January 8th, 2013


It's disturbing when the language we use when referring to poc hasn't changed

I just finished reading a chapter on Colonial Domesticity from Vicente L. Rafael's White Love and other Events in Filipino History. I had to set aside this book several times while I was reading this chapter because it was just so painful to read. Kind of like peeling away the scab from a wound or rubbing sand into an open sore.

Anyway, here are a couple of choice excerpts from that Chapter on Colonial Domesticity and take note, these are from letters written by white women from the Philippines during the American occupation of the Philippines.

From a letter written by one Edith Moses:

Your first impression will be that we keep trained baboons to do the housework, for the probability is that a half-naked, dark-skinned creature is rushing up and down the hall on all fours, with big burlap sacks under his hands and feet. He is only the monkey-like coolie who polishes the narra floors.

From a letter written by a woman named Caroline Shunks:  (talking about a houseboy who she considers to be badly behaved)

He stalks stolidly about in his shirt-tail, short drawers and bare feet, smoking cigarettes. He speaks not a word and looks an insurrecto of the deepest dye.

Here's a choice excerpt of Shunks again, writing of her favorite servant:

Houseboy no. 1 is a treasure. At seven o'clock, our dinner hour, he comes softly to the porch corner from which we watch the sunset and announces something which means, "Senora, dinner is served!" He looks like a hired mourner at a funeral, dressed in crisp, white clothing. We go out with all the ceremony attending a state banquet and Vincent stands at "parade rest" behind my chair. He serves quietly and well. Our table looks pretty, red-shaded candles, and a bowl of vivid red lillies...Lizards run down the walls to catch the insects attracted by the lights, great June bugs buzz noisily about and coming too near the table are deftly caught by the "boy".

To be honest, I'm not surprised at the terminology or the way in which these white women wrote home about Filipinos. I imagine that there are still white people who go to countries like mine and who look at it and see it as something placed there for their entertainment and they see the natives as simply these "creatures" who are meant to cater to their needs. After all, most white households in the Philippines have two or more maids, a driver and lots and lots of people who will go or come at their beck and call. (I know of more than one white missionary household who mourned leaving the Philippines because in America, they would have no more maids.)

When I read this, I can't help but find it disturbing that there are writers in this present day who still find it tolerable/excusable/allowable/justifiable to use these same objectifying terms when writing about people of color.

True story: Sometime ago, I sent Strange Horizons a story wherein I depicted my native people as being agile as monkeys (although I didn't use that word exactly). To me, it was an act of rebellion against the term I'd often heard used even by Filipinos from the lowlands when referring to tribal people. Filipinos tend to have a non-confrontational attitude and at the time of that writing I was feeling quite alone in my anger.

Obviously, Jed Hartman was pricked by my depiction because he wrote back pointing out that this was problematic. Which to me was enough. I haven't sent that story anywhere else and I haven't rewritten it. Do I plan to ever send it elsewhere? Do I plan to rewrite it? I don't know. I think that story has already served its purpose where I'm concerned. All I wanted was to find confirmation that my anger was not misplaced. I was right to be angry because the bestial depiction of colored/native races is deeply deeply problematic.

Anyway, back to the book. At the close of the chapter on Colonial Domesticity, a white woman writes about poignant separation scenes from their colored/native servants. My response is quite physical. I literally rear back from the depictions and swear out loud. These scenes which depict the servant as being continuously subvervient and loving towards the white master are familiar. They are the same scenes we see replayed and regurgitated in various media where colored servants adore their white masters/mistresses. It makes me physically ill.

This fantasy that the colonial masters feed themselves continues to be the same fantasy that many descendants of colonizers choose to believe. The fantasy that goes: "Oh, they love us and are grateful to us."

This perpetuated fantasy is the reason why colonizing countries express outrage when people from their colonies demand separation from the colonizer. What they fail to see is this--attachment is not love and a people who have been subjugated will always long for autonomy and freedom.

On twitter, I wrote about our ambivalent feelings with regards to the colonizers and in particular towards the American colonizers. As I said to Berit Ellingsen: It's like this: it's like you have this friend who you trusted and then that friend betrayed you.

**Should you want to obtain a copy of White Love and Other Events in Filipino History, it is available here.