On Pocahontas, Cultural Subtleties and My Place on the Totem Pole

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I’ve been interested in the whole Redskins controversy. You know, the one about whether their name is offensive or not. And while I’m not sure as yet where I stand, the issue is familiar territory to me.

I am a Filipino. I am an Igorot. The word “Igorot” is the collective term used to refer to the highland tribes from six provinces in the Cordillera region.  Specifically, my father’s mother was from the Kankanaey tribe and my mother’s parents were Ibaloi.

Growing up, the fact that we were referred to as “native” or considered “indigenous” didn’t bother me. However, I did prefer to be identified by my tribal affiliation(s), mostly because it was what I knew best. I was proud of my cultural heritage. It felt a little like Pocahontas, with country music thrown in as background anthem.

 

This weekend, the hubby and I got into conversation with a lady who I could tell was Filipino. The hubby asked her if she was, indeed, from home. She said she was, but she grew up here. I said we were Filipinos too.

She looked at me, did a double-take, then said, “You’re very beautiful, you don’t look Filipino at all.” My smile faded. For a few seconds, I struggled with a response. But then the conversation moved on and I decided to let it go, because she was obviously a nice person, if a bit ignorant.

 

When it comes to insults, racial or cultural, I have learned to let things go when I feel like they come from a place of ignorance. It’s easier to forgive when there’s hope the person will eventually be educated on the finer things in life.

As an immigrant, holding on to this belief helps me to survive the rare, but definitely cringe-worthy occasions, when I encounter people who buy into stereotypes of labels I fall into.

Besides, I hardly think it’s fair to expect the majority to know everything about a minority. Seriously, it’s give-and-take. [Let’s all just drop the anger and assumptions and try to learn from each other.]

 

But, to be honest, nothing, and I mean nothing, sticks in my craw more than racial or cultural discrimination masked as something else.

Like condescension. It’s worse than blatant, downright dismissal.

At least then I know where I stand.

And I can fight back.

With condescension comes the implication you’re less than the other, because people are only ever condescending toward those they consider inferior. And when I take offense at it, I get accused of being too sensitive or reading something into nothing. The person definitely did not mean it that way, I need to lighten up. Condescension leaves the offending party a way out, while I stay up all hours of the night going through comebacks I should have thought of then.

Or overkill. Like, effusive compliments and the use of superlatives when describing a minority. There are sincere compliments, and then there are extravagant declarations made to try to convince others of an emotion so shallow it’s like it’s not even there.

And then there are those flowery assertions of friendship or relationship with a minority person.

It’s a lot like that joke about that guy who claimed he wasn’t racist because one of his best friends is Black.

Subtleties.

Why even point it out? And why the emphasis? Are we for show?

 

I was once introduced this way, “This is S’s wife. She’s an Igorot.” It was followed by a meaningful pause. I wonder if I would be friends with that person today if they had only said, “This is S’s wife. She’s a person.” And dropped the pause.

We’re all human beings, with unique layers.

As a rule, it pays to identify with what we share in common first, before attempting to peel away those layers.

And it never, ever, works to assume superiority over another, just because one thinks they belong higher up on the totem pole.

 

It’s a rainy Monday. I had planned on writing about something more cheerful. But sometimes there are words that demand they be said. And I just have to go with the flow.

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