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Filipinos, Colonial Mentality, and Mental Health

A psychological exploration of the effects of colonialism among Filipinos.

I was just in the Philippines recently, where I saw skin-whitening products and clinics everywhere. It is also where I saw the pervasive vestiges of Western colonial influences, from the widespread use of English and it being regarded as the language of the educated or upper class, to the abundance of Western restaurants and shops that make Manila seem more Americanized than many places in America itself.

All of these, of course, are remnants of the Philippines’ long history of colonization under Spain and the United States. So colonialism — and its most insidious legacy, colonial mentality (CM) — has been on my mind.

And it seems like it has been on other Filipinos’ minds lately too. For instance, the viral AJ+ video featuring Kristian Kabuay shows that his quest to revive Baybayin is his attempt to restore and repair the immense cultural damage that colonialism brought onto Filipinos. Also, Asia Jackson’s viral AJ+ video on colorism and anti-dark skin attitudes among Filipinos touch on colonial mentality as well. And even further, I definitely made sure I brought up colonial mentality with major media executives and politicians while I was in the Philippines, so it was at least temporarily in their minds.

So yes, colonial mentality—particularly skin-whitening—has been on many Filipinos’ minds lately. But as Philippines Vice President Leny Robredo acknowledged when I asked her about it, it’s a centuries-old issue, and there’s been plenty of work on it, going as far back as Jose Rizal. Indeed, many folks have documented and shared their painful stories, struggles, confusions, and heartaches about colonial mentality throughout the years.

And over the past 15 years, there have been some efforts to quantify and “scientifically” capture colonial mentality among Filipinos. First, there’s the Colonial Mentality Scale (CMS), which is a typical questionnaire that directly asks people if they exhibit some signs of colonial mentality.

The CMS asks people to indicate their level of agreement or disagreement with statements such as, “There are situations where I feel inferior because of my ethnic background,” “There are situations where I feel ashamed of my ethnic background,” "I would like to have a skin tone that is lighter than the skin tone I have," “I make fun of, tease, or bad mouth Filipinos who speak English with strong accents," and “Filipinos should be thankful to Spain and the United States for transforming the Filipino ways of life into a White/European American way of life."

However, because people may easily lie, deny, or not know too much about their own attitudes and behaviors to accurately report it, I also developed the Colonial Mentality Implicit Association Test (CMIAT), which attempts to capture whether Filipinos have strongly and automatically associated Filipino culture with inferiority.

Although far from being complete and perfect, tools such as the CMS and CMIAT have allowed us to attach some “numbers” to the very real stories that people have been sharing for generations.

And so, what does the data tell us about colonial mentality among Filipinos?

Here’s an easily-accessible infographic summarizing some findings, and below it are a few more details:

E.J.R. David
Source: E.J.R. David

Based on the CMS, there seem to be at least five indicators of CM among Filipinos:

  1. Feelings of inferiority for being Filipino;
  2. Feelings of shame, embarrassment, resentment, or self-hate about being a person of Filipino heritage;
  3. Denigration of the Filipino body (regarding white physical characteristics as more attractive, advantageous, and desirable than typical Filipino physical traits such as brown skin and flat nose);
  4. Discriminating against less-Westernized Filipinos (e.g., making fun of people from the provinces—“Promdi”—or indigenous peoples and regarding them as “backward”); and
  5. Tolerating or minimizing historical and contemporary oppression of Filipinos (because such oppression is accepted as the appropriate cost of civilization).

The CMS also allowed us to estimate how common CM is among Filipino Americans. When explicitly asked about colonial mentality, approximately 30 percent of Filipino Americans admitted to having at least one of the five “symptoms” of colonial mentality. Only around 1 percent admitted feeling ashamed and embarrassed about their heritage, and 9.6 percent admitted to feeling inferior for being Filipino. Only around 3.5 percent admitted to discriminating against less-westernized Filipinos, and 10.5 percent admitted to regarding Filipino physical traits as less desirable than white physical traits. Finally, 16.4 percent admitted feeling fortunate for having been colonized and feeling indebted to their past colonizers.

However, when the CMIAT was used—a more subtle and less-direct way of capturing CM—approximately 56 percent of Filipino Americans showed a tendency to automatically associate inferiority with Filipino culture and superiority with American culture. In addition to providing us with what is probably a more accurate estimate of the prevalence of CM among Filipinos, what the CMIAT studies also suggest is that CM may exist and operate outside of our awareness, intention, or control. In other words, it seems as though many of us may have internalized the oppression of our culture and ethnicity so deeply that it now exists and affects us automatically.

And as previously mentioned, CM has existed for generations. So how is it passed down intergenerationally? Research suggests that our peers, family, and community seem to influence the development of CM among Filipino Americans. Overall 96 percent of Filipino immigrants to the United States report being exposed to Filipino-inferiorizing messages while they were still living in the Philippines. Specifically, 85 percent reported seeing CM from their family, 88 percent from their friends, and 90 percent from their general community.

Perhaps the most egregious example of CM in the Philippines is the abundance of skin-whitening products and clinics being advertised and sold everywhere. According to a survey conducted by Synovate Philippines (2004, Skin Whitening in Southeast Asia), at least 50 percent of Filipinos use skin-whitening products. Furthermore, recent research also shows that skin-whitening use is most common among Filipinas, and among the lower class and less-educated people in the Philippines.

Research also suggests that current experiences of racism are also related to CM among Filipino Americans. That is, the more Filipino Americans experience the denigration of their culture and ethnicity, the more likely they are to develop CM. And research shows that 99 percent of Filipino Americans report experiencing racism in the past year. Thus, it is very likely that many Filipino Americans may hold CM.

But so what if Filipinos have CM, and so what if they’ve had CM for generations? Is having CM such a bad thing?

According to the World Health Organization, the use of skin-whitening has been associated with mental and physical health damage. Overall, using tools such as the CMS and the CMIAT, CM has been shown to relate to poorer mental health. Specifically, it has been shown to be related to lower levels of self-esteem, more depression symptoms, more anxiety symptoms, and lower levels of life satisfaction. These correlates of CM are concerning as research also shows that they typically co-occur with other troubling conditions like alcohol and drug use, and poor school or job performance. So yes, having CM is a bad thing.

Although we have continued to improve our understanding of CM, there are still plenty of research questions that we still need to explore concerning CM and its implications. I truly hope that the tools we have now will make it easier for us to engage in these explorations and that more Filipinos will take up the task of tackling these questions.

More from E. J. R. David Ph.D.
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