A Look At Black Lives Matter: Racism Abroad And In The Philippines
We need to talk about racism.
That was the headline at the talk I attended last week, hosted by Manila House. Sitting as the panel were noted professionals and experts: feminists, ambassadors, professors, and people from all walks of life. Former US ambassador to the Philippines Harry K. Thomas spoke of his experiences and insights alongside University of Washington history professor Vicente Rafael, former UNESCO Philippines secretary-general Lila Shahani, intersectional feminist Laura Verallo de Bertotto, wellness professional Joyce Mahlatini, and fashion model Kahlea Belonia. Though these speakers seem to share little similarity, there is one major thing that binds them together: they've all experienced or witnessed racism.
Of course, that can be said about most, if not all, people. Racism and colourism remain prevalent in today's society, although in some cases, it's not as blatantly obvious. Yet it lingers here and there, manifesting itself in everything from microaggressions to advertising strategies, while sometimes ominously shielding itself from view behind the minds of people we know (and maybe even love).
It's no news that tensions have been at an all-time high in the United States. Since the death of George Floyd on the 25th of May 2020, an eruption of protests has ignited itself not just across North America, but around the globe as well. The Minneapolis policeman who knelt on his neck, Derek Chauvin, has since been charged with second-degree murder. Meanwhile, his colleagues at the scene of the crime—Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng, and Tou Thao—have also been charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and aiding and abetting manslaughter. The hashtag, #BlackLivesMatter, has since seen a resurgence after having first come out in 2013, after the death of young Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his shooter, George Zimmerman.
In 1903, sociologist W.E.B DuBois stated in his book, The Souls of Black Folk, that "the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the colour line". Of this, he was referring to the relation of darker to lighter races around the world. Vicente echoes DuBois and asserts that it is still very much a 21st-century problem.
It's easy to say that American history is rife with racial injustice and oppression. But upon closer inspection, what country isn't? "All the countries I've ever been to have their own way of racial other-ing and xenophobia," Lila states. Laura agrees, saying that many systems of oppression are inter-related, a different manifestation of the same kind of evil. There is the caste system in India, slavery in the United States, colourism in the Philippines, and many more around the world. "A lot of these 'other-isations' are related," she says. "What changes is the target." The perpetuation of racism will continue so long as society accepts that there is "someone on top". And a different group of people on top often means a different group of people at the bottom.
It is therefore imperative that people take time to study the power structures prevalent in society; the surprising thing is, we may actually be benefitting from it. In the Philippines alone, certain things can make life easier for others. Subtle characteristics—many of which people don't have a choice in—can give others an unfair advantage or disadvantage.
Race relations in the Philippines have always been a bit of whirlwind. Vicente makes a few observations about local history, claiming that the Filipino revolution against the Spaniards was, at its core, an anti-racist revolution. The war then was a response to the racial exclusion felt by the Filipinos due to Spain's refusal to assimilate. At the time, Filipinos were treated as second-class citizens, called "indio", which referred to the lowest level in a highly stratified class society. Of course, Spaniards born in Spain were at the top, called "peninsulares".
After the Philippines was bought off by the United States, race relations changed yet again. In the words of professor Vicente, "White supremacist notions came to be imbibed by the Filipinos to see it as a way to improve their situation." Although few Filipinos would ever describe themselves as "white supremacist", we do see an obvious class distinction when it comes to American versus Filipino goods and ideologies. Speaking English has become a class distinction and buying imported a sign of affluence.
As we revert back to the issue of Black Lives Matter, we ask ourselves: why should Filipinos care about the movement? The answer is simple: it is because, as we have established, Filipinos have also fallen into the trappings of racism. The Black Lives Matter movement has nuances to it that we, as Filipinos, will never understand—but it is well within our power to learn and empathise with people who have been constantly and continually victimised. We were, and still are, struggling with that too.
As with any movement, there are sceptics to Black Lives Matter. More often than not, their retort is: all lives matter. But as Kahlea points out, "All lives matter, yes. But the statement won't make sense if black lives don't matter." That is, how can all lives matter when people don't give recognition to the struggles of black lives?
Joyce, as a black woman herself, says that people need to listen. "[Whenever I talk about my own experiences], people get defensive. They say it's not like that. Sometimes, I avoid telling other people about how I feel because they might not understand what I'm going through and I also don't want to burden them." Lila points out that there is a sense of white fragility in society; people get upset when you suggest there is a problem with the system. This only proves that it is important to take the initiative to learn what we can about the issue. "You don't need an oppressed person to be the one to tell you about it. You can read a book, look for resources online," Laura says.
Because racism isn't just perpetuated by individuals, but also by an overarching system, it is going to take some time to dismantle. Joyce speaks of her experience as a traveller and says: "The way I live my life, I have been categorised in a country. But I am not a country, I am an individual." This is where cultural stereotypes can come into play, not to mention VISAs. Of course, matters of travelling and diplomacy require measures for security; it's hard to point fingers when travelling is a privilege, not a right, but it shows how structures, monuments, and systems in society also have an element of "other-ing".
Capitalism, as Vicente points out, shares a connection to racism. Slavery, which has its roots in racism, has created a culture of oppressive labour practices. With capitalism, it manifests itself as income inequality. But connections like these are just the tip of the iceberg; looking at racism from a macro perspective necessitates a dialogue between more than just six people. Though perhaps everyone agrees: these days, it is not enough to just not-be racist, one must also be anti-racist—that is, switching from a passive stance to an active defender whenever we see unjust systems at play.