My dual experience as a half-Filipina, half-white woman

GRAPHIC BY LEO TAFOYA/GRAPHICS CENTER

“Mestiza,” the feminine version of the Spanish word “mestizo,” is used to describe a person of mixed descent that was commonly the result of the interracial relationships during Spanish colonization, according to Crystal Sipin in her article for Chopsticks Alley.

I am, by definition, an American mestiza. My father is fully white and my mother is fully Filipina, and both were born and raised in California. Despite my mother and her parents speaking fluent English, I still grew up hearing bits and pieces of Tagalog and picking up various elements of the culture. However, I spent the majority of my childhood in a predominantly white private Roman Catholic school in an affluent neighborhood. 

My mother, who is the daughter of two immigrants, had a more “traditional” Filipino-American upbringing than I did. She experienced the pressure to pursue a stable career path and spent a great deal of her youth working to assimilate into American culture. 

I spent most of my childhood around my white classmates, as Filipinos were a minority at my school. It is safe to assume that I had a very “Americanized” upbringing. Unlike my mother, I never had to experience the duality of traditional Filipino culture at home and the blend of cultures at school and work. 

Being upper class and mestiza has provided me with a great deal of privilege. I was born with European features, particularly light skin, and am white passing. Because of this, I benefit from colorism that is unfortunately rampant in the Philippines and many other Asian countries. In the Philippines, light skin is associated with beauty and high status, a lasting impact of colonization. According to the Channel News Asia (CNA) Insider documentary, “When The Desire To Be Fair-Skinned Can Be Deadly,” the global skin whitening industry was worth $8.3 billion in 2020. 

I was bullied for my last name “Roach” growing up because of its similarity to the word “cockroach,” but at the same time, most people immediately recognized it as a white name. Because of that, I am far less likely to experience discrimination than my mother, who has a common Filipino surname. In Marian Chia-Ming Liu’s Washington Post piece, “The Power of Reclaiming My Asian Name,” she cites a qualitative Columbia University study, which revealed prominent experiences of name-based microaggressions against South Asians. Many individuals felt discouraged from participating in work meetings and experienced depression due to the discrimination. 

The “model minority” myth is another struggle that accompanies being Filipino. Defined by Harvard Law School as an argument that “has often been used to refer to a minority group perceived as particularly successful,” this stereotype paints Asians as a monolithic group and pressures them to live up to the “American Dream.”

The Harvard article names Asian Americans as the group perceived to be “more successful” than other marginalized demographics, particularly the Black community.  The stereotype ignores the obstacles Black people and other marginalized groups face due to systemic racism, and pits minority groups against each other.

I am currently working to unlearn the messages of this myth that I have carried for most of my life. For instance, I greatly admire my maternal grandparents, who worked incredibly hard to achieve success upon immigrating to the United States. However, I feel that, for most of my life, I have taken this admiration to an extreme. I often put an overwhelming amount of pressure on myself to succeed in all aspects of my life. I tell myself that, if I do not strive for perfection, my grandparents’ sacrifices go to waste.

In her article for Refinery29, fellow half-Asian, half-white journalist Bethany Schoer speaks about the intense guilt she faced when she resigned from her once dream job. “I couldn’t help but feel like I was throwing away years of my own hard work, and perhaps most significantly, the hard work of relatives from generations past which had allowed me to succeed in the first instance,” Schoer said. 

A great deal of what I know about Filipino culture and history is due to my own conscious decision to delve deeper into it. This semester, I am taking First Semester Filipino with Professor Edith Borbon. I want to be able to communicate and connect with my mother’s side of the family on a much deeper level and converse with them in their mother tongue.

I would also recommend Professor Claudine del Rosario’s course “Philippine History: 1900 – Present,” which taught me about crucial elements of Filipino history, including pre-colonial culture, the Marcos regime, and the lasting impacts of Spanish and American colonialism.

From my Americanized upbringing to the pressures of the model minority myth, the mestiza and Filipino experience is incredibly complex. But this will not stop me from embracing my Filipino roots and educating myself on the language and culture — something I urge everyone of Filipino descent to do as well. 

To celebrate Filipino American History Month, students can check out “Pamayanan,” the final event celebrating the month hosted by USF’s Philippine-American club, Kasamahan on Saturday. Head to Kasamahan’s Instagram @kasamahanusf for more details. 

One thought on “My dual experience as a half-Filipina, half-white woman

  1. Such feeling and relatable to those of us growing up in similar times. I , being half Native and half Italian, I looked very Native. School kids did not know what to think so bullying comes in. Especially if you mova lot and start over. Once in a grocery store a lady asked my mom if she could touch my skin. I’ve been reading that people in parts of countries are bathing in bleaching, are you bleaching? They know it’s dangerous but want to be beautiful with light skin. Awful, find their beauty within!

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