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Why Are Filipino Americans Still Forgotten and Invisible?

The perplexing case of the marginalization of Filipino Americans

Why are Filipino Americans still forgotten and invisible? Seriously, why?

This is not a rhetorical question, nor do I intend to provide potential answers to this question in this post. I am seriously and genuinely asking: Why?

The reason I am asking this question—yet again—is because of the New York Times’ most recent installment of their “Conversations on Race” Op-Doc series, where we see “Asian Americans talk about how stereotypes unfairly confine them—particularly the one that brands them a 'model minority’ … (and how) this perception not only devalues the experiences of other racial minorities, but it also renders the diverse experiences of Asian Americans invisible.” The stories shared also “went beyond personal accounts of racism and discrimination here in the United States, and extended to the residual outcomes of American influence in Asia, particularly as they relate to immigration … experiences (that) more closely resembled those of Latinos and African Americans than any sort of ‘model minority’ narrative.”

It sounds really good!

You see, I—along with many other fellow Filipinos in the diaspora—feel so passionately about these issues that we have devoted our careers to addressing them.

Destroying Asian American stereotypes? Check. Studying Asian American experiences with racism? Check. Challenging the model minority myth? Check. Understanding the effects of American influence in Asia especially as this relates to immigration? Check. Arguing that some Asian groups’ experiences closely resemble those of Latinos and African Americans than any sort of “model minority” narrative? Check. Illuminating the diverse experiences of Asian Americans beyond the typical East Asian perspective (i.e., Chinese, Japanese, Korean)? Check.

As for that last one on the list about addressing the invisibility of other Asian American groups beyond East Asians, I and many other folks have focused primarily on having Filipino American experiences seen, heard, and included. Check. Check. Check.

So I was very excited about the documentary!

So I watched it.

And it was good.

The seven-minute film is well-done. It touched on several important issues and concepts such as colorism, speaking English with an accent, America’s influence in Asia, immigration, the perpetual foreigner stereotype, why the model minority myth is not true, and of course—many personal experiences with racism.

However, out of the 12 participants whose stories were featured and shared, not one name appeared to be Filipino.

After watching the film, my immediate reaction was:

“Uhm, I don’t think there was one Filipino on there. Wait, it’s 2016 right?! Weren't I and many other folks complaining about this in the 90s? And weren’t prior generations of Filipino Americans complaining about this marginalization before us?”

The “Forgotten Asian Americans” and the “Invisible Minorities”

This type of marginalization isn’t unique. It's not new. The NYT documentary is not exceptional in its disregard of Filipino American stories. It's just that the NYT documentary reminded me of the painful reality that Filipinos have been historically ignored and unappreciated, and how such marginalization still happens to this day!

You see, Filipino banishment goes back to the fact that there was a Philippine-American War that lasted for 15 years and during which thousands—some say 1.4 million—Filipinos were killed by Americans, but yet such a war seems to be unacknowledged, hidden, and forgotten. Filipino marginalization goes back to the days of the manong generation, whose struggles in the farms of Hawaii, California, and Washington—as well as in the canneries of Alaska—continue to be unknown to many. It goes back to how the hard work and leadership of Larry Itliong, Philip Vera Cruz, and other Filipino farmworkers are overshadowed by the celebrity of Cesar Chavez. It goes back to how President Franklin Roosevelt pledged that Filipinos who fight for the United States during World War II would be granted citizenship and military benefits—so over 250,000 Filipinos heeded the call—but shortly after the war ended that promise was taken back with the Recission Act of 1946. It goes back to the many ways in which Filipino people have contributed to this country’s rise as a global power, but the American masses remain oblivious to such historical and contemporary reality.

These are some of the reasons why respected Filipino American historian Fred Cordova referred to Filipino Americans as the “Forgotten Asian Americans.”

This marginalization is also reflected in my field of psychology—the field that studies stereotypes, racism, and how they influence peoples' psychological experiences and mental health. For example, a simple search on PsycINFO—the largest database of psychology-related scholarly literature—produced 1783 articles, books, dissertations, and book chapters using the word “Filipino.” In comparison, the term “Chinese” returned almost 49,000 hits. The term “Japanese” returned over 34,000 hits. The term “Korean” returned almost 10,000 hits. The term “South Asian” returned over 4000 hits. The search term “Asian Indian or Pakistani or Afghan or Afghanistani” returned almost 2500 hits. Even a much smaller Asian group than Filipinos—“Vietnamese”—produced over 2,000 hits. And in last summer’s Asian American Psychological Association conference, there was not one presentation or research project that was about Filipino Americans.

This is why Filipino Americans have been regarded by psychologists as the “Invisible Minorities.”

But it’s the year 2016. Filipino American psychology has grown tremendously. We’ve also had Filipino faces on the mainstream American stage over the past few years. As examples, we have Manny Pacquiao, Bruno Mars, the Miss Universe is Filipina, Apl de Ap blew up with the Black Eyed Peas and is still pretty famous, Jose Antonio Vargas seems to be always on national TV, Filipino dancers dominate America’s Best Dance Crew, and Doug Baldwin is a star wide receiver for the Seattle Seahawks who made the Superbowl in 2014 and 2015. We even have Jordan Clarkson as the best player for the Los Angeles Lakers—and yes, even better than today’s Kobe.

Filipinos are definitely way more visible now! So what the heck?!

The Perplexing Marginalization of Filipinos

It’s definitely discouraging to see that despite all the work and accomplishments of Filipino people in the diaspora, Filipinos are still unseen, unheard, and unknown. That all the work over the decades toward being recognized and valued do not seem to be making any difference; that when people think of Asians, they still don’t think of Filipinos. It’s quite disheartening to realize that Filipinos are still the forgotten Asian Americans and the invisible minorities.

But despite yet another punch in the face, we have to keep fighting—resilience is a Filipino trait, after all. So with the audacity to still hope that change can happen, here are five reasons why it’s perplexing for Filipino Americans to be continually ignored, forgotten, and marginalized.

1. Uniqueness of Filipino American History

Filipinos are the first Asians on U.S. soil, with documentation of shipwrecked Filipinos who were slaves in Spanish ships landing on the shores of what is now Morro Bay, California back in 1587—long before the United States of America even existed. Also, Filipinos are the only Asian group to be colonized by the U.S., and this colonial history has serious and widespread implications on identity, racism, colorism, acculturation, and mental health. Research has shown that such a colonial history has made the Filipino experience very similar to the Latino, African American, and Native American experiences. Therefore, it just makes sense that any project that was interested in Asian American experiences that “more closely resembled those of Latinos and African Americans than any sort of ‘model minority’ narrative” to at least include the Filipino story.

2. Huge Filipino American Population

Filipinos are the second-largest Asian American group, numbering around 3.5 million, which is approximately 20% of the Asian American population. In other words, 1 out of 5 Asian Americans is Filipino. This is especially significant if we remember that the Asian American community is very diverse—it is composed of at least a dozen different ethnic groups! Filipinos are also the largest Asian group in the state of California, which is the most populated state in the country. Filipinos are also the largest Asian group in the states of Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Washington, Wyoming, and South Dakota. So that’s 11 out of the 50 states, again approximately 20% of America. Therefore, proportionally-speaking, whenever any project on the “Asian American experience” is done and it involves at least five Asian Americans, then at least one of the featured subjects should be Filipino in order to truly demonstrate a strong commitment to represent the diverse voices of Asian Americans.

3. Large Immigrant Population

Filipinos are currently the fourth-largest immigrant group in the United States after Mexicans, Chinese, and Asian Indians, as over 1.8 million Filipinos in the United States are foreign-born. As recently as 2010, however, Filipinos were the second largest immigrant group in the country after Mexicans. Also, Jose Antonio Vargas—a Filipino man—is the public face of immigration reform. So it’s surprising that a Filipino person wasn’t even included in a documentary that touched on immigration. Combined with the fact the Filipinos are the only Asian ethnic group to be colonized by the U.S., it should be an easy decision to have the Filipino perspective be reflected by any project that explores the “residual outcomes of American influence in Asia, particularly as they relate to immigration.”

4. Significant Contributions to “Asian American” Identity

Filipinos were also instrumental in creating the “Asian American” umbrella term and political identity during the 60s when the Asian American Political Alliance in Berkeley was founded, when Asian Americans collaborated with Black, Chicano/a, and Native American students in San Francisco State University and University California Berkeley to demand ethnic studies courses, and when Asian American students and community members advocated for Filipino residents of the International Hotel in San Francisco. So Filipinos were a big part of the creation of the “Asian American” political identity, giving Asian Americans stronger mainstream visibility and political clout and influence. But despite this, Filipinos continue to be marginalized and glossed over in many projects about the "Asian American" experience.

5. Filipinos Experience Racism at a Very High Rate

Filipinos also experience racism at a very high rate, even compared to other Asians. A recent study found that 99% of Filipino Americans experience racism on a regular basis, and that these experiences lead to psychological distress, low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression. Even further, Filipinos also report commonly experiencing subtle forms of racism called microaggressions that are unique from the microaggressions experienced by most other Asian Americans. For instance, contrary to the “model minority” myth, Filipinos are often assumed to have inferior status or intellect (e.g., Philippines-trained professionals are treated as not being as good as others) and are often seen as deviant in some way (e.g., being a gang member or a criminal), which are microaggressions that are also commonly experienced by non-Asian American groups such as African Americans, Latinas/os, and Native Americans.

The Struggle Continues

Another microaggression unique to Filipinos is that they report commonly experiencing discrimination even from other Asian Americans. Also more recently, research found that while 96%-98% of Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese individuals identify as “Asian,” only 47% of Filipinos do. Perhaps this continued marginalization even within the Asian American community is why many Filipinos do not identify as Asian Americans. Sure, perhaps Filipinos just don’t feel connected to other Asian people, cultures, and lived realities. But perhaps Filipinos also don’t feel welcomed.

Perhaps Filipinos still feel unheard, unseen, unknown, and unappreciated. Perhaps many Filipinos don't want to identify with a group that seems to endlessly neglect and ignore them.

So here we are, in 2016, and we are still fighting the same fight. Despite our unique history in the U.S., our large numbers, our significant contributions to the Asian American community, and our unique struggles with racism, immigration, health, and in other areas (e.g., education, income, etc.) that challenge the “model minority myth”, we are still ignored and rendered irrelevant.

We are still wanting to be seen, wanting to be heard, wanting to be included.

We’re still perplexed. We’re still complaining.

So again, why are Filipino Americans still “Forgotten” and “Invisible”? Seriously, why?

I have authored two books, Brown Skin, White Minds: Filipino American Postcolonial Psychology and Internalized Oppression: The Psychology of Marginalized Groups; follow me on Twitter.

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