In 2000, I didn’t know I was trying to pass as a white man. I didn’t realize that my internalized racism and sexism was the result of intergenerational trauma. Generations of colonization coupled with the effects of several wars created a mind-set in my family that to survive, a person had to emulate their oppressors, to become so good at the rules of their game, you avoid as much prejudice and oppression as possible. In college I took science classes even though I was a good writer and social critic. I tried to become a physicist, then a math teacher, and finally dropped out of school out of a sense of failure. I believed I was not smart enough and too lazy to succeed. I didn’t realize that I was better suited to another kind of life.
By the year 2000, I had returned to college to learn to be a writer and in the process of fulfilling the requirements, found myself TA’ing a comparative literatures course. The instructor, Rosanne Kanhai, pushed her students to see beyond their privilege and open their minds to the possibility that the way they perceived the world wasn’t the way the world actually worked. Using texts from cultures different from the Western mainstream, she taught the rudiments of decolonialist thought, how to perceive the institutionalized oppression and misogyny inherent in many modern systems of government and social protocols. We read texts from India, the Caribbean, and Native America. We watched movies and applied critical and social theories to what we read and experienced. The class opened my mind even as it taught me how to approach texts from a decolonialist point of view.
And still, I did not see myself as a product of colonialism. I still saw myself as just another American student who had a strange interest in literature and writing. The “Othering” that the Mainstream performed was directed at people I didn’t know and didn’t feel a connection with. I could not see myself as “Othering” my experience as a Filipino American born in the US just before Martial Law.
My mentor must have sensed this lack of awareness and decided to help me along by inviting me to attend a Woman of Color conference in Vancouver, BC with her. I was hesitant to leave my three-year-old daughter and my husband for the weekend, but the idea of attending resonated with me. In retrospect, I believe it was the breath of the Babaylan that stirred me to accept Kanhai’s invitation. Still, I approached the trip like an outsider, as someone going to “see what those women of color do at conferences.” My skin color and gender were happenstance. I was attending out of a sense of loyalty to my mentor, a woman of Caribbean descent, a woman with obviously more connection to the conference than I had.
At the conference I had the same sensation of being overwhelmed by people too much like me all around. When I lived briefly in Hawaii, I found it disorienting to be surrounded by so many people of color. I was more comfortable being around people of European descent. I grew up in nearly all-white neighborhoods and schools. I saw myself as white culturally – I only speak English and at the time, approached my own heritage as something foreign. The Philippines was my parent’s home, not mine. The Tagalog and Ilocano foods, dances, and songs were my parent’s cultural ties, not mine. I was as uncomfortable at the conference as I remembered feeling as a child at Filipino cultural events I felt forced to attend with my parents. At one point in the conference, I found myself in the restroom with several Filipinas who recognized me at once and asked me in Tagalog to confirm my ethnicity. I mumbled that I didn’t speak Tagalog, but yes, I was Filipino. Their pitying looks triggered years of feeling outside my culture due to my lack of Tagalog.
On my way back to the hotel after the first day, however, I began to realize that perhaps I had been looking at the conference participants in the same objectifying way that they, and I, were trying to combat. From Kanhai’s class and my other graduate classes, I understood the ways in which the mainstream codifies and dismisses minorities in order to maintain control over them as subjects. I knew the affects of the male objectifying gaze, yet here I was, acting like the observer, the objective outsider when in fact I was a member of the “Other.” I sat in the car as my brain ticked off the traits of the oppressor in my head – I dismissed myself and my abilities based on terms and standards that inadequately apply to women of color. I faulted my immigrant heritage for my lack of financial and academic success. I hid my desire to communicate through speculative fiction with a veil of academic acceptability and competency with Western literature. I sat in the backseat of Kanhai’s car dumbfounded by my complicity of my own oppression.
The 2000 conference was the first step in my journey to wholeness that recently took a deeper turn at the 2013 International Babaylan Conference in California. As any first responder will tell you, it takes more than one breath to bring a person out of crisis. It takes many breaths, but the first creates a change that, in my case, lead me down a path I never thought possible.