Decolonizing My Mind

Baltimore in 2020 | Photo by Rob Ferrell of Organizing Black

After thirty-something hours, I was completely tapped out when my family finally landed in Greensboro, North Carolina. But as we rode down the highway to make the last leg to our destination, my tired eyes were met with an American flag at the roadside–the largest I’d ever seen–consuming the night’s sky. My mind instantly activated. 

I became unsettled as I watched this huge flag envelope the stars, and as three more came into my view by the time we got out the car.  This moment was my first vivid memory of American patriotism in action; a concept that’s still so foreign to me as a Filipino native, British citizen, and U.S. permanent resident who has historically struggled with a real sense of belonging, much less national pride. 

My family’s relocation in 2014 also prompted me to look at race and otherness through a more critical lens. After six months of living in the U.S., I saw news channels become flooded with the story of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, a 25-year-old African American man who died from a sustained spinal injury while subjected to police recklessness. Media outlets emphasized the color of Gray’s skin in communicating his death, but at the time, I didn’t fully understand why.

Since then, I’ve learned that the case of Freddie Gray builds on a long history of oppressive systems against African Americans that preceded my family’s arrival. Police brutality is just one such example. 

Other known cases including George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and more have since ignited demonstrations denouncing police brutality and systemic racism worldwide. They’ve even happened in cities like Birmingham, England, a place that I affectionately called home for thirteen years. During that time, I can only recall one instance–the death of Mark Duggan in 2011–that sparked major protests comparable to the ones we’re seeing today.

As a young adult, it’s been important for me to unpack my identities as both a first-generation immigrant and third-culture kid. This desire intensified when I reached five years in the U.S. last October. PBS recently released Asian Americans, a simply-titled docuseries that attempts to encapsulate the complex history of Asian immigration to the U.S. I saw my own roots reflected in the stories of families coming from all corners of continental Asia. They too had their eyes set on the land of opportunity, hoping to one day manifest the American Dream. 

I realize with age that this promise is incredibly deceptive. Take Baltimore, Maryland, my home of nearly three years. In 2011, the average household income in Roland Park–where many of the city’s White and wealthy reside–was approximately 6.5 times greater than that in Upton/Druid Heights, a neighborhood with predominantly African American residents. A more recent study found that relative to their White counterparts, the unemployment rate is three times greater for African American households, and one-third also have zero net worth. In a place like Baltimore with 63 percent African American residents, such inequalities and inequities drastically hurt the city’s overall wellbeing. 

Narratives and realities like these make me question if I’ll ever say I’m proud to be American.

Portraits of José Rizal, Filipino national hero (May 2016)

Colonial mentality: a form of internalized oppression among Filipinos and Filipino Americans

Something that’s been central to my mental processing–and has certainly amplified during this time–is how the American Dream is essentially coded language for the desire to achieve the White standard. When we as Filipino immigrants say we want to live the American Dream, what we really mean is we want to be and live like a White person. 

The Philippines was subjected to Spanish colonialism for 333 years and American imperialism for another 47 beginning with the turn of the last century. In the past year, I learned of the term colonial mentality, a form of internalized oppression among native and diasporic Filipinos alike. Some indicators of colonial mentality include feelings of inferiority for being Filipino; the desire for European physical features such as a bridged nose and lighter skin; as well as discrimination of “fresh-off-the-boat” Filipinos among others. 

I see my younger self reflected in these findings. Growing up in the United Kingdom, I internalized deep shame around my own otherness: I actively avoided other Filipinos at school and rarely invited my White friends to my family home. I claimed I didn’t find Filipino guys attractive, although I’m the spitting image of my dad. Perhaps the only thing I accepted was my brown skin, but honestly, that was only because my White peers fake-tanned to make their complexion appear darker. 

Previously cited examples demonstrate how I subconsciously accepted westernized social norms and beauty standards in my youth. But as I think to the present moment, I can also see how colonial mentality underlies the way in which we seek to fulfill the American Dream. 

Fixated on this pursuit, we can embody an orientation toward individualism and personal gain, as though our achievements are truly our own. And like White people, we thus buy into the idea of having pulled ourselves up by the bootstraps. We’re just as bad as our colonizers in this sense: we perpetuate the model minority myth that continues to be used as a “racial wedge” between the Asian and African American community. If it weren’t for the turmoil and radical leadership of African American and indigenous peoples, we wouldn’t have the opportunity to live and thrive in the U.S. in the first place. 

The decolonization of our minds and anti-racism work go hand-in-hand. The latter necessitates the critical process of unpacking our colonized psyches and internalized beliefs. As nonblack people of color, Filipino Americans and diaspora can’t fully step into our roles as allies without radical self-exploration into how we’ve sought Whiteness at the expense of our own truth. In internalizing our oppression, we thus fail to take action against injustices that impact our African American peers, coworkers, and loved ones everyday. 

I still can’t vote because of my being a U.S. permanent resident, but that doesn’t mean I can’t effect social change. So for now, I’ll offer what I love and strive to practice daily in my own life: storytelling and deep self-reflection for societal transformation. I have faith that we can collectively bring forth the more just world we’re seeking–we just have to trust our experiences matter and speak up.