As a child, I had no sense or understanding of my racial identity, and what this meant. I knew I was Filipino, by way of my mother and the Tagalog and Visayas-speaking ladies she’d keep for company. I knew that somehow, funnily, my mother and I were sometimes mistaken for a nanny and her employer’s child at the local Walmart. And I knew that I was born and raised Canadian; an identity I would carry with me through my various moves between Canada and Australia growing up. But race and identification were never on my mind; this may have been a privilege, to have my innocence and experiences of overt racism confined to what I observed through my mother.
I was raised privileged. In my Canadian hometown, I took up figure skating, went to school, and played in the snow when winter came around. Then, we moved to the airy Sydney that we all know. All I knew was the little life I had with Mum and Dad, the Filipina aunties and the relatives we saw around Christmas time.
One of the earliest memories I have of feeling ‘different’ due to my racial identity and family, was at the ice-skating rink, where my mum and siblings (who were still toddlers at the time) came by to speak to my father (my coach) and I briefly. Nothing out of the ordinary; just a chat. Afterwards, one of the girls I ice-skated with, who I had noticed was gawking at my entire family during the interaction, asked me, “Is that really your mum?”
“Yes,” I replied. “Of course?”
My feelings of fractured identity have only grown since then, and exponentially since leaving high school. During the HSC, my community was in the Blacktown LGA of Western Sydney, slightly on the edge of the Hills District, where I surrounded myself with what I’d call the ‘Good Catholic Asian Girl’ friend group. My friends, more often than not, were also Asian. One other girl also had an Asian mother and a white father. Never, throughout any of my high school experiences, do I recall my Asian-ness ever being a question or even anything anybody cared about. Most of my peers were multiculturally diverse as well; we were all immersed in the non-white cultural identity of kids with migrant backgrounds: Sikh kids, Filipino, Indian, and other Asian and non-white backgrounds. Our diversity was nothing to pay attention to… or perhaps we were just kids.
Flash cut to university. Higher education is another privilege, one I’m lucky to receive as I write this. But I’m not sure what happened; maybe it was the innocence of adolescence and ‘growing up’ that hid the active thought and criticism of my cultural identity from my consciousness — now I feel stuck there. I’m constantly contemplating the validity of my identity as a Person of Colour (PoC), and my authority to be such a leader, for an autonomous social and political group of People of Colour on campus.
The realisation that you don’t truly understand what you look like, is one that I’ve made slowly since my emergence in political spaces, including mostly in university student activism. The feeling of being stuck between two halves of a whole — a body that’s simultaneously an ‘other’ in mainstream Australian (and Canadian) monoculture, but perhaps also not ‘other’ enough for an identity and community that would naturally be my refuge. But the feeling of being two halves of a self — in which I was both and yet neither of — has grown to be a familiar feeling, and one that has only intensified since that day on the ice rink.
Is my identity, and its worth, contingent on how others view me? Will they see me as an ‘other’, a ‘not enough,’ or an ‘I don’t know?’ But that’s just it: who owns my identity, if not myself? How can I own something that isn’t mine to hold?
It feels like I’ve lost control over how others objectively perceive my appearance and the assumptions resulting from this. Is it assumed that I carry whiteness alone, with no other terms or conditions? Am I burdened to face the intergenerational trauma of colonialism and my family’s history alone? Have I become colonialism itself, personified?
Of course, there must be acknowledgement and understanding of the ways in which my proximities to whiteness are a privilege: my light skin, for example. My mixed white skin is capital in the Philippines and in traditional Filipino cultures, a derivative of the Spanish and American colonisation of the nation dating back to 1521. The idea that lighter skin is superior, for its class and colonial values, comes from this violent imperialism. The term mestizo in the Philippine historical context was used to describe individuals mixed with native Philippine and Spanish colonial ancestry and was a class status for those who were. Light-skinned Filipinos, including the mestizo, were also associated with the understanding that they (light-skinned Filipinos) were of upper-class status and therefore ‘higher' than the dark-skinned native Filipinos, the working class, who spent their labouring days under the hot tropical sun. This proximity to the coloniser, in this case, the Spanish ruling class, was an economic asset to have, ensuring high status and social mobility.
Indeed, these ideas still remain in Filipino culture: there is a reason why skin-whitening products are so rampant and why the light-skinned, usually bi-racial, winners of Miss Universe Philippines go on to represent the nation at the global beauty pageant, Miss Universe. The Miss Universe 2015 winner and representative of The Philippines, Filipino-German beauty queen Pia Wurtzbach comes to mind, as do famous Filipinas Liza Soberano (actress) and Catriona Gray (Miss Universe 2018).
Whiteness also serves as a tool still, for working-class Filipinas to access class mobility by way of marrying ‘foreigner’ men, therefore gaining access to migration to European, North American or Australian destinations, and the employment opportunities that come with this.
This reconciliation between myself and my identity is ongoing — and maybe it always will be. Should identity merely be described as blood quantum? Or should identity be a feeling; the complex mix of emotions, the passion, shame and love you hold? The groundedness you feel in the dirt and ocean and humid air; or the pride in my growth and journey... If identity isn’t this, then what is it?
I am reminded of something I heard a friend, also bi-racial, say about themselves: both, not half. The duality of wholeness; to balance opposites with compassion. In psychotherapy, I’ve learned, there is the practice of the ‘Wise Mind’: to hold both emotional and rational thought in a Venn diagram, the sliver of overlap highlights that there are multiple truths; two sides of a complete understanding.
Still, I remember that I grew up with my mum on the phone with friends, cousins, and relatives, speaking loudly in Tagalog and Visayas, as a familiar ambience; the pandesal and cassava cake as treats she’d try to make, or bring home after a quick stop at the local Filipino shop; parents’ wedding and my infant baby photos in the backdrop of my mum’s lush volcanic island home, with its deep green hues and family ties — and I remember, this is who I am.
And next to this, there is still room to equally balance my pride of having come from a family of activists; from my grandmother, an English migrant and artist, involved with the Australian Green Bans movement, co-founded the radical Darlinghurst Residents Action Group in 1973; to the uncle who was expelled from school for protesting the Vietnam War. This side is powerful, too: ambitious, proud, Grafton.
Perhaps, instead of being ‘other,’ or ‘either/or’, I am the balance of both, creating an equally valid whole.
And maybe the balance, too, is an identity I can hold.