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Addressing Anti-Black Microaggressions in Filipino Families

Some “microintervention” tips to tackle anti-Black racism in everyday life.

Sparked by George Floyd’s death , the uprising against anti-Black racism has intensified once again throughout the United States. One noticeable part of the movement is the racial diversity of the protestors who have chosen to stand in solidarity with the Black community. Beyond protesting alongside Black People, it has become clear that a necessary and important component of these solidarity efforts is to do the difficult work of dismantling anti-Blackness within non-Black communities, including other communities of color. Asian Americans, in particular, have been especially galvanized to talk about anti-blackness within its community because one of the police officers involved in killing George Floyd is Asian American.

Kalaya'an Mendoza, used with permission.
Source: Kalaya'an Mendoza, used with permission.

As a Filipino American psychological scientist who studies racism, one of the more common questions I’ve received over the years – but increasingly over the past few weeks – is something like “How do I talk to my Filipino family about their anti-Black attitudes and behaviors?” This is complicated by the fact that many Filipino families adhere to cultural values of maintaining smooth interpersonal relationships or social harmony, so confrontations and difficult conversations are discouraged or, at least, not particularly welcome. Another frequent comment I’ve heard from Filipinos over the years is how difficult it is to convince their relatives – especially the ones who might need it the most – to attend lectures, workshops, or community events that might shed light on anti-Blackness. Even further, anti-Black attitudes and behaviors seem to be more commonly held and expressed by the older generation. Given the Filipino cultural value of respecting our elders , how does one “call-out” an elder and still avoid bringing them and the family shame (another cultural value)?

Indeed, although there might be some Filipino families who hold family meetings, attend community events or workshops, and sit down for hours to discuss difficult and controversial issues, it is likely that most Filipino families don’t do this – or are not comfortable doing this. So how, then, can the majority of Filipino families tackle anti-Blackness?

Well, the good news is that holding special family meetings, discussions, workshops, lectures, or other formal “interventions” are not the only ways to challenge the anti-Blackness of our Nanay or Tatay, Aunty or Uncle, Lolo or Lola, Ninong or Ninang, and Ate or Kuya. Addressing anti-Blackness in our families don’t need to start with a grand, dramatic gesture. We don’t need an elaborate plan or a significant turning point to tackle these issues.

To this end, guided by the recommendations of Sue and colleagues (2019) for how to do “microinterventions,” I discuss some anti-Black microaggressions that are common in Filipino families and offer some general tips on how we can begin to more organically address them in the course of our everyday lives while doing our daily routines, in our homes (not in a classroom or community hall) or in private (instead of publicly, to avoid shaming), and in a less confrontational manner (consistent with Filipino values of maintaining smooth interpersonal relationships & family harmony).

1. While watching Filipino TV or movies.

One common anti-Black microaggression among Filipinos is the normalized regard of light-skinned people as more attractive than darker skinned people. This is especially reflected in who becomes the most popular actors, celebrities, or “beautiful people” in Filipino show business. Thus, perhaps while you’re watching Filipino TV shows or movies with your Lola or Lolo, you can say something like “I’ve noticed that most of our actors and actresses who are considered to be beautiful are light-skinned or mestizo/a? Have you noticed that too, Lolo? What do you think about that, Lola?” According to Sue and colleagues (2019), this will make the “invisible” visible , and although your Lola or Lolo may not necessarily answer or engage with you at the moment, you have at least identified an issue, planted a seed, and this may spark further thought and reflection on their part. As James Baldwin said, “If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.” Because anti-Black microaggressions have become so normalized and accepted in the Filipino community to the point that they’re now rarely noticed and challenged, making the “invisible” visible and reminding people of how problematic and harmful anti-Black attitudes, behaviors, and practices are is a critical first step.

2. When they say something about skin tones.

Have you ever heard your Filipino aunties or uncles say something like “And ganda nya, sobrang puti!” (“She’s so pretty, so white!”) or “Maganda sya kahit maitim” (“She’s pretty even though she’s dark”)? Although you might’ve heard them say such things while watching Filipino movies or TV, it’s also likely that you’ve heard them make such comments during parties or gatherings when they tsismis (gossip) about who is dating who. Another common skin-tone comment may be made while you’re hanging out outdoors, playing hoops, lounging on the beach, or just kicking it, and they might say something like “Don’t stay out in the sun too long, you will get too dark!” When encountering comments like these, perhaps you can respond with something like “Is their skin tone the only thing that makes them pretty?” or “Well, I think they’re pretty because they’re dark-skinned.” or “It’s ok. I love the sun and I love my natural brown skin.” Such comments may not only make them aware of how problematic their preference for light skin is – making the “invisible” visible – but Sue and colleagues (2019) also state that such comments disarm the microaggressions, forcing your aunties or uncles to consider what they have just said and allowing them to think more carefully before they speak or behave in the future.

3. When they make stereotypical comments about Black People

Another common example of anti-Blackness that our Filipino relatives commit during parties, family gatherings, or even just during daily meals is when they make stereotypical comments about Black People. Perhaps you’ve heard your cousins or siblings say something like “Don’t go to that neighborhood, too many Black People there. It’s dangerous!” or “Why are all her friends Black? I’m worried about her.” In such cases, perhaps you can challenge their beliefs by appealing to their values and pointing out commonalities (e.g., “You know, Black People care about safety in their neighborhoods just as much as you and other people.”), making them think more critically by asking them where they got their information from (e.g., “Why is it that you think Black People might be a bad influence on her?”), and possibly engage in a productive conversation that explores your Ate’s or Kuya’s biases. In addition to making the “invisible” visible and disarming microaggressions, Sue and colleagues (2019) state that such questions and comments now also involve educating your Ate or Kuya, making them more likely to also notice such microaggressions as committed by others and, in turn, potentially educate others.

4. While grocery shopping

While shopping in your local Filipino grocery store with your Nanay or Tatay, perhaps you can walk through the skin-whitening products aisle. While there, you can say something like “Whoa, why are all of these lotions and soaps have skin-whitening ingredients on them?” or “Huh, what do you think about all of these skin-whitening products being advertised and sold to Filipinos?” It’s also possible that your Nanay or Tatay use such products, so perhaps you can say something like “Oh that reminds me, I saw this skin-whitening soap/lotion/bleach in the medicine cabinet at home. I’ve been wondering about it. Maybe you can tell me more about that? When you’re ready?” Again, such comments and questions will make the “invisible” visible, and reveal how ingrained and harmful anti-Blackness is. Further, it might also make them think about how complicit they may have been to the perpetuation of anti-Blackness. At the very least, such comments and questions will let your Nanay or Tatay know that you care about anti-Blackness, make them see that this is a widespread and systemic issue, and let them know that you are interested in further exploring the issue with them, opening the door for further education.

5. While at church

OK, maybe not while you’re at church, but perhaps on your way home from church you can make a comment to your Ninang or Ninong pertaining to the statues and paintings on display. Perhaps you can say something like “I’ve noticed that most of the Jesus and Mary statues or paintings make them look like they’re white. Have you noticed that too? What do you think about it?” Or maybe you can say something like “I’ve been wanting to buy a brown Santo Niño, but they’re really difficult to find. They seem to be rare compared to the white-looking Santo Niños.” Such comments and questions will expose how systemic anti-Blackness is, once again making the “invisible” visible. And again, such comments and questions will at least let your Ninang and Ninong know that you care about anti-Black racism, and that you are open to further addressing it with them.

Conclusion

There are many more examples of anti-Black racism that are commonly expressed in the Filipino community, such as discriminating against Aeta People , the Ati People , and other darker-skinned communities in the Philippines. Another example is the association of straight hair as more attractive than curly hair . Similar to the discussions above, we can handle such anti-Black microaggressions by making them visible, disarming them, and educating the perpetrators.

Addressing anti-Black racism within our families will involve plenty of patience, practice, attempts, and heartbreaks. This is why Sue and colleagues (2019) also recommended that we seek external support and reinforcement – such as trusted friends, relatives, or mentors – to help us stay healthy, give us more ideas, and remind us that we are not alone in this mission.

Dismantling anti-Blackness in our own families is hard work. The process will take time and involve many failures. We must have hope, however, that these little seeds – the “microinterventions” we engage in every day – will grow, and that they will eventually make a difference. We must believe that the relatives we are intervening on now will become the support and reinforcement we need in the future.

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