My first lesson about race and racism was in McDonough, Ga circa the early 2000s when I was in the first grade. It was Black History Month and we had watched an animated movie about the civil rights movement. The main character, who I think was white, travelled back in time to witness how different things would be. That he wouldn’t be able to hangout with certain friends because of their racial differences. The main gist of the movie was how unfair segregation was and that racism is wrong – bare in mind that this was aimed at small kids so it didn’t go into the real dark issues.
I was a little person with a still developing brain, but I caught on real quickly that the world wasn’t fair. I remember being emotional and hugging my friends. Though this was only the beginning, at this point in time I only thought racism was between the white and black community, and that it was outdated. My real education came later in life when I realized who I was.
I don’t know if it was privilege or ignorance, but it never dawned on me how different my parents were. My father is Irish-Austrian with rumored hints of Cherokee – so the basic white man recipe. My mother, as well as a lot of my family members, is from the Philippines. I never realized how different my one family was from the other until the third/fourth grade when assignments in schools started diving into culture and home life.
The K-8 school I attended after my parent’s divorce was a high diversity, low SES gem in Urban Portland. Though despite being diverse there was a low Asian population. So when I started writing about living with my grandma Aloha I started to notice the differences.
No one knew what a bamboo broom was, or that ginger-rice soup is great when you’re sick. They had no idea about the karaoke obsession or the fact that rice was life. And because this was in an age period where conformity was everything, it hurt to be teased. Why does your grandma talk like that? Are you Asian or are you Filipino? Do you eat dogs? It was troubling to be honest throughout the rest of my school years, I started to talk less and less about home life. I was, to be blunt, ashamed. Yet I didn’t even know or understand why I felt that way.
High school brought a new wave of information and feelings that only crippled my cultural identity more. As more and more classroom discussions centered on white supremacy and the history of colonialism I learned to hate my light skin. I didn’t want to be white, I hated my father, I hated myself. I was, again, ashamed. Yet I still didn’t understand why even though I understood that slavery had nothing to do with me and that I was actively not a bigot.
Though with time and reflection I came to overcome the white guilt and the shame of Asian stereotyping that others used against me. By my senior year I was proud and certain of who I was. Though, nothing good lasts forever.
I decided to apply for the Gates scholarship. I worked hard in my community and believed in civic engagement. My supervisor encouraged me to apply, so I did. At first I was proud to be making the effort, at least, until one remark tragically pushed me off the edge.
“You’re Filipino? Then why aren’t you as dark as (SOME GIRL)? I think you look more white,” and for years that bothered me. I was uneducated and weak, I was a fool for letting that rock me. But it did. For years I would be hesitant to answer about my ethnic background. It didn’t matter that I was raised by Filipinos, that Filipinos fought hard to bring me into the world, that I was Filipino. for years I let myself fall victim to this identity dysmorphic illness that, not at all ironically, was only being validated and questioned by white people.
I let them bleach me. I let them steal my culture. I let them white wash me.
It was my second year of college when I had an epiphany that things changed. I had an itch in my hand and a heavy beat in my chest; I needed to write at 1 am. So I did, I wrote like a sick man about to die until I placed my last period on the page. The short story ‘Deeper Than Skin’ was born. There I was able to find closure. I wrote my heart out about the frustrations of being biracial, having your identity questioned, being young and confused. There I was able to understand how I felt and where I went wrong with this journey of self discovery and knowing myself.
In some ways I wish I could travel back in time and tell myself to stay strong, to not give into the guilt or the confusion. Though in a way I am glad I went through it, I’m glad my identity was questioned, I’m glad that I was left hurt and mixed. I am because now I know more about myself and my cultures; and I am so damn. Since then I have become an advocate for POC whenever I can, I celebrate diversity and I make sure to scream my voice because I am not invisible and neither are Filipino Americans every where. I was once blind to the racism and prejudice, but now I’m not so it is my civic duty to speak up to make up for lost time in the grey.
I am a Filipino American, and I am proud of my roots. All of them.