When Filipinos Became a “Race”:

The Trans-Pacific Spread of Anti-Black Racism That Hurts Us All

My mixed-raced son, then in a Vancouver Westside high school, came home one day and confided what a Taiwanese schoolmate said, “Filipinos are the Blacks of Asia.”

As a Filipino immigrant in Canada, I wondered about its roots and implications for Filipino identities and the social experiment of Canadian multiculturalism.

Filipino-Canadians celebrate Christmas in Victoria, B.C. Photo Credits: Jojo Santo.

This year’s Philippine Heritage Month of June in Canada, a year like no other, forced us to think about race as social construct. It prods us to think of Black-Filipino relations, our relations with Blackness and ties with Black Lives Matter.

This is also a good time to reflect on our relations with other immigrants from the East Asian Economic Tigers – Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore – whose citizens encountered Filipinos as domestic workers in their countries.

Photo by Mike Von on Unsplash

Let us examine how Filipinos became an exceptionality -- a unique “race” within Asia.

Many social and natural scientists agree that race is a social fiction, a social construction used to justify racist beliefs and practices.

Racism has been functional to capitalist economics and political institutions. Tied to gender, sex, and sexualities, racism serves empire building, (neo) colonialism and immigration policies.

As the Merriam-Webster Dictionary announced recent changes in its definition of racism, our understanding of the concept is still evolving.

How Filipinos became “a race” within North America and Asia began with the Trans-Pacific spread of anti-Black racism. This spillover hurts not only generations of Filipino immigrants to Canada and the diaspora in some 180 countries around the world. It also hurts Canadians. Racism and racialization hurt us all.

Four historical moments when Filipinos became a “race” have enduring legacies to Filipino identities in Multicultural Canada.

First was during the brutal Filipino-American War of 1899-1913. As the United States embarked on its imperial ambitions, its war with Spain led from conquest to occupation and became a war against Filipino revolutionaries in the national independence movement.

Historians call this a “race war,” the “bloodiest colonial war… ever fought by a white power in Asia” as “among the cruelest conflicts in the annals of Western imperialism” where dark-skinned Orientals were “killed in an orgy of racist slaughter.”

They estimate 400,000 soldiers to 1 million civilians to total of 3 million, about twenty percent of the entire population of the Islands. It was a genocide never put to trial.

White American soldiers, familiar with then-ongoing subjugation of Native Americans and lynching of Blacks, brought racist practices during Philippine pacification.

Bolstered by American colonial ideology and leadership that considered Filipinos a “barbarous race,” on the frontlines, white American soldiers called them “indians”, “niggers”, “negros,” “gugus” and “blacks,” words they also used towards their African-American counterparts.  

This racist war placed African-American soldiers in a difficult position when the US brought them to fight Filipinos. African-American soldiers felt “sorry for these people” and questioned their presence and the war’s true intent.

Many Black American soldiers deserted, cut short their service, and joined Filipinos fighting for independence. More than 1,000 African-American soldiers remained in the Philippines, married native women, and established professions and businesses during American occupation.

Support for Philippine independence among Blacks however was not universal.

Some African-American clergymen and writers swept in American Empire rhetoric, displayed “Black Men’s Burden.”

Some leaders took pride in Black soldiers fighting Filipinos as display of Black patriotism supporting early American imperialism.

Worried over immigrant labour competition, they saw fighting as “national patriots” could create an imperial order that would not only uplift Blacks but also bridge Black-White race relations.

Second, was during Filipinos’ racialized legal entanglements with anti-miscenegation laws. In the early 20th century, Filipino men endured reclassification as "Brown," “Yellow,” "Mongolian" or "Malay" under confusing and confused anti-miscegenation laws in the United States during the inter-war years.

As 97% of Filipinos immigrants were men, they befriended, dated and danced with white American and Mexican women. Sex, intimacy and marriage with “our white women” drew redlines that pushed police officers, judges, and legislators to action.

The period leading to the Great Depression was racially charged when unemployed white men competed against Filipinos who frequented dance halls to get white women’s attention. There were racial profiling on the streets, police raids of cramped apartments, and criminalization of Filipinos who dated or married white women. Intermarriages, considered illegal, lead to legal challenges, family break-ups and sometimes, violence.

Third was during the immigration of Filipinos as plantation workers in Hawaii and California and casual laborers on the Mainland. Known as the “Third Invasion” following Chinese and Japanese, Filipinos joined Japanese workers who started to unionize.

Filipinos became “another race” brought in to break incipient labour organizing, leading to solidarity among the Japanese and Filipinos in Hawaii, and Filipinos and Mexicans in California who experienced rights repression, deprivation and brutality on the fields.

Fourth, this plantation labour history connects with US, Canada and other labour-importing countries’ immigration policies. Since the 1970s, Filipino men worked in construction and professional jobs in the Middle East. By the 1980s, the overseas labour force became feminized, as more women went abroad to do nursing, domestic and other service work in Canada, Europe (notably Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom) and East Asia (notably Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan).

Filipinos’ globalized over-representation in low-wage service occupation, led to the “Blacks of Asia” racist epithet, reserved to Filipinos, but excludes Japanese and Chinese, despite their shared labour histories on plantations and casual service labour in the US.

That exclusive reference reeks of “postcolonial exceptionality.” It also diminishes the gravity of Black Slavery experience by comparing Filipinos’ over-representation in domestic-like work overseas brokered by the Philippines Developmentalist State.

It references Filipinos’ darker skin and the Philippines’ truncated industrial development in the 1970s, why it missed becoming a “newly industrializing country”  unlike the East Asian Tiger Economies, and economic crises that increased Filipino migration to 180 countries, including Canada.

Canadian immigration policies, coinciding with shortsighted Philippine national interests and Filipinos’ dream of a “better life abroad,” brought many Filipino temporary foreign workers and caregivers to Canada since the 1980s.

This explains the dominance of Filipino-Canadian health care aides in senior care homes where care aides do 67% of direct care work, an over-representation exposed during this pandemic.

Thus, researchers like me operate in a paradox. “Race” does not matter but still holds power over knowledge and policy.

"Race" categories could not account for human diversity and genetic differences that cut across racial lines, but race still holds social meaning for researchers and advocates. We want race-disaggregated data and race-based analysis during COVID-19 pandemic to track not just infection and mortality rates, but also exposure and pre-existing health and social-economic conditions of vulnerability.

“Race” and skin colors too hold power and meaning among Filipinos, now the third largest and fastest growing immigrant population in Canada.

From American popular culture and rich Filipinos, who pride themselves as Hispanic or Chinese mestizos, we have imbibed racist beliefs and practices.

We have learned to distance ourselves from Blackness.

Filipinx are among the world’s biggest consumers of skin whitening products. We say, “Mas maputi ako sa iyo,” (I am lighter than you), to slot ourselves and others in the skin-tone hierarchy. 

We reserve distinct words for “blackness” as insults – negro/a, negrito/a, itim (black), sunòg (burnt), uling (charcoal/soot), tutòng (burnt rice), kulot (curly hair), Ita/Aeta (Philippine Indigenous group). 

We reject Blackness, which White colonizers taught us to associate with dirty, ugly, sin, and hate.

Philippine Heritage Month makes us reflect on our ties with Black people and anti-Black racism.

Solidarity with Black Lives Matter and Indigenous Peoples struggles reminds  both our experience of racism and our own racism.

Both our indigenous roots and our treatment of Indigenous Peoples back home and in Canada.

Both our embrace and rejection of Blackness. Both our racialized visibility and “disturbing invisibility” and our agency to build our capacity to change this.   

Both our suffering and our resilience.

We need to confront our collective trauma as a people and as a nation.

We need to deal with our own Asian fragility on race, labour and cultural issues.

We need to break our collective amnesia, our “brown innocence,” and ignorance of our own history and common struggles.

We need healing as a nation and as a Filipino community in Canada.

We owe this not only to ourselves and the next generations, but to humanity.***