Saturday, September 13, 2008

Little Brown Americans

Reclining on a dental chair, waiting for my oral health to be assessed, a tiny lady shuffled in. You're not my dentist I thought. You must be the hygienist. I also figured out, though two thirds of her face was concealed by a surgical mask, she was a kababayan, a fellow Filipino expatriate. I reckoned by her hair, skin tone and eyes; by her body and movement; by that distinct accent - she could very well be a tita, an aunt.

After outing myself as Filipino, she became chattier. She had noticed that I knew the receptionist and was curious how I knew him. Church connections, I explained. Which church do you go to? When I said All Souls Woodley Park, she gave a puzzled look. It's Episcopal. Oh. Her disappointment was apparent.

We managed a conversation between rinses and she eventually, invariably, inquired which presidential candidate I favored. Obama, though I had been an ardent Hillary supporter. She nodded, adding she too had been for Hillary. But now I will vote for McCain, she declared. Why, considering the Bush regime had crippled our economy and McCain would not help it any? Moreover, as immigrants, how could we support a party that is not exactly known for its hospitality towards people of color?

She had no beef with Republicans since Reagan welcomed her to the United States. Daniel T. Griswold of Cato Institute writes:
Reagan's vision of an America open to commerce and peaceful, hardworking immigrants contradicts the anti-trade and anti-immigration views espoused by Lou Dobbs, Bill O'Reilly, Pat Buchanan, Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, and many others who claim to speak for the conservative causes Reagan largely defined ...

Reagan's words and deeds regarding immigration were equally expansive. At a ceremony at Ellis Island in 1982, he spoke movingly of immigrants who "possessed a determination that with hard work and freedom, they would live a better life and their children even more so." As with trade, Reagan's record on immigration was mixed. He signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which included stepped up border enforcement and sanctions against employers who knowingly hire illegal workers. But that legislation also legalized 2.8 million undocumented workers. More immigrants entered the United States legally under President Reagan's watch than under any previous U.S. president since Teddy Roosevelt.
I was about to deliver my speech about the need for people of color and other marginalized and oppressed groups to stick together and vote for change when I realized it was futile. She has already been assimilated.

Aside from being grateful for Reagan's immigration policies, my kababayan is socially and economically secure. As a Filipino Roman Catholic, her conservative social values align with Republican "traditional" values. As an older female voter, she is more comfortable with McCain.

However, I can't help but think that race has something to do with it.

We both come from a culture that places a premium on fair and mestizo features, a by-product of Spanish and American colonization. We had laughed at the looks and antics of Elizabeth Ramsey, daughter of a Filipina and African American G.I. We shopped at department stores that touted skin whitening products and displayed clothes on Caucasian mannequins. We applauded celebrities and beauty queens who were lighter hued and had prominent nose bridges. We devoured Hollywood, PX goods and everything state-side. We avoided the sun.

I can still see me and my brother making fun of our nanny, singing "Negritoes of the mountain, what do you eat ..." likening our caretaker to the aborigines that once inhabited most of Southeast Asia. Yaya Estring might not have been from the mountains but she was darker skinned and from the provinces. I am still familiar with the insecure little boy who felt ugly, constantly reminded how he was not as tall or as mestizo as his kuya, his big brother. I can still hear my mom pointing out my flared nose, inherited from her father, and assuring me that one day we can have it fixed.

After Barack Obama won the Democratic primaries, I asked a high school buddy and kababayan in New York if he was ready for a Black president. I don't think so, he courageously admitted.

It looks like Little Brown Americans might not be ready for a Black American president.

Photo from Kapisanan Philippine Centre.


Anonymous said...

Interesting read Erwin, I urge you to go back to that hygienist and teach her a thing or two...we need her vote!

Anonymous said...

Generalizing from one, Erwin? Your hygienist was probably one of the worst examples you could've used to illustrate what may well still be a valid point - albeit probably less so today. She had perfectly good reason other than the colonial mentality that plagued the Philippines to vote for McCain. It would seem to be equally valid for me to conclude from your statement "after outing myself as Filipino" that you wanted to keep your heritage secret, that you seem to be a bit ashamed of it And that would be as valid a conclusion as the one you make about her biases.

Would appreciate your further thoughts.

Anonymous 2

Erwin de Leon said...

Generalizing, not really. I'm simply pondering what her reasons might be for choosing McCain, just as you are surmising what I mean by "outing myself as Filipino."

Thank goodness for the freedom of thought and expression!

Anonymous said...

Hi, Erwin,

Your post was provocative. A couple of thoughts came to mind:

1. We have never been formed as a people to think along the lines of party politics. I wonder how many Filipino immigrants have been able to attune to the distinctions. Our own brand of Filipino politics has been about personalities, about the attractiveness (and I do not just mean, but include, physical characteristics) of the politician running for office. Ours has also been about voting for status quo and whoever opposes status quo (even in word, not necessarily in structural action or change). I do not know if we as a people have had the opportunity to learn about democratic and republican philosophies, economics and values and how these will affect political decisions.

2. Because of our learning around such distinctions being in the possibly nascent stage, I wonder if we might make choices based on single issues or on what most affects us, or even on stereotypical labels, e.g. "pro-choice" means pro-abortion so I must vote Republican. I read a very emotional egroups post by someone campaigning for McCain because he is pro-life. Only later was that post responded to with a more nuanced argument that being pro-life extends also to other issues, such as opposition to the war, support for the needy via provision of greater social services (e.g. medicaid, public school education, health care for greater number of people), all of which are democratic issues and also signify that they are pro-life.

3. It takes much courage to say what you did -- but yes, I wonder about why folks shifted from Hillary Clinton to Mc Cain. And I don't think this is something limited to Filipinos, although our culture might have its own dynamic around it. Like it or not, this is more a visceral and affect-bound factor than it is a purely intellectual choice and we need to acknowledge unconscious (yeah, okay, I had to put that in) motivations around preferring white over black, or even around gut-level feeling safer with white than with black.

Just some thoughts. And to validate and affirm your courage, I will dare sign my name!


alex said...

nice piece man. I've been very curious about the US Fil community's opinion of the Obama candidacy.

based on what I've seen I have to say that I am concerned. The strain of conservatism in my American kababayan is so contrary to our interests as a people that it messes with my head...

That said, I don't expect much to change regarding US-Phil relations no matter who wins...


--> btw I wrote the Kapisanan piece where you got this image. Thanks for checking it out. I also have a personal blog where I have written more about the Phils and have more historical images. Check it out when you have time: