How A 'Secret Asian Man' Embraced Anti-Racism
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By Eric J. Daza
I came to deeply embrace anti-racism in slow, sustained increments.
To do so, I had to embrace my own identity as a Brown person — and understand my own complicity in white supremacy.
White supremacy goes far beyond hoods and swastikas. It is also something that was drilled into me from the moment I was born in the Philippines, a former U.S. colony. It would warp how I saw myself and others. It would shape my childhood and youth, and persist well into adulthood.
This realization took decades, as non-Filipinos would challenge my own racial and ethnic identity. Unlike most Black Americans, as a Filipino, I am privileged enough to not be constantly downplayed, second-guessed, disparaged, mistrusted, even threatened because of how I look and act — oftentimes done by folks who don't realize they are thinking and acting racist.
It would also take almost a decade of doctoral-level schooling on racial disparities in public health while living in the South for me to finally understand my privilege.
I will tell you a little about how I came to recognize and understand my own casual racism and how I tolerated it from others — and how I increasingly committed myself to finding and fighting racism in the minutiae of daily life. If you find it hard to comprehend how you yourself may be supporting white supremacy, even as a non-white person like me, I hope my story helps you see.
ROOTS: MODEL IMMIGRANT
Manila, Philippines, 1988. That year, my stable, happy, ambitious middle-class Roman Catholic family and I picked up to move around the world to California. I was nine.
Within a year of our arrival, we settled in Los Angeles. For the next nine years, I would try to fit into my colonially familiar yet new culture here, embrace geekdom and being a nerd, and completely lose myself in sci-fi, philosophy, music, and art with my mostly male and mostly white or Asian friends.
California, this most populous state in which we settled, has the largest Asian American population of all states (almost 6 million in 2010). And among this large population, the largest Asian ethnicity in California is mine, Filipino.
In fact, we Filipinos are the second-largest Asian ethnicity nationally. For this, I can thank U.S. immigration policies that financially and socially incentivized Filipino immigration over 60-plus years — particularly in the mid-1960s onwards. (These policies are why so many of your Filipino friends are nurses.)
But I did not know how big a share of Asian America we made up, and I still wonder how many Filipino Americans do. Our collective size and voice seems invisible even to many of us. There are deep, tragic, Spanish and U.S. colonial reasons for this which persist today in our collective Filipino/a/x psychology. I'll get into that later.
Coming of age as a good "race-naive" liberal in L.A., I thought the best way to fight racism was to ignore it: Don't talk about it, don't acknowledge it exists.
I was an easygoing, fun-to-be-around off-white — an unsuspecting acolyte of the U.S. colonial days whose legacy deeply instilled in homeland Filipinos the righteous desire to be white Americans.
Truthfully, race didn't factor into my identity much back then. Most of my friends were white, and I played right along.
My biggest battle of identity was to decry how "normal people" heckled my own nerd-geek tribe. I strongly aligned myself with and advocated for "my people" — those being misfits, dorks, weirdos and creatives. These feelings of bohemian "geek-4-life" indignation would stay with me well into my late twenties, overriding all other axes of identity.
At my all-male college-preparatory Jesuit Catholic high school, my friends and I would opine over simplistic abstractions of social issues we thought were part of some fantastical hero's-journey narrative of fabled social agents fighting for change.
These were the years that immediately followed the 1992 riots. We of course expressed outrage over police brutality, over the beating of Rodney King, over the acquittal of the four officers who did it. But in my insular off-white world, it all felt far away, abstract — and to me, to be honest, even equivocal.
My friends and I didn't realize that such societal injustices were made epic by the complexity and stubborn persistence of bad quotidian behaviors. We didn't (or at least I didn't) yet understand what were microaggressions, which impact the physical, mental, and emotional health of human beings through thousands of tiny (and not-so-tiny) cuts throughout a person's lifetime.
I had never met anyone affected by discrimination-based hiring policies, policing practices or racially biased health recommendations. And I had never examined the default assumptions that people make about strangers — you know, stereotypes — even though I benefited from them.
I was privileged in so many ways — in particular, with respect to race.
Sure, I was racialized and stereotyped, as Asians are. But I wasn't cast as a "bad" or "thug" Filipino, thrown into the same pool of negative stereotypes where Black and Latinx folks suffer the unjust consequences of racial triangulation theory. I was one of the "good" Pinoys (colloquial for "Filipino"). My preppy young self was racialized as Chinese, generally East Asian, or "model minority" (i.e. perpetually foreign but inherently superior).
I don't recall ever being profiled, targeted or harassed by police because of my race. I didn't rock the boat, and tried to downplay those who pointed out that racism was real and that the boat had always been sinking. After all, I was non-white, and no one had ever bothered me, right? I was a pretty darned good naive supporter of the deep, insidious notion of white supremacy.
Why? I had grown up in an entire Southeast Asian culture that had largely been groomed, indoctrinated and brainwashed into white-centered thinking over some 450 years of colonization by our Western overlords: Spain for almost 400 years, and then the United States of America for nearly 50 years more.
The Philippines became a beautiful tropical island paradise where parents warn their kids that they'll get too dark in the sun, lighter-skinned celebrities are valued over darker-skinned ones, racist stereotypes about Black Americans persist, and skin-lightening products abound. The historical trauma known as colonial mentality — a kind of culture-wide Stockholm Syndrome towards our white colonizers — still warps kababayan (citizen) hearts and minds. It is a nation of Brown people gaslit by their white-centered culture.
There was a term coined for us Filipinos around the turn of the 20th century by former president William Howard Taft, then the first American Governor-General of the Philippines: Little Brown Brothers. Paternalistic racism at its finest.
I'd learned to be one of those — a really good one.
THE DE-COLONIZATION OF JOHNNY RICO
There'd been cracks in my privilege before college. But it really all started coming down in earnest when I moved to upstate New York for school.
At one point, I found myself chuckling along with white friends in bemusement about an ethnically East Asian fraternity founder who had a Spanish family name. We joked about this cognitive dissonance. Not long after, I would realize that this should have made perfect sense to me as a Filipino — a Southeast Asian with a Spanish last name!
Instead, I'd submitted to the groupthink of my fellow well-meaning white liberals.
But I was getting older, and I was seeing more cracks.
Like when Paul Verhoeven's "Starship Troopers" hit theaters the fall of my sophomore year. I found myself surprisingly irked that blond-haired, blue-eyed Casper Van Dien was cast as protagonist Johnny Rico — whose character in the book by the same name has the given name of Juan and is a Filipino whose native language is Tagalog.
From Chapter 13 of the novel "Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein:
[Rico:] "There ought to be one named 'Magsaysay'."
Bennie said, "What?"
[Rico:] "Ramon Magsaysay," I explained. "Great man, great soldier — probably be chief of psychological warfare if he were alive today. Didn't you ever study any history?"
[Rico:] "I'm sure of it." I added something to myself and Bennie said "What did you say?"
[Rico:] "Sorry, Bernardo. Just an old saying in my own language. I suppose you could translate it, more or less, as: 'Home is where the heart is.'"
[Bennie:] "But what language was it?"
[Rico:] "Tagalog. My native language."
I tried to convey this annoyance to other friendly nerds and geeks, feeling like they'd understand and empathize, and that they'd help me understand the root of this feeling. They did not.
Instead, they asserted that any actor should be able to play any part, regardless of race or ethnicity. I can agree that this makes sense at face value. Unfortunately, this mistakenly assumes we live in an ideal world wherein actors have equal casting opportunities — a truly color-blind world that does not yet exist.
Since I'd myself been saying stuff like this all along, I had no ready rebuttal.
So I second-guessed myself. Maybe my fellow privileged geeks were right? Didn't it make sense to support "equal opportunity?"
I swallowed my discomfort and moved on.
Still, the feeling stuck with me. That feeling of being invisible, of not being represented, had been there deep down since immigrating. In my desire to blend in, I had pushed it aside. But in Ithaca, New York, I finally met it head-on for the first time — courtesy of members of my own tribe, people I thought of as unabashedly liberal.
'SECRET ASIAN MAN'
After college, I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area — my truest home to date. It was there that a white friend once joked with me that I wasn't "really Asian."
My otherwise well-meaning friend didn't realize she was perpetrating the somewhat deliberate, always continuing erasure of Filipinos from social representation, recognition, and cultural awareness in the United States — a natural, sustained product of American colonial dominance.
She didn't know she was unintentionally but mildly gaslighting me about being an "invisible Asian" (or "Secret Asian Man", as I liked to call myself).
What could my friend have possibly meant? I'm sure I asked her, to which she replied something like, "You know what I mean."
Except I didn't.
All my life, I always knew I was Asian. I was born and raised in the Philippines. Manila is a two-hour flight from Hong Kong — so yeah, pretty freakin' Asian!
But once more, I benefited from stereotypes. I hadn't yet learned about the funny-because-it's-true distinction between what some of us refer to as "Fancy Asians" and "Jungle Asians." I was only beginning to understand that my Midwest-raised white friend equated "Asian" with East Asian ("Fancy") and "model minority" — not with Southeast Asian ("Jungle"), and perhaps less so with South Asian.
I hadn't yet learned that the "model minority" myth was a commonplace form of white supremacy, one that I myself had proudly embodied.
CAROLINA TSOKOLATE DROPS
Years later, I moved to Chapel Hill, N.C. for a doctoral program in biostatistics, the analysis and data collection methods that undergird public health and clinical trials.
There, I would formally learn about deep and long-standing racial disparities.
In my free time, my day-to-day experiences would compel me to learn how I myself had unwittingly been entangled in white supremacy my whole life. And little by little, it would also sink in how we "Little Brown Brothers" had been historically erased and maligned in the country from which we so badly sought acceptance.
I would learn that when my grandmother was a child, the road to Filipino-white interracial marriage that I would eventually take would have been illegal under the anti-miscegenation laws in my own home state, California.
Far from my home state, I would read about the Watsonville Riots of 1930, when anti-immigrant white men in the California agricultural town attacked and beat Filipino field workers, shooting and killing one young Filipino man.
I would learn that Filipinos Larry Itliong, Pete Velasco, Philip Vera Cruz and their labor union actually initiated and helped unite Filipinos and Mexicans in the Delano Grape Strike of 1965. But their names would be largely forgotten, as history gave full credit to Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta — a sad example of Filipinos being erased from American history.
And I would learn about the racial triangulation theory that lurked behind my racial privilege, and how the "model minority" myth that I had played right along with is used to set Asians against Black Americans, ultimately reinforcing white dominance as it keeps one group perpetually marginalized and the other perpetually foreign. It divides and conquers us both.
Meanwhile, I continued to learn about race and privilege in my social circles as I navigated some awkward situations with white and non-white peers.
Like the time, over a conversation at lunch, a white grad school friend animatedly remarked, "I mean, we're all white here, right?" He proceeded to turn beet red after we all immediately acknowledged the obvious.
Or the time I was at a bar with a white friend, and one of her white acquaintances addressed me with curiosity, looking at me as she said, "I think Black people have a better sense of smell — I know you're not Black, but..."
I sat there dumbfounded as my friend told her, "Yeah, he's Filipino!"
Meanwhile, every time I'd bring up the Johnny Rico thing, I'd get pushback — like from my conservative and libertarian white friends at my fitness studio. They were insistently skeptical about "my" version of the character's ethnicity. Clearly, they hadn't read the book — at best, had erased that detail from their memory.
North Carolina was definitely a wake-up call. Both white and Black people (and others) in North Carolina didn't generally know how to place Filipinos or other Brown Asians either racially or ethnically.
A friendly white panhandler thanked me for giving him five bucks. With ignorant but genuine empathy, he told me his mom was part Mexican. At a fitness studio event, an off-white conservative Latino friend told me my thick beard made me look like Fidel Castro — a gesture of camaraderie by way of a sideways compliment.
MORE FROM OUR RACE IN LA SERIES
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- How An ER Doctor Combated Racism In Pursuit Of An Olympic Dream
- A Baby Boomer's Recollection of Systemic Racism And The Police
- Rising Above: How I Found My Voice To Push Back Against Stereotypes, At Work And In Life
- Reading About Anthony McClain Felt Like Reading My Own Obituary
- 'Who Invited Miami?': An LA Transplant On The Rules of Racial Division — And How We Can Bend Them
- No Soy de Aquí, Ni de Allá (Not From Here, Not From There)
- 'We Don't Hire Colored Girls': After A Job Rejection In 1956, A Young LA Telephone Operator Began Kicking Down Doors
- How To Participate In Our Series
At the mall one day, Chinese restaurant food-court hawkers enticed me to try their samples by waving me over with calls of "Amigo!"
And there was the time a Black friend from the Mid-Atlantic told me he'd always thought Filipinos and Latinos belonged to the same ethnic group. Or the time a Black woman asked a Filipina relative — who was a law student — if she did nails.
I found myself doing lots of explaining.
To be fair, some confusion over Filipino ethnic ambiguity also arises in my native California. It comes with being part of an ethnic group who'd historically inhabited a pre-colonial trading nexus: Our looks, last names and dishes are variously and simultaneously Filipino, Chinese and Spanish by and large. But I feel that in California, that confusion is negligible, because you'll bump into so many of us — in all walks of life, of all dispositions, doing all kinds of things.
'THOSE PEOPLE' ARE JUST PEOPLE
Years later, I cherish my unanticipated time living in the South. The Tar Heel State is now a place that, alongside California and New York, I'm proud to call one of my homes. If I hadn't lived as a Southerner for eight years, I strongly doubt I would have learned just how deeply ignorant I was about our country's racial history and dynamics — and about how racial injustice has stubbornly metastasized into the laws, policies and institutions of the present.
I mentioned earlier that as a youth I'd been "race-naive," thinking the best way to fight racism was to ignore it. In North Carolina, where my racial and ethnic identity was challenged like never before, ignorance was no longer an option.
And I got to know people who had spent their whole lives learning to navigate and survive racism.
In California and New York, I'd lived my life in relatively homogeneous Asian and white social circles. I had almost no Black friends. In North Carolina, the demographics were flipped. There were very few Asians. But just living day-to-day, I encountered Black folks from all walks of life (much more so than I did in California), of all dispositions, doing all kinds of things — you know, just being. As my social circles widened with Black friends and colleagues, so did my understanding of their lived experiences.
I also met Asian Americans born and raised in the South, both with and without Southern accents. Apparently, even Asian Americans can and do lead very different lives from those I'd known as a sheltered West Coast liberal immigrant.
I likewise learned how it felt to have to explain "your people" to others ignorant of your culture, most of whom were nonetheless well-meaning, and honestly naive.
I like to think I helped non-Pinoys I encountered understand that Asians weren't all East Asian, and that we were just simply fellow human beings.
And I learned to call out casual racism among my peers, Asian and non-Asian. I didn't go along with the conversation or sit quietly anymore. I challenged them.
I hope that those I shared awkward social situations with, like me, eventually got to know more people who were different from them in their daily lives and activities, and that this helped them move past stereotypes. I hope I helped.
Among Filipino and Filipino American communities in particular, this important process of understanding racism and white supremacy, and thereby advocating for anti-racism, is a critical part of "de-colonization".
BLACK LIVES MATTER
You know that little voice in your head that wonders how "those people" could be so different? How "some people" are violent or aggressive or foreign — or some people are "naturally" athletic or "naturally" smart? That actual voice that starts, "I'm not racist, but...", or "How can I be racist? I have friends who are Black/Latinx/et cetera!"
Pay attention: That voice is racism and white supremacy, conning you into staying ignorant and comfortably far removed from individuals you will never fully appreciate as just simply people.
It doesn't matter if you're non-white. You are playing along.
What I hope I have done is show you how white supremacy is not limited to white people. In my experience, it is also very Filipino.
It's something I've been reflecting on lots lately, as the recent police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have ignited widespread protests and renewed outcries for social change. Black people have always paid and continue to pay for our unearned luck with their very lives.
It would help for all of us to reflect on our roles in supporting racist systems of injustice — systems which have also unfairly benefited some non-whites, like me. This essay is my response to that global scream of rage, that collective cry of the oppressed that has echoed through generations.
We Filipino Americans in particular owe the Black civil rights movement a debt of gratitude. Black people in this country fought, suffered, and died for rights and privileges that we and other non-white Americans now take for granted.
I hope this essay helps repay a little bit of this utang na loob, this deep inner debt.
* * *
A version of this story appeared on Medium.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Eric J. Daza, DrPH is a biostatistician and data scientist. He grew up in metro Manila and greater L.A., and now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Dr. Daza researches how to use wearable devices and sensors to improve and maintain health. You can learn more at ericjdaza.com.