Colonialism’s racist legacy

Vantage Point | BusinessWorld

If one were to believe a survey which asked people worldwide which “type of people” they would not want to be their neighbors, Filipinos — some 40% of whom said “people of another race” — are among the most racist people in the world, ahead of other people in Asia, Europe, and North and Latin America. Some Filipinos have taken issue with the methodology and even the framing of the questions in that survey. But their response to the Chinese government’s occupation of the disputed islands of the West Philippine Sea and the Mamasapano incident has demonstrated just how racist and ethnically biased many Filipinos can be.

Filipinos themselves have been the victims of racism and ethnic stereotyping, and even today are routinely subjected to racial slurs in those countries where they have a pronounced presence as a result of immigration and the massive export of Filipino labor.

The term “Filipina” is synonymous to servant in many countries in Europe. The Philippine education system has been disparaged in the global media. In the Philippines itself, Filipinos have been shot after being mistaken for wild boar. Once current among US troops was the description of Filipinas as “little brown f—g machines powered by rice.” (From the Hollywood film Full Metal Jacket, a similar phrase — “me love you a long time” — became popular among US troops in Vietnam at around the same time that Clark and Subic were US enclaves.)

But it’s not surprising that Filipinos themselves should think race or ethnic origin the most decisive factor in the way people behave. Abused children turn into abusive parents; minority groups that have been discriminated against discriminate against others; and the colonized often acquire the values of the colonizer.

The experience with colonialism and imperialism are very likely the root cause of Filipino racism, the skewed standards of which are based on those notions of beauty, color and language dominant in the Western countries that colonized the country.

Flush with their cohorts’ plunder of the Americas, the Spaniards bestowed on the people they found in these islands the then derisive term “Indios,” whom for the next 300 years they consigned to the lowest rungs of society as poor peasants, workers and peons.

Some Indios did succeed in breaking out of the rigid social structure, but were arguably able to make it partly due to their being of mixed race, or “mestizos.” Originally used in the Americas by the Spaniards to refer to people of European and native American stock, in the Philippines the word also came to mean those of native and Chinese parentage.

The Chinese had been trading with the people of what was to be the Philippines even before the arrival of the Spaniards, when there was an increase in Chinese immigration. Spanish racism, however, restricted their entry and confined those already in the country to the Parian in Manila’s Intramuros. The Spanish colonial government also imposed a complex system of taxation based on race, in which people of mixed blood and Chinese residents (“Sangleys”) paid higher taxes than “Indios,” while resident Spaniards and other white people (“Blancos”) paid none.

Although over a million Filipinos have Chinese ancestry, and Filipinos of Chinese and mixed descent have assumed prominent roles in Philippine society as businessmen, politicians, professionals, and workers, anti-Chinese racism has been an enduring trait among certain sectors in the country.

Apparently it’s not exclusive to the poor and uneducated, as recent events have shown. The Chinese government’s occupation of the disputed islands of the West Philippine Sea and its bullying tactics have understandably aroused most Filipinos’ anger. But it has also awakened apparently deeply seated anti-Chinese racism, which attributes what the Chinese government is doing to race rather than to the devolution into imperialism of what was once a socialist economy, culture and society. (Only in name is the ruling Communist Party of China still “communist.”)

Even Tiffany Grace Uy, the University of the Philippines’ most accomplished summa cum laude graduate since World War II, has received her share of racial slurs, as have Filipino Chinese (note the absence of a hyphen; the term means Filipinos of Chinese extraction, not mixed ancestry) tycoons, and even the entire Filipino Chinese community, whose loyalties, some commentators have alleged, are doubtful. Some of the most ignorant comments have also focused on China’s supposedly being communist, anti-communism and anti-Chinese racism being among the remnants of the Cold War era, during which the leading imperialist power encouraged that perspective globally, especially among its client countries.

But it’s not only anti-Chinese racism that has been in ample evidence recently. Like anti-Chinese bigotry, anti-Muslim antipathy, stereotyping and bias is another legacy of colonial rule, and has surged since the Jan. 25 Mamasapano incident. Silent or even celebratory when the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro was signed in March 2014, much of the dominant media bared their ethnic biases in the days, weeks and months that followed — and so did much of Philippine officialdom and citizenry.

The encounter between elements of the Philippine National Police Special Action Force and the fighters of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and other armed groups was variously described in much of the media as a “massacre” and a “slaughter” carried out by the MILF. The MILF itself was labeled “treacherous” and as an entity that “could not be trusted.”

The consequence is the derailment of the peace process and agreement between the Philippine government and the MILF, with the Bangsamoro Basic Law being imperiled by legislative resistance. But what’s even worse is the Mamasapano incident’s being used by unscrupulous politicians as an excuse to pander to the most backward, divisive, discriminatory and destructive biases that for centuries have led to wars and which continue to fuel violence among Filipinos of different beliefs and ethnic origins.

The issues that confront this country in which people of different races, ethnic origins and religion are involved are not about race, ethnicity or religion. They’re basically about politics — issues involving who has power and for what purpose it is used, the lack of it among the marginalized, and how the Philippines can steer its way through the maze of competing interests and demands without compromising its sovereignty and interests.

Those issues are not limited to the dispute between China and the Philippines or the government-MILF peace agreement. They include as well the continuing presence of foreign, specifically US, troops in the country despite a constitutional prohibition. And yet no one opposed to the presence of US troops has ever focused on race, but on the political and social issues involved.

The country has been a multi-racial, multi-ethnic community for centuries and its people, especially the majority, should by this time be able to distinguish between race and politics. Unfortunately, because of their upbringing in colonial and imperialist culture, too many Filipinos including those who should know better still can’t tell the difference.

Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro). The views expressed in Vantage Point are his own and do not represent the views of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility.

Published in Business World
July 9, 2015

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