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