Self Acceptance vs. Self Denial: This Is My Filipino American Story

2nd Edwin Picture for InterviewsOp-Ed by Edwin A. Santos

Saturday, August 6, 2016

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Why are Filipino Americans still forgotten and invisible?

Filipino American professor and community activist E.J.R. David asked that question (link) after reading a piece from the New York Times series, “Conversations on Race” (link) where Asian Americans talk about how stereotypes unfairly brand them as the “model minority.”  He noticed that out of the twelve participants whose stories were featured and shared, not one name appeared to be Filipino.

He pointed to five key reasons why Filipino American are still forgotten and invisible, even today:

(1)  Uniqueness of Filipino American History

(2)  Huge Filipino American Population

(3)  Large Immigrant Population

(4)  Significant Contributions to “Asian American” Identity

(5)  Filipino Experience Racism at a Very High Rate

I’d like to add a sixth point:  Self Acceptance vs. Self Denial. Identity.  This is my story, a Filipino American story.

I first wrote about this subject on my own blog (link), after Filipinos reached a milestone in American TV history…twice on the same week.  While every Pinoy and Filipino American publication reported on Crazy Ex-Girfriend when the musical comedy introduced the first Filipino American family on primetime broadcast mainstream television, I noted that history was also made when two different shows that featured Filipino American storylines in the same week.  And, it was the lesser known NBC comedy I related to the most.

Truth Be Told
starred Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Vanessa Minnillo-Lachey as parents, with Sophie Mackenzie Nack as their daughter.  The episode was about self acceptance.

Vanessa Minnillo-Lachey and the cast of the NBC comedy, “Truth Be Told”

Sophie Mackenzie Nack avoiding Filipino food on Thanksgiving in “Truth Be Told”

I do not speak for those who came to the United States of America as children and decided to deny who they are.  In my opinion, it would be a difficult task because they spoke Tagalog and carried the traits that are specific to the culture.  I do not. I was born and raised in the U.S. and my parents never taught and spoke to me Tagalog. I’m English-only.  And, despite being exposed to the culture — from family gatherings in the U.S., to summer vacations in the Philippines, to being part of cultural organizations, to even living in the Philippines for one entire year — I continued to deny my ethnicity.  Even when faced with choosing my identity on a job application, rather than checking off Filipino, instead I check off Asian.  Most of the time, it was not even an effort.  In Los Angeles, I listened to KROQ music than the R&B music on KJLH or the KDAY jams Filipinos love. I enjoy baseball more than basketball.  Moreover, I told people I am American Filipino.  And so on. There was nothing in common between us.

In an interview from Yahoo Style (link), actress Shay Mitchell of Pretty Little Liars admitted she was once deeply unhappy with her half Filipino-heritage and went out of her way to look more Caucasian.

Pretty Little Liars - Episode 7.03 - The Talented Mr. Rollins
Shay Mitchell in “Pretty Little Liars” on Freeform

“I hated being asked who I was, and all my friends had blonde hair and blue eyes,” Mitchell says, having grown up in a predominately white area of Toronto.  She dyed her hair lighter, wore colored contacts and hid from the sun to leave her skin pale.

I always believed only first-generation Filipino Americans would go through this experience of self denial, and every generation after them would proudly accept their culture.  But, every Filipino American faces the question anew, of how to identify with and accept their heritage.

As I matured, I began to embrace the Filipino culture and my early exposure to it in earlier periods of my life.  I also started having more Filipino American friends, most of them much younger than me — because they have an experience like mine:  American-born and English-only. I felt a sense of guilt of my past denial of my own culture. I finally spoke about this in 2008, at the Chicago Filipino American Film Festival, in a group discussion among other FilAm filmmakers. It was a load off after carrying it for years.

Truth Be Told was quietly cancelled at the end of last year, as NBC struck down the sets and cast lead actor Tone Bell in another series.  The final two episodes were burned off on Christmas Day.  But, the spark was already lit.  Filipino Americans are the second largest Asian ancestry group in the United States of America (link: Page 15, Column 2).  We haven’t been fully seen yet.  We haven’t been fully forgotten.  Our next breakthroughs will come from getting ourselves first, and continuing to share what we see in ourselves.

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