White privilege and its lasting effects on Filipinos’ colonial history and America today

Shortly after the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag started to appear over social media, I overheard an Anglo say in riposte, “Well, all lives matter…” (I have also heard “white lives matter too.”)

I do not quite remember the context of this conversation, but the remark stuck with me.

The BLM campaign is not meant to minimize white lives; it is a protest against white privilege, and the ideology that seeks to preserve it, white supremacy.

What is white privilege? It’s like being born into a slave-owning family. One may not have participated in acquiring slaves, but growing up in such a family brings privileges and advantages that one did not earn or work for. They are privileges and advantages one takes for granted growing up, including the belief that the slaves have lower status than your white family members. White America, writ large, is descended from this slave-owning family. It is “America’s original sin,” as many have pointed out. As America matured, half of the clan found slave owning distasteful and morally abhorrent; they sought to abolish it.

But the other half were loath to give up these privileges believing that this was a natural order of things. They formed the confederacy and fought the abolitionist members of the clan to preserve their slave-owning privileges. White supremacy is the ideology of those who wish to preserve white privilege. Today, many of them fly the confederate flag to symbolize adherence to this ideology. They have even constructed monuments, to those who led the opposition to the abolition of slavery.

Even though the confederate states lost, they were still clan members—family, so to speak. As long as “slave owning” was transformed into that of an employee/employer relationship, the northern clan members did not care much about what their former slave-owning relatives did. This attitude ushered in the era of Jim Crow, a period of apartheid and segregation.

Even though America abolished slavery, it neglected to expunge from its culture the privileges, especially the attitudes and biases from this slave-owning past. In fact, it turned a blind eye to the Jim Crow laws passed in the confederate states that legalized these white privileges, and attitudes — until the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s when President Lyndon Johnson and Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and ended the application of Jim Crow laws. But it is one thing to declare racial discrimination illegal. It is more challenging to expunge from the culture the attitudes and biases that are taken for granted under white privilege. There is a myriad of examples.

Central is the privilege to not think of race. Race is always in terms of Blacks, Asians, Latinos, etc. Whites are the norm. Beauty means fair-skinned. History is white history.

Anglos go through life without fear of being racially profiled while people of color have racial stereotypes attached to their perceived skin color. A recent lawsuit against the UC asserts that college entrance tests are biased towards whites.

I have always wondered where we Filipinos, especially our foreign-born and educated kababayans  (i.e., Philippine-born and educated like me) are situated in a country where whiteness and white privilege are the norm. By the official census category, we are Asian, but we also have a long western colonial experience — more than 300 years under Spain, and half a century under America. America’s colonial regime over the Philippines has effectively transformed how we are perceived by white America and how we navigate and adapt to the norms of American society. Unlike our East Asian brethren (the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean) we arrived here as former colonials, speaking English relatively fluently, and educated in an American style educational system, curated by white Americans. In effect, aspects of white privilege were baked into our education, a process that nationalist historian Renato Constantino called, the “mis-education of the Filipino.”

We were indoctrinated into the value system of white privilege thru English as the language of instruction. From K-12 thru college, we spoke English, and learned via textbooks curated by white Americans, patterned after academic programs in the United States. We lost pride in our native language and the culture that was expressed thru it. And most critically, we became blind to white privilege. We have dark skin, but our model of beauty is of light white skin. We model ourselves after white American cultural icons: “The Elvis Presley of the Philippines.” We are deeply religious, but of Christian/Catholic faith — unlike our Asian neighbors who are either predominantly Islamic, Buddhist, or Shintoist.

Evaluating the effects of this colonial legacy, even from a Filipino nationalist perspective, is challenging. But the advantages it has given Filipinos, as they migrate to America with its culture of white privilege, is easier to identify. Philippine trained professionals like doctors, nurses, accountants, and bookkeepers have had a relatively easier time in gaining licensure to practice their professions.

This is how Filipinos came to dominate certain niche professions here like accounting, bookkeeping, and nursing. It is rather ironic that Filipinos in the Philippines appear to have had more opportunities for educational advancement than African Americans. They migrate and work side by side with Anglos and white bosses. It is no wonder that we find it hard to see white privilege, let alone understand it.

But there is a catch. Our white-curated education also made us conscious that we are never as good as whites. We were molded in the image of white America, but not quite as good as the original. This is the inferiority complex that is ingrained in our colonial education. When we arrive here, we look around. If whites are above us, who is below us? And we readily adopt the racist attitudes of white privilege, to make ourselves feel good.

We may not be as good as, but there are other Americans who are beneath us: Blacks.

Thus we adopt a key attitude of white privilege: Blacks are of a lower status than us.

Filipino immigrants enjoy a duality within the struggle against racism. As former colonials, we benefit from white privilege, and as a racial minority, we gained from the struggle against racism. Our presence in huge numbers today is the direct result of civil rights legislation that eliminated race-based immigration quotas thru the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965. Since 1934, with the passage of the Tydings-McDuffie Law, aka the Philippine Independence Act, Filipinos were banned from migrating to the United States like the Chinese and the Japanese before them as the law set a limit of no more than 50 immigrants per year. The removal of race-based immigration quotas, plus our white curated education, made us preferred immigrants to fill labor shortages as America transitioned from an industrial economy to a service economy.

And as I noted in a prior essay, our access to elite universities today, is largely the result of affirmative action programs instituted to address racial discrimination in university admissions. Our English facility, and our familiarity with white culture, primed us to take advantage of the freedom to choose where to live that the Fair Housing Act of 1968 decreed. Unlike our non-English speaking counterparts who had to confine themselves to ethnic enclaves for a generation or two, Filipinos did not have to be so confined. With needed professional skills, they are able to purchase homes much earlier in the process of assimilation, and thus move up to the middle class sooner. The realization of the dream of homeownership is a very direct benefit from the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, which culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and capped by the Fair Housing Act of 1968. It was led by African Americans, who shed much blood for it. We missed these struggles, for we were still being molded by white privileged America into “into their image.”

Today we are once again at a tipping point in the struggle against white privilege and white supremacy. Black Lives Matter is the struggle to expose white privilege and the culture that minimizes African Americans. It is a struggle against police brutality and their policing practices that have historically devalued black lives.

Filipinos, myself included, have drank from the fountain of white privilege, which facilitated our migration into American society. But our lives here are in the sunshine that the struggle for civil liberties made possible. We are Americans, now, Filipino Americans.

We have a stake in removing the stains of white privilege from the fabric of American society. We can start by being more critically aware of the attitudes and biases, especially implicit biases infused into us by our colonial heritage. This way we start to pay forward the benefits we received from struggles of the past.

* * *

Enrique de la Cruz is Professor Emeritus of Asian American Studies, with CSU Northridge.

Enrique de la Cruz

*** Enrique B. dela Cruz, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus at the California State University-Northridge. He received his Ph.D. in Philosophy (Mathematical Logic) from UCLA and has written on Asian Americans, Filipino-Americans and Philippine-U.S. relations.  You can e-mail him at enrique.dela.cruz@csun.edu

  1. We are Americans, period – no matter what our ethnic background is. We can start NOT just by recognizing “implicit biases into us by our colonial heritage” but also instilling into future generations self accountability, self reliance as main factors for our successes (or failures). By “removing the stains of white privilege”, you also advocate/ condone/ promote DESTRUCTION of anything tainted with “white privilege” in the U.S. or elsewhere (whether historical or institutional)?

  2. I’ll have to disagree. My parents are both from the Philippines. I was born in CA. I haven’t felt “not as good as the original” as you claimed for all us Filipinos.

    We are ALL privileged to be in the U.S. We aren’t guaranteed the same results, just the same opportunities to improve ourselves. Is there racism? Without a doubt. Is there “systemic” racism. No.

    I earned my scholarships to college AND high school. I didn’t rely on the entitled concept of “loan forgiveness” pushed by so many on a certain side to account for my lack of foresight and accountability with finances. I earned my opportunity through that hard work I just spoke about.

    I’m not a bible quoter by any means, but I went to Catholic school from K-12. And I remember the parable regarding the the individuals having a certain number oftalents. They didn’t have an equal number, but had an equal OPPORTUNITY to IMPROVE on them. That’s how we have it being in the U.S.

  3. To (respectfully) provide an alternative perspective to your article.

    May we also flirt with the idea that this #BlackLivesMatter has been weaponized by the mainstream media for political purposes.

    Why play into subconscious internal racism and say that “our access to elite universities today, is largely the result of affirmative action.” This is untrue in 2020 if you mark “Asian” on an admission form and have stellar academic credentials yet there is a high probability you may lose your seat to a Hispanic or Black person because of affirmative action admission policies.

    What “stains” do you speak of? America may not be perfect today and we agree that there are vestiges of racism that exist. But for the most part, as a Filipino, if you work hard or harder than others you will get what is due to you. We as Filipinos have a lot to be thankful for. This illusion of racial equality is shattered by test after test of IQ. It is a proven fact that the mean IQ of sub-Saharan Africans is around 70. Is it racist to state a fact? Is it racist to say that, as a group, Filipinos may be a bit smarter (and work harder) than the average Black person which would explain the over-representation in certain sectors? Is it racist to say that Asian-Americans constitute 6% of the population but represent 24% of most Ivy League Universities? Is it racists to say that Ashkenazi Jews have the highest mean IQ on the planet? These are facts. We live in a world in which political correctness has run amuck. The politicization of facts and everyday language has become a hindrance to the art of respectful disagreement. Maybe you and I should be thankful for these “stains.” What if the Philippines was colonized by Mansa Musa of West Africa? Would we have the same educational system? The same science, technology, and innovation? Shall we believe in the myths of the Black Nationalists that the pyramids of Eygpt were built by Blacks? These are facts. Maybe we should be thankful . . . instead of complaining.

    The problem in the Black community is not the fault of White America. It is the fault of the Black community but this discussion is for another thread.

  4. To Any and All Who Will Read or Have Already Read Dr. Dela Cruz’s Article, please check out another P.O.V.
    “The word “racism” is everywhere. It’s used to explain all the things that cause African-Americans’ suffering and death: inadequate access to health care, food, housing and jobs, or a police bullet, baton or knee. But “racism” fails to fully capture what black people in this country are facing.
    The right term is “anti-blackness.”
    To be clear, “racism” isn’t a meaningless term. But it’s a catch-all that can encapsulate anything from black people being denied fair access to mortgage loans, to Asian students being burdened with a “model minority” label. It’s not specific.
    Many Americans, awakened by watching footage of Derek Chauvin killing George Floyd by kneeling on his neck, are grappling with why we live in a world in which black death loops in a tragic screenplay, scored with the wails of childless mothers and the entitled indifference of our murderers. And an understanding of anti-blackness is the only place to start.
    Anti-blackness is one way some black scholars have articulated what it means to be marked as black in an anti-black world. It’s more than just “racism against black people.” That oversimplifies and defangs it. It’s a theoretical framework that illuminates societies inability to recognize our humanity—the disdain, disregard and disgust for our existence.
    The African-American studies professor Frank B. Wilderson, who coined the term “Afro-pessimism,” argues that anti-blackness indexes the structural reality so that in the larger society, blackness is inextricably tied to “slaveness.” While the system of U.S. chattel slavery technically ended over 150 years ago, it continues to mark the ontological position of black people. Thus, in the minds of many, the relation between humanity and blackness is an antagonism, is irreconcilable.
    Anti-blackness describes the inability to recognize black humanity. It captures the reality that the kind of violence that saturates black life is not based on any specific thing a black person—better described as “a person who has been racialized black”— did. The violence we experience isn’t tied to any particular transgression. It’s gratuitous and unrelenting.
    Anti-blackness covers the fact that society’s hatred of blackness, and also its gratuitous violence against black people, is complicated by its need for our existence. For example, for white people—again, better described as those who have been racialized white—the abject inhumanity of the black reinforces their whiteness, their humanness, their power, and their privilege, whether they’re aware of it or not. Black people are at once despised and also a useful counterpoint for others to measure their humanness against. In other words, while one may experience numerous compounding disadvantages, at least they’re not black.
    So when we’re trying to understand how a white police officer could calmly and casually channel the weight of his entire body through his knee on a black man’s neck—a man who begged for his life for over eight full minutes until he had no air left with which to plead—we have to understand that there has never been a moment in this country’s history where this kind of treatment has not been the reality for black people.
    From whips to guns, the slave patrols of the 18th century are the ancestors of modern day police departments. Mr. Floyd’s killer just happened to make the news, happened to have footage documenting his desperate screams to his mother for help from the other side. Mr Floyd’s brutal killing is not an exception, but rather, it is the rule in a nation that literally made black people into things.
    Black people were rendered as property, built this country, spilled literal blood, sweat and tears into the soil from which we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe. The thingification of black people is a fundamental component of the identity of this nation.
    Reckoning with this reality is significantly more difficult than wrestling with prejudice, racism, and even institutional or structural racism. And it does more than any of these concepts do to help us make sense of over 400 years of black suffering—of our unremitting interminable pain, rage and exhaustion.
    Mr. Floyd’s death is the story of our babies, of the numerous black children who grew up literally or metaphorically under the steel heel of a police boot. It is the story of our families, who since the Middle Passage, have had to suffer the unimaginable.
    But when they kill our children, our mothers and fathers, we are expected to forgive, to be peaceful in the face of horrific violence. We are asked to respect a law that cannot recognize our humanity—that cannot provide redress. And when time and time again the law demonstrates it will never protect us, that it will never hold those individuals and systems that harm us accountable, we are expected to peddle a narrative that the system works, that justice will prevail.
    Mr. Floyd’s brother lamented, “I just don’t understand what more we’ve got to go through in life, man.” People are in the streets today because years ago we marched peacefully and belted Negro spirituals, hoping they would recognize our humanity. We wore Afros like crowns remembering our beauty. We put our fists in the air demonstrating our strength. We declared that our lives matter in every gorgeous dimension, demanding they stop killing us in the streets and in our homes with impunity. People are in the streets today because despite all of the people who lost their lives—literally and figuratively, in this fight for black life, the struggle continues.
    So let’s stop saying racism killed George Floyd, or worse yet, that a racist police officer killed George Floyd. George Floyd was killed because
    anti-blackness is endemic to, and is central to how all of us make sense of the social, economic, historical and cultural dimensions of human life.”
    (“Call It What It Is: Anti-Blackness” Dr. Kihana Miraya Ross, assistant professor of African-American studies at Northwestern University, June 4, 2020)

  5. Thank you for sharing the piece from Professor Ross, lest people reading the comments section think that all Filipinos are Trump supporting racists. I doubt that the previous commenters will understand it, but i appreciate your sharing it and i hope it will be helpful to others to see the importance of BLM to Asians and other minorities.

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