“The Filipino people are the most pro-American people, maybe even more pro-American than the Americans themselves.”
Ladies and gentlemen, that was our President Gloria Arroyo, with a candid description of how she regards her country’s former colonizers. And she’s hardly alone in this attitude. Many Filipinos do promote this idea of a westernized Philippines, with proud statements like “We’re the only Catholic country in Asia.” Or that we assimilate easily into American culture. We speak American English and are thoroughly westernized.
What is the root of this exceptionalist thinking? Why the desire for approbation from colonizers? Why do we revel in being so distinct from our Asian neighbors?
In honor of Philippine Independence Day last June 12, I spent the week re-reading Paul A. Kramer’s The Blood of Government: Race, Empire, the United States, and the Philippines. Kramer shows how racial ideologies were used to justify US imperialism in its first colony. As a fringe benefit, these ideologies also served to construct a racial hierarchy among Filipinos.
While other works have looked at racial ideologies embedded in Spanish and US colonization, Kramer employs a more intersectional analysis by examining the Filipino elite’s complicity with the creation of a “national colonialism.” For the Filipino elite—the illustrados—the goal was not just nationhood. Rather, they argued that given their Western education and values, illustrados were fully capable of ruling over the rest of the Filipinos.
Jose Rizal’s push for Filipino representation in the Spanish Cortes was predicated on the notion that the educated, Spanish-speaking “Filipinos” were a class apart from the non-Hispanicized Muslims and indigenous groups, the very groups who successfully evaded colonization. These were the groups who were “dirty,” “indolent,” “monkey-like.” And “lacking in virility.” In contrast, the illustrados, with their allegiance to western civilization, were fit to govern.
In other words, the Filipino elites argued that they could take over the white man’s burden. Because they were virtually white men themselves.
The Blood of Government then moves in American colonialism, detailing how illustrado exceptionalism easily lent itself to the creation of Philippine-American special relations. And here again, we see how race plays a role in deciding who is fit to govern.
Instead of the illustrados who desperately wanted to rule, the white man’s burden passed on to the Americans. And here, we see how the racial hierarchy among Filipinos began to reflect race in late nineteenth and early twentieth century America. Americans frequently referred to Filipinos as “niggers.” The parallel struggles of Black people in the US and Filipinos in the colonies fanned fears that the “dark races” were trying to take over the empire.
Racial ideologies were once again in play to frame the Philippine war for independence. Filipino soldiers fought a guerilla war, tactics that the American colonizers characterized as “savage.” This portrayal justified the Balangiga Massacre and other brutal atrocities of the Philippine American War, a war that has since been characterized as an “insurrection” and has mostly been forgotten.
“Kill every one over ten.” – Gen. Jacob H. Smith.
Originally from New York Journal, May 5, 1902. Wikipedia.
Furthermore, these Filipino savages were hopelessly engaged in tribal warfare among themselves. Obviously, they were not fit to carry on the white man’s burden of perpetuating Anglo Saxon empire.
Thus, the era of “fiesta politics,” where Filipino elites, especially those in Manila, threw lavish social events for American guests. These elaborate parties and balls were an opportunity for Filipino elites to convey “civilization as bourgeois style.” Filipino elites were not savage, because they don’t go around wielding bolos and sneaking around forests like guerillas. Filipino elites had elaborate balls and dances, just like westernized countries.
The incorporation of dances like the rigodon and the social setting also paved the way elite Filipinas, the illustradas, to participate in the quest for colonial governance. Whereas the task of colluding with the Spanish fell largely on educated men, the Filipina elite—illustradas—played a significant role in the new fiesta politics. Presumably, the illustradas presented themselves differently from the peasant women who had dark skin, worked in the fields, and joined the revolution for independence. The illustradas had social graces. They hosted lavish balls. They danced with Governor Taft and other American dignitaries. They maintained households that showcased their wealth as well as their western tastes and sensibilities.
The idea was that such social equality would later translate into political equality as well, since the Filipino elites shared the same westernized values.
The desire among many Filipinos to be westernized, to be the most pro-American people is thus not a new phenomenon. It is rooted in how Filipino elites strived to assume political authority in the face of colonization. And sadly, the racial hierarchies that were created in the process are still very much intact.
Today, for example, the threat of Muslims as the deviant other is used to justify militarization, both in the countryside as well as cities. Non-Catholic and non-Christian populations, such as the indigenous peoples, are marginalized and often infantilized. Colorism remains alive and well, as indicated in part by the popularity of skin whitening products.
In later posts, I’ll continue to think about how these racialized hierarchies, spawned in a transnational and colonial framework, continue to affect Filipinos. But for now, I’ll end with a little story.
An acquaintance once told me about various trips around Asia. His height, pale skin color, and Texas twang guaranteed that he stood out in most of the Asian cities he visited. But Manila, he told me, was his favorite. Why?
“I felt right at home,” he drawled. “Because it was so un-Asian.”