black or white. What is important is to pay attention to your initial, instant reaction. If questions like these elicit a racial preference for whites, you probably carry implicit biases against Blacks.
We have a family friend, a Pinay born in the U.S. to immigrant parents. When she got married to an African American, her father was so upset that he banned them from his house, and did not forgive them until they had their first-born. The old man (may he rest in peace) could not deny his “apo.” This is deep-rooted bias learned from white culture and sustained by it.
To exercise myself and my daughter’s dog, I often hitch him to my bike and bike around the neighborhood doing laps. One afternoon, I noticed I was being followed by a woman in a large luxury SUV. Then she pulled up alongside me and yelled something about animal cruelty. I politely answered back that “he likes to run” and kept going. She kept following. I decided to cut short my exercise and returned the dog to my daughter’s home, a few blocks from mine.
As I turned to ride home, she was there, partially blocking the driveway. So I stopped. She says “I have called the police, and I will wait till they get here.” I rode away like I had just stolen my bike. I had no desire to be there when the LAPD showed up.
I read that the CEO of a San Francisco based skincare company called the police on a Filipino man who was stenciling “Black Lives Matter” in chalk on his property in San Francisco’s upscale Pacific Heights neighborhood. A woman had weaponized her discomfort about a person of color, doing something by calling the police. If we feel the urge to weaponize our discomfort by calling the police. Stop! Think about possible consequences. This person was lucky the police knew him, and did not even bother to get out of their car.
The Filipino American experience does span both ends of the racist spectrum. From Carlos Bulosan being made to feel that it is a crime to be a Filipino in America, we have been victims of overt and subtle forms of racism. But we have also drunk the Kool-Aid, and carry racist biases, especially implicit ones.
I have to be especially vigilant about mine. It’s the only way when one lives in a society that makes the Kool-Aid, and drinking it is as “American as apple pie.”
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Enrique de la Cruz is Professor Emeritus of Asian American Studies at CSU Northridge.