An honest and deliberate attempt at self-reflection is sometimes all it takes for some obvious truths to slowly sink in. In my case, the discovery of the inherent ills of Western pop culture happened in batches; in interrupted bouts of conscious culture consumption in which I felt disillusioned seeing the way Hollywood films portrayed non-Western characters and cultures.
I say all this as if colonialism, tokenism, and cultural appropriation in media are my own discoveries, thoughts that no one has thought before, problematic tropes and clichés that everyone seemed to have missed and that only I was able to catch.
In which case, grunts of indignation as reactions are not only apt, but are most welcome, if only because there is something about this kind of smug knowingness that warrants them necessary. Incidentally, this tendency to monopolize difficult conversations, to assume a misplaced sense of sole authorship over a story that probably isn’t yours to tell in the first place is one of the things I felt uncomfortable seeing and reading about in Western media.
As problematic and as self-defeating as this may potentially sound, the image of a grown Chinese man being coddled by a taller, more physically imposing white woman in John Hughes’ Sixteen Candles was my first introduction to this idea of the West as condescending parents of the helpless, clueless East (See also: “little brown friends”–Howard Taft’s pet name for Filipinos at the time of American rule in the Philippines). It was pointed out by my professor in my globalization class who has said that the West’s patronizing behavior towards the East could be explained by the term Orientalism. The literary critic Edward Said describes the Orient as a European invention, “A place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories,” one that has “helped to define Europe as its contrasting image.”
A national secret
Some people call it paternalistic racism, but more recently, it is the term “Westjacking” that has made rounds on social media in light of the heavy discussion (and of course, criticism) surrounding Alex Tizon’s article My Family’s Slave. Westjacking happens when, according to the writer Marck Ronald Rimorin, “You displace me from my narrative. It’s when you homogenize my struggle with yours. It’s when I look myself in the mirror and you insist on being part of the frame. It’s when I examine my own complicated relationship with my culture…It’s when you somehow deny me the discomfort of closely and critically examining my life because you already have a framework and a template for it.”
As for the article, the only thing I can say about it is that it is many things. It is heartbreaking and horrifying, and I suppose I ought to admit, carries a sense of familiarity that only Filipinos can recognize–like a national secret no one wants to admit to being aware of. It is a beautiful piece of journalism that lends itself to serious self-reflection (and perhaps for Tizon, a final act of atonement), which, for many of us Filipinos means unearthing and facing some ugly truths about a culture that remains pervasive. Now all that has already been said.
Handfuls of opinion pieces, blog posts, and tweets in response to the article have been spewed and spat and subsequently subjected to more trails of criticism. Along with a lot of other people, I recognized all these outcries as naturally fitting for this landmine of a story Tizon has written. Of course people will react; of course people will say things–awful ones, dumb ones, smart ones–and turn to social media. We have seen it happen before. We see it happen almost every day. But there it was yet again, some Westerners berating us, telling us off, talking over us, and lecturing us about our own supposedly problematic culture–how dare the Tizons call her ‘Lola’? Didn’t they know that that was a ‘slave name’? As if calling her that was the extent of their error.
On context and nuance
Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that anyone can express their opinions on the matter. We can’t exclude anyone from the discussion, much less those who are well-meaning but are fundamentally ill-informed. Also, the article was released under an American publication, so of course Americans (and everyone else who reads The Atlantic) are going to want to talk about it. In a way, we probably had it coming.
But while everyone is welcome to join the discussion, are there not rules to consider? Whatever happened to understanding context, recognizing nuance, and knowing one’s place when taking part in such a culture-specific discourse?
Maybe talking about these things (and being fully welcomed in the discussion) presupposes a kind of affiliation with or a rare understanding of the afflicted that can only be derived by virtue of say, one’s ethnicity or nationality or the culture one grew up with. To which the argument of morality’s universality–or maybe the fact that basic human decency encompasses race–will surely be raised. And I don’t really know what to say to that.
But I suppose I should admit that even as a Filipino, I will never really be able to perfectly understand and empathize with Lola and the Tizons. Because while stories like this rings familiar to us, it is, ultimately, Tizon’s story. In the end, I can only speak for myself and my own experiences. His story and other existing accounts of suffering and convolution provided an occasion for us to re-examine our complicated relationship with our own culture, and in the process rethink our complicated relationship with the West.