When you hear the term ‘Asian American,’ which ethnic group first crosses your mind?
If you reply Chinese, Japanese or Korean, that’s not an uncommon response. According to the 2017 Asian American Community Survey of the U.S Census Bureau, Chinese Americans (not counting Taiwanese) are the largest Asian American ethnic group, numbering by approximately 5 million. Japanese Americans are estimated to be 1.4 million in the population and there are approximately 1.9 million Korean Americans.
But if you continue looking at the data, you will find Filipino Americans number as the second largest, listing the population at about 4 million.
Yet one must wonder why there is hardly any major focus on them in society. In fact, they are less likely to have representation. For example, in Western media, if there is an actor of Filipino heritage, they are more likely to play a character of a different Asian ethnicity. And in The New York Times’ 2016 video “A Conversation With Asian-Americans on Race,” no Filipino American was featured.
But why is there a lack of acknowledgement?
“In my opinion, I feel like Filipino Americans are hardly represented because we don’t have a distinctive factor. From our language to even our names, there have been so many influences all over it that it’s hard to even develop a norm that makes a Filipino a Filipino,” said Joseph Mamaril, Filipino American student and Vice President of SPU’s Asian American Student Union (AASU.)
Much of the influences derives from the Philippines’ turbulent history of being a former colony.
History of Filipino Americans
The Philippines was once a colony of Spain from 1565 to 1898. The Spanish-American War resulted in Spain losing and selling the Philippine Islands to America as part of the Treaty of Paris. Shortly after, the Philippine-American War erupted as a result of the Philippine Revolution that was going on even before the Spanish-American War, rebelling for an independent nation free from any foreign imperialism. America won and implemented “benevolent assimilation.” This included establishing public schools made for Filipinos to learn and speak English. Even after gaining full independence in 1946, English is the second official language of the Philippines after Filipino.
After the Philippines became a U.S colony, many Filipinos immigrated to America for education or for cheap labor. The Immigration Act of 1924 prevented Asian immigrants, but Filipinos were classified as American nationals. Despite this and being able to speak English, Filipinos were still perceived as subhuman, barbarians, uncivilized savages, brown monkeys and promiscuous pimps.
Filipino Americans were also victims of police brutality, race riots and accusations of “stealing white women.” Author Carlos Bulosan (1913-1956) wrote in his memoir novel “America Is in the Heart” of these brutal experiences while living in America in the 1930s and 40s.
Eventually, Filipino Americans began to fight back the racism, participating in labor unions and organizing strikes. In World War II, they were allowed to participate in the U.S military. The Luce-Celler Act of 1946, signed two days before the Philippines became an independent nation, granted naturalized citizenship to Filipino Americans and also to Indian Americans.
The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 abolished any remaining discrimination of Asian, Southern and Eastern European and other non-Northwestern European groups from immigrating. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Asian American Movement peaked, with two Filipino American leaders being Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz.
Over time, Filipino Americans have went from being perceived as uncivilized savages to a seemingly respectable Model Minority. But there are remaining issues lingering within the community that contribute to lack of acknowledgement.
Because the Philippine’s history of being colonized and occupied by foreign powers, it’s not uncommon for Filipinos and Filipino Americans to exhibit colonial mentality, or an internalized mindset thinking their own culture or heritage is inferior to Western cultures. As a result, Filipino Americans are more likely to assimilate fully into American culture, not speak their family’s language or identify less with their heritage. Terms such as “coconut” and “banana” are sometimes used to refer to “white-washed” Filipino Americans.
And the acronym FOB (fresh off the boat) would refer to people who recently immigrated but have yet to assimilate.
“At first, coming to America, I wasn’t proud of being Filipino and rejected it because of the ‘FOB-ness’ It gave off, got me bullied and humiliated for,” Mamaril continued.
I’ve personally been called “a white girl trapped in an Asian body” because I was once indifferent and even somewhat ashamed of my Filipino heritage and unable to speak Tagalog/Filipino in the past.
The Philippines also has a unique culture of having an amalgamation of indigenous roots with major Spanish and American influences. But to white Americans, Filipinos are ‘too Asian.’ To Asia, they’re ‘too Hispanic’ or ‘too American.’ Filipinos are even sometimes derogatorily called the “Mexicans of Asia” as a result of being one of the only former Spanish colonies in Asia and its historical ties with Mexico.
“Filipinos also report commonly experiencing subtle forms of racism called microaggressions that are unique from the microaggressions experienced by most other Asian Americans,” said E.J. Ramos David, Ph.D, Psychologist and Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Alaska Anchorage. “A microaggression unique to Filipinos is that they report commonly experiencing discrimination even from other Asian Americans.”
And due to mixed ancestry, ambiguous features and being less represented, it’s not uncommon for Filipinos and Filipino Americans to be mistaken as East Asian or Latino.
“I’ve been mistaken for being Korean most of the time,” Mamaril added.
I can’t even count how many times I’ve been mistaken as or initially assumed to be Chinese since I was a child. Filipinos and Filipino Americans come in various features and shades of skin tones from dark to fair.
Additionally, it is debated whether Filipino Americans should fall under Pacific Islander or Asian for the U.S Census Bureau because of the Philippines being an island nation. But the term “Pacific Islander” is made to refer to people from Oceania.
It seems no matter what or where, we do not seem to fit in one category.
It’s clear there are still underlying issues to be resolved within the Filipino American communities, even here at home. It’s important for the history of Filipino Americans and America’s past imperialism to be taught more and not forgotten. Perhaps over time it can hopefully give us more recognition and representation — and Pinoy pride!