I deleted my first draft of this piece. I initially wrote a cute, chirpy essay about the history of the Philippines, mixed with some sassy sentences about stereotypes. But a weird thing happened as I re-read that draft – this tiny voice kept nagging at the bottom of my skull.
“Who the fuck are you to ‘educate’ people about the history of the Philippines? You’re barely Filipino; the whole world has told you so since you can remember. You have little claim over any side of this story – so, honestly, who the fuck are you to tell it?”
The darkness of that voice scared me. I’m not usually that… mean.
And that’s when I decided to trash it all, start over, and follow that voice wherever it led.
Before we start, I should illuminate the people with some background. Almost everything you’re about to read happened because of two facts:
- I am full Filipina – meaning, both my mother and my father are from the Philippine Islands, and
- I look like this.
Mmmmkay, go ahead. Get it out of your system now – I’ve heard it all since the beginning of time. Regardless of the theories you have to share, at the end of your sentence, I will still be full Filipina. You’re gonna have to trust me on this one.
My mother was born on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, and my father was born on the northern island of Luzon. My siblings and I were born and raised in California’s Bay Area, making us a part of a shiny, new generation of Filipino-Americans.
We’re lucky to have been raised amongst some of the most prolific Asian communities in the US; in fact, Daly City, just down the street from us, boasts the biggest Filipino community outside of the actual Philippines. This didn’t entirely apply to us, though, because most people – including Filipinos themselves – believe Filipinos do and should look like this:
Unfortunately, Filipino culture subscribes to the broken pan-Asian rule that the ideal human, regardless of your background, is light-skinned and shiny-straight-haired. So, although my mother hails from the southern Philippine islands, where the indigenous Moro people were rocking dark skin and thick, kinky hair hundreds of years before the Spanish and American colonizers came and whitened everybody up…
We are the weird ones. Our skin and hair are wrong. We are Other.
Ask anyone with a hyphen in their identity – when you belong neither here nor there, your whole life is a balancing act with people hurling you from box to box. You’d think my boxes would be Filipina and American; I did, too. But in tearing down my first draft, my boxes became clear:
I was either Too Much, or I was Not Enough.
Whose child is she?
I remember my hair growing its kinks around 5th grade. That’s when my Filipina aunties started to call me bruja, itim – witch, black person – as they forced their fingers through my curls at family parties, clucking at my mother at how she should take me to get it relaxed. It’s so big, they laughed. She’s too dark to be ours. Who’s child is she?
My first lesson on the boxes: Too much brown in the skin. Not enough straight in the hair. Okay.
I remember visiting my friend Terry’s house in my early middle school days. Terry’s family, including her conservative grandmother, is Chinese. And when that grandmother scolded Terry for letting me in the house – namely, warning her in Chinese not to let me sit on her bed because I am Black and therefore dirty – there came the boxes again.
Too dark to count as a real, worthy person; too dirty to even consider asking what I am. Not enough of the right kind of Asian to get to touch their things. Got it.
I just think it’s so cool that a Black girl would want to hang out with us
Fast forward to freshman year of college, where I was psyched to make fast friends with the Filipino cultural group on campus. Maybe I can start over and get a shot at being a better Filipino, I thought. I might finally fucking blend in for once. Then a few weeks in, a new friend turned to me and said, “I just think it’s so cool that a Black girl would want to just hang out with all of us.” Woof.
Too different to assume she’s a fellow Filipina amongst Filipinas, despite my efforts to relate, to share, to connect. Not enough doubt to need to clarify with the cool Black girl.
Even an enlightened group of my own kind had made up their mind, weeks into my earnest attempt at fitting in: Oh, of course, we’ll totally take her in – but, when it comes down to it, she’s not ours.
(These people are now some of my closest friends, but you don’t forget what hurts.)
I spent a Memorial Day weekend in the Jersey Shore after graduation, having semi-gotten used to being surrounded by white women in the New York City publishing world. Our night could’ve ended all blurry and fine at a pizza place at 2am – but when some douche at our table went, “Honestly, Black Lives Matter makes no sense to me; like, know your audience, you know?”, every face turned to me, the only POC, in response. Coulda sworn we were all just here to have fun.
Too brown to just enjoy your fucking buzz with new friends; nope, because now you’re the Spokesperson of Color and bitch, you better be eloquent because you’ve suddenly got an enraptured white audience. Not white enough to bury myself in silence like everyone else did once race was brought to the table.
Loud and clear, y’all: Drink our beer, party in our bars – but brown girl, you were never ours, either.
Too Asian But Not Enough Asian
Despite living through a number of weird, shitty racial experiences, once I started traveling for work, it didn’t occur to me to think about how a dark-skinned Filipina-American might be treated abroad. I had the idea that being brown in the greater universe somehow meant being comfortably lumped into an Asian ether, where Filipinas who actually looked like me might exist.
My first-ever business trip lasted all of 14 minutes out of the terminal when at a car-rental shuttle stop, I told a White man in friendly conversation that I am Filipina. Despite hearing that I worked for a Fortune 5 company, he reached around my shoulders, shook me and asked me if I wanted, in suddenly broken English, “business-man boyfriend.” I floated right the fuck out of my body.
Too Asian to escape the horrifying stereotype of green-card hunting mail order brides. Not Business Class Barbie enough to be treated like my company couldn’t buy him and make him my barking bitch.
But nothing tops the time in Singapore when I was assisting a small, all-women travel show crew on location with famed restaurateur, Violet Oon. We were in a van driving to a night market, and when Ms. Oon heard me say I am Filipina, she launched into a tirade about how Filipinos don’t value money. How does she know? Because my maid always takes her Christmas bonuses and spends it on some gaudy purse, instead of sending it back home to her family, like she should, said Ms. Oon.
That all-woman crew – all-White, I should mention – reacted strangely. One squeezed my hand hard in the dark. The other bent her arm back to show me pictures of puppies on her Blackberry, making sure Ms. Oon didn’t see. She Google Image searched Yorkies, I remember. Neither of them spoke, and I choked on my tears in silence. I refused to work that night and asked to be taken back to the hotel.
Apparently, I was too American for Ms. Oon to truly care whether she was about to rip up my people in front of me. Apparently, I wasn’t Filipina enough for Ms. Oon to hold her fucking tongue against my own race.
And I guess I was too brown, too little, too expendable for my colleagues to even acknowledge my pain out loud and risk denting the business relationship. I guess I was not important enough to speak up for.
But even now, I feel deep shame about that moment because I know that by then, I put my damn self into those boxes, too. I was too scared to talk back, lest I ruin our precious work project. I wasn’t brave enough to tell Violet where to shove it. I was a disgrace to the powerful matriarchs of my Filipina family, too unworthy to belong to my mother and grandmother in this moment, not strong enough to speak with their voices. Not strong enough to speak with any voice at all.
Too much. Too little. Not enough. Not anything. And I finally believed it.
And now, traveling through Asia for the last year with my partner, I think of race constantly. Every prying, scanning stare I get in Vietnam, Taiwan, Korea, and Japan is a reminder of every too-much and not-enough of my past. Sometimes it feels like the whole world has made up its mind about me, and it seems like I’ve come to believe them.
I cringe under billboards filled with light-skinned, straight-haired Asian women, touting skin whitening lotions and hair-relaxing serums. I find myself clenching my jaw while walking through convenience stores, being pelted in every aisle with “Whitening. Brightening. Snow White. Pearl Effect”, or “Smooth. Straight. Beat frizz. Sleek and shiny.” Not so subtle subtext: We do everything possible to avoid everything you are. Not only am I too much and not enough – I’m the worst of every possible spectrum.
I realized: Of course I felt fraudulent, torn, both too much and not enough while writing that first draft. Dark-skinned Asian people like me endure a whole lifetime of signals that we aren’t worth claiming, that we aren’t speaking up for, that we aren’t beautiful or included or relatable at all. No one wants us, no one wants to be us, and no one wants to stand up for us.
Yet, Asian people as a whole are expected to be nothing but happy when “progress” happens, like when a wildly-popular movie about Asian culture excludes dark-skinned Asian people entirely, or when a light-skinned, ironed-hair Filipina is finally plucked for Victoria’s Secret runways – two major Asian pop cultural narratives of the last year that shove people like me right back into those too-much, not-enough boxes.
But I think I’ve worked out a solution, y’all: Fuck that narrative, fuck that runway, and fuck those boxes.
My story was about begging to be included in narratives that don’t want me. I was trying to claim spaces that people don’t think are mine. And now, I’m coming to terms with the fact that while us dark-skinned Filipinxs and Asians didn’t ask to be living targets for violence and aggression and exclusion, we don’t have the choice to walk away – and the only alternative to being silenced is being strong. My life, and lives of other dark-skinned Filipinxs just trying to figure it the hell out, is in itself a working draft.
But instead of feeling like a walking billboard of All The Wrong Kinds of Asian and American, I get to decide that my mere brown-ass, big-haired-ass existence is activism in itself – a testament to how fucked up all of those stereotypes are. In the end, I know it’s a privilege to bushwhack through these stereotypes for all the Filipinxs that come after us so that they don’t have to live their lives in boxes or force themselves to settle for living in that neither-nor purgatory of hyphenation.
Dark-skinned, frizzy-haired, hyphenated Filipinxs and Asians have always been worthy of the space they take up. If the current narrative doesn’t want us, then we rip that narrative a new one.
So today, I’m writing a new draft – one for me, and one for the world.
If your broken image of a Filipina doesn’t look like me, too bad: I am Filipina.
If your narrow ignorance of the Asian diaspora doesn’t reflect me, that sucks: I am Asian.
If your definition of American doesn’t fit my immigrant-born, melanin-dipped, 3b/3c curl pattern with a big ol’ mouth self, then update your app, bitches: I am American.
I’m going to take up all the space I want, and world? You’re going to scootch the fuck over for people like me.
About The Author
By day, Berna Anat is an Annoying Millennial and the creator of a financial advice video series for young people called Felicia’s Wallet. By night, she’s… the exact same thing, because she saved up to quit her job in January 2018 and has been traveling the world debt-free ever since. Her portfolio includes work for Instagram, Seventeen, Glamour, Shape and The Huffington Post, which is hilarious considering she still talks herself though the bunny ear method every time she ties her shoes. You can follow her on the social media buttons below: