We Need to Talk About Racism in the Philippines
A story taught in preschool may mark the beginning of racism in the Philippines.
Once upon a time, God shaped man from dough. He baked it in an oven, but when he accidentally burnt it, the dough came out black. This would later become the people from Africa. God tried again, shaped man from dough, and this time, he undercooked it. The dough came out too light, and this would become the white people. God tried one last time to perfect his creation. Out from the oven came God’s man-shaped dough that was brown and good. From that perfectly colored man-shaped dough would descend the Filipinos.
As a kid, that story might seem imaginative and entertaining, but as an adult, you realize: “Well, shit. That’s pretty damn racist.” And you’re spot on. Racism in the Philippines has never been as controversial or polarizing as the racism you hear about in places like the U.S., but discrimination exists everywhere—even at home.
Butt of the joke
Unlike racism in the U.S., which triggered events like abolitionism and the civil rights movement, the Philippines’ unique brand of racism is far less volatile. A subject of comedy and criticism, racism in the Philippines sits on the border between ignorance and innocence.
Like many social ills in the Philippines, much of the racism in the Philippines can be traced back to our colonizers, namely Spain and the U.S. Back then, and even to this day, the fair skin of the Europeans and Americans were praised and glorified. It birthed the colorism we experience now that’s the cause for all the skin whitening billboards along EDSA. But another side effect of that mentality is our view that anything that isn’t white is bad.
Because of this, we fall victim to subscribing to racial stereotypes that are often used as the punch line of a joke. If anything, our brand of racism is pretty harmless in retrospect, and at times, hilarious to recount. Stand-up comic Jo Koy once described it this way: “No one is as indirectly racist as Filipino moms.” He’s not wrong. When you listen to him tell the story, it’s sure to incite a couple of laughs. But when you write or type it, you can see how wrong it actually is: He joked about when his mom asked him to hide her purse because his African-American brother-in-law came to visit.
This Reddit thread explores the topic in detail and one Redditor explained, “I feel like our racism is leaning more towards harmless ignorance than the harmful intent to separate though.” In truth, the racist comments we make are often in jest rather than in offense. “Intsik,” “negra,” and “kano” are just some phrases used in everyday conversations that signify internalized racism.
But things get murkier when you add phrases like “bombay” with a matching head bob or “kung hei fat choi” while pulling back the corners of your eyes. Or when you cross the street when someone in a turban walks toward you. Or when you mimic and mock the accents of foreigners you’re talking to. Or when you think blackface is acceptable. Or when you say the n-word when you don’t belong to that community. Or when you look down at your own race for not conforming to the Western ideal.
It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt or, in this case, when you indirectly undermine an entire culture by subscribing to racial stereotypes.
Racism in the Philippines is ignorant at best and insulting at worst. We might not have a history of institutional racism, but that doesn’t mean our brand of (innocent?) racism is any less concerning or offensive, no matter how blind we might be to it. Our lack of racial diversity in the population has made us tone-deaf to the unconscious racism of Filipinos and unable to recognize our lack of cultural sensitivity until someone points it out.
To say that Filipinos are lowkey racist is hardly an unpopular opinion, especially when it’s expressed in our everyday conversations and cultural mindset, but it wouldn’t hurt to remind us of that fact—and actually try to remedy it. It’s easy to say that millennial snowflakes are making a big deal of what is considered normal to older generations, but that’s a cop-out, because the last time we checked, (direct and indirect) racism isn’t welcomed no matter where you go.
And no matter how subtle, normalized racism in the Philippines is not an excuse to contribute to a culture of ingrained prejudice—and by the way, no, you can’t say the n-word.