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POV Philippines by Jon Joaquin

Racism in the Philippines

by Jon Joaquin

As a colony of Spain for more than 333 years and then the United States for the next 48, Filipinos have acquired some uncomfortably racist behaviour that many of us take for granted and even seem to be blind to. Since our colonizers were white, we have come to believe that fair skin is the standard of beauty, and we have taken extraordinary steps to turn our brown skin into fair. For many years now some of the most sellable products are those that promise to whiten the skin: soaps, lotions, pills, injectables, and more. The phrase, “Uy pumuti ka!” (Hey, your skin has grown whiter!), is always meant as a compliment.

Unfortunately, the reverse is almost always intended as an insult. Those with dark (or even just darker than usual) skin are considered inferior, even ugly, and they are laughed at, teased, and sometimes even ostracized. Growing up, I even believed it and joined in the teasing of playmates and classmates who had dark skin. It could actually be brutal, especially in our all-boys school where some darker-skinned students were sometimes reduced to tears because of the bullying they received.

The funny thing is a lot of Filipinos are aware that racism is a problem in many parts of the world and even stand against prejudice based on the colour of the skin. We’ve been exposed to the civil rights movement in the United States and apartheid in South Africa, and many of us sincerely believe in the cause of fighting against discrimination. But right in our own backyard we practice our own form of apartheid.

It shows even in our pop culture. Show business is particularly notorious, not just in putting forward fair-skinned actors as the epitome of beauty, but also in putting down dark-skinned ones as somehow inferior, funny, or fit to be villains. We’ve had comedians who were funny because they were dark-skinned, and they even used screen names to emphasize their colour: Whitney Tyson (a woman who mashed up the names of Whitney Houston and Mike Tyson), Blakdyak, and Mang Temi (a character in a comedy show whose name is reverse for “itim” or black) to name a few.

Social media is no different. A growing number of American and Canadian guys have been becoming popular on social media because of the videos they have been churning out in which they speak very good Filipino (Tagalog, Cebuano, Ilonggo are what I’ve seen). They travel all throughout the country and get warm welcomes from the locals who are often surprised to hear white guys speak their language. But where are the videos of non-whites doing the same thing? There are none, and I think if any non-white tried the stunts their fair-skinned counterparts did, they would be beaten up.

Another traditional target of the Filipinos’ racism are the Chinese. One of the consequences of President Rodrigo Duterte’s pivot from the US to China is the seeming influx of Chinese workers in the Philippines. Their presence is not that felt yet in Davao City, but I understand that more and more of them are being seen in Manila.

Their number is significant enough for some movie theaters to announce that they would be showing the blockbuster movie Avengers: Endgame with Chinese subtitles, and this riled a large number of viewers. Many complained that they couldn’t concentrate on the movie, but I think it was also a result of the animosity a lot of them have been feeling against the Chinese.

But as Foreign Affairs Undersecretary for Migrant Workers Sarah Arriola points out, it is actually surprising that a migrant country of origin like the Philippines could be so xenophobic towards foreign workers. “Let us not forget,” she says, “we have more than 10 million Filipinos working all over the world. Some of them are irregular or undocumented. We do not call those without work permits illegal since migrants are not illegal persons; they are not criminals. They are just workers without proper papers. We call them undocumented or irregular.”

“Let us treat all migrants with dignity regardless of status. Let us not forget that almost 10 per cent of our population are migrant workers. If we want our workers abroad to be treated well, we should treat migrants in our country well. Let us not forget the golden rule,” she adds.

Arriola also points out that the Philippines fiercely negotiated for the adoption of the Global Compact for Migration to protect the rights of migrants regardless of status. “That’s one of the reasons we should treat all migrants with dignity. We should of course deport (those who break our laws) but (we must) treat them in a just and humane manner.”

We Filipinos are often overly protective of our migrant workers and protest every injustice done to them while working abroad; it’s time we look at ourselves and see if we’re not doing the same thing to people who are migrant workers from other countries.

The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the original author, and do not necessarily represent those of the Pilipino Express publishers.

Jon Joaquin is the Editor-In- Chief of the Davao City-based Mindanao Daily Mirror. E-mail Jon at

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