Where are you from? Redefining what Filipino American means




The Manila Times



WHAT are you? Where are you from? But, where are you really from? If I were to have a Frequently Asked Questions page featuring common questions that people have asked me since birth, these three questions would top the list. As a Filipino American (yes, without the hyphen) who has lived in five different countries, I have been asked these three particular questions several times, and yet, I have never gotten used to answering them. In fact, I usually cringe at the conversations that ensue. “So, your mom is Filipino and your dad is the American, right?” No matter where I am — the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, United Arab Emirates or United States — I am almost always met with this clear-cut assumption about my identity. Some people are more direct, remarking that my dad “must be the white one.” This is not to invalidate mixedrace identities, but why is it assumed that in order to qualify as an American, there needs to be at least one white parent? I always challenge this assumption by explaining that both my parents are, in fact, of Filipino descent, but I was born in the United States. Generally, people strive to understand where I’m coming from. And yet, despite the ever-growing expansion of globalization and interracial relationships, a few others are adamant that Americans are white and only white. Once, in Qatar, when I was re-entering the airport through the security checkpoint, the security officer looked perplexed as I handed him my US passport. Looking down at my passport, then back at me with a furrowed brow, he bluntly stated, “You’re not American.” We had a backand-forth exchange of his “You’re not American” claims and my “Yes, I am” assertions. Ultimately, I was not and could never be American in his mind, even after explaining that I was born and raised in California. I ended up clarifying that I have Filipino roots, and only then did the security officer let me re-enter the airport. It is bizarre to think that one’s skin color can paint a person’s mental picture of who you are — and who you aren’t. It is almost as if it is inconceivable for an American to be naturally brown. Such experiences have shaped my belief that most people around the world stereotypically view Americans as white. But new US census population projections show that white Americans will become a minority by 2044. This “majority minority” milestone could be achieved in just 22 years from now, and yet a majority of people still assume that if you are not white, you could not have possibly been born in the United States. The way that Americans are perceived on a global scale needs to be redefined. I believe that film could serve as an engaging, educational and potent catalyst in transforming people’s perceptions of what being American truly means. I attribute the “white-only” definition of “American” to the lack of diversity that is so deeply entrenched in Hollywood films. For years, Hollywood has failed to portray Americans as diverse or if they do, they use white American actors to play non-white characters. Take the controversial whitewashed romance Aloha, for example. Emma Stone was cast as a woman of Hawaiian and Asian heritage. Many times, the names of African American, Inuit and Asian characters have been changed in order to accommodate the casting of white actors: Chante Jawan Mallar to Brandi Boski in “Stuck,” Olemaun to Oleson in “30 Days of Night,” and Keiji Kiriya to Major William “Bill” Cage in “Edge of Tomorrow.” The list of Hollywood’s continued whitewashing throughout the years goes on. Most recently, the casting of an African American actress to play Ariel in The Little Mermaid has demonstrated Disney’s effort to support diversity. On the other hand, it has sparked international debate, even inciting the hashtag #notmyariel on Twitter. You would think that people would celebrate diversity; the ongoing debate goes to show that diversity means nothing without inclusivity. It is problematic to have only one singular perception of what an American looks like. Several people, regardless of race and skin color, call the United States home. I am one of those people, and I happen to be brown. I happen to have parents of Filipino descent. I am Filipino American — without the hyphen — because, for me, these identities stand tall and proud on their own. Arienne Calingo is communications specialist for the Religious Liberty Initiative at Notre Dame Law School and is responsible for strategizing and executing the RLI’s marketing efforts. She has spoken about diversity and inclusion issues at various venues, including Harvard University, Fulbright Thailand, Asean Youth Organization and the British Council. She obtained her master’s degree in international education policy from Harvard University and her bachelor’s degree, with honors, from Georgetown University.