An intro to Colonial Mentality and its effects on the Filipino-/American community, in recognition and celebration of Filipino American History Month. We acknowledge that there are many terms to describe the community: Filipinx/a/o, and have chosen to use “Filipino” in this resource.
On her flight back home from visiting my auntie in Canada, my mom looked up from her plane ticket to find that she was sitting next to a man who she had an inkling was also Filipino. She was eager to talk to him. After a bit of small talk, my mom was able to casually sneak in the question: “Pilipino ka ba?” (Are you Filipino?). To her delight, she found out that he was actually from Ilocos, her and my dad’s home province in the Philippines. Naturally, she started speaking to him in Ilokano. What was odd was that even though he clearly understood what she was saying, he continued responding back to her in English. Thinking he would be more comfortable speaking in Filipino (the national language of the Philippines), she changed dialects. He continued to respond in English. Confused, my mom asked him how long he had been in the States. She wondered, “Maybe he’s been away for so long that he’d just forgotten how to speak the language?” To her surprise, he responded “6 years.” My mom, who had moved to the States when she was 16, had been living in the US for nearly 35 years. She admitted that she had lost some of the vocabularies, but that there was no way the man on the plane could have forgotten how to speak both languages. As she was retelling this story to me, I could see the recounted look of annoyance and disappointment on her face. She asked, “Did he think he was better than me because he was speaking in English?”
I think of this story often whenever I think of colonial mentality and its effects on the Filipino-/American community. First colonized by Spain for nearly 300 years from the 1560s to the 1890s, then Japan during World War II from 1941-1945, and then the US from 1898-1946, (in addition to the fact that the Philippines is an archipelago with each island and peoples having its own culture and identity), it is without saying that the Philippines’ culture and identity is difficult to grasp and define. (Let alone our history, which for the most part wasn’t recorded during the periods of colonization.) The uncertainties of what do and do not define our culture after having been colonized for so long have created colonial mentality, which has generated feelings of otherness and shame toward our identity and ultimately ourselves.
What is Colonial Mentality?
By definition, it is “a form of internalized oppression that conditions colonized people to believe that their ethnic or cultural identity is inferior to Western culture or whiteness. Therefore, they live their lives striving to be westernized and learning to hate their indigenous roots.”1 Another definition is that it “involves . . . uncritical rejection of anything Filipino and . . . uncritical preference for anything American” (David & Okazaki, 2006b, p.241).
Colonial Mentality in Filipino-/Americans
Filipinos were enticed to move to the States for greater opportunities— a good majority going to Hawai’i to work on the pineapple plantations and in California on the Delano grape farms. There were expectations that when folx moved from the Philippines to the States, that they would be guaranteed enough wealth to support themselves and their families in the Philippines.
In essence, my parents were raised with the pursuit of the American Dream in mind— that where they were was not enough. When they finally got here, they needed to assimilate to survive— to perfect their English, to give up dreams of school and/or pursuing careers that began in the Philippines, and quickly adapt to American customs. It is no wonder that they had lost a bit of themselves and their culture along the way. They were witnessing firsthand that being American was correct, and being Filipino was wrong.
Examples of Colonial Mentality
As a second-generation Filipino American, I experienced a trickle-down effect with colonial mentality. My 9 cousins and I were raised by my grandma who learned to speak English, and spoke it well. Aside from eating the Filipino food that she made, making fun of our parents’ accents, and reluctantly helping our families change the TV channel from Nickelodeon to ABS-CBN at exactly 12pm so that they could watch the popular game show “Wowowee”, we didn’t talk about or learn anything about our history or culture. Oftentimes, when one of us acted “too Filipino” we made fun of each other for it. “Whoa, you sound like your mom.”
“Ew, you said that with an accent.”
(Pointing to any Filipino dish): “You don’t have to eat that. My dad is ordering pizza.”
The feelings of shame were intensified at school and more feelings of “otherness” arose. In elementary school, we were shamed for bringing Filipino food or anything that wasn’t American. In high school, I remember having two separate “Asian” groups: the one I spent time with, and the other we referred to as “the FOBs” who we made fun of for speaking in Tagalog all the time— as though speaking in our native tongue was wrong and comical. High school was also the first time I heard my friends proudly call themselves “coconuts” and “bananas” where they were brown or yellow on the outside, but white on the inside— proudly proclaiming that they had achieved whiteness.
Other examples that stem from colonial mentality include:
- Being told not to stay out for too long “or else you’ll get dark”.
- Using skin-whitening products
- Pinching babies’ noses to make them appear sharper
Colonial Mentality and Mental Health
In addition to behaviors that perpetuate colonial mentality (ex: neighbor bathing kid in milk to achieve lighter complexion, not staying out in the sun, etc.), it is also important to address the insidious impacts of colonial mentality on our mental health. Surely, hearing constant messages about how being Filipino is bad or not good enough and striving to achieve unattainable whiteness will have an effect on how we may view ourselves in a negative light (e.g. self-doubt, low self-worth, self-esteem and low ethnic identity). Researchers on Filipino American psychology have also found a relationship between colonial mentality and depression (Nadal, 2011).
- Denigration of oneself (hating one’s own brown skin and/or “Filipino nose”, which could cause low self-esteem)
- Denigration of one’s culture (e.g. believing that Filipino food is not as good as American pizza, not using Filipino language because English is superior, denying Filipino identity or claiming pride in self as “mixed Filipino-Spanish/Chinese/Hawaiian” but not claiming Filipino when asked about ethnicity)
- Discrimination against those who are less acculturated (i.e. making fun of “FOBS” and/or judging those with thick Filipino accents as less intelligent)
- Tolerance and acceptance of contemporary oppression of one’s ethnic group: acceptance, forgiveness and appreciation of the colonizer because of feelings of indebtedness; therefore denying any negative impact of colonialism
- Hierarchy between Filipinos and Filipino-Americans/within groups based on how you look (more mestizo is better), education (American-educated vs Philippines-educated), religion (Catholic Christian vs Muslim Filipinos), language spoken, etc.
Decolonization and Healing Action Items (in no particular order)
Decolonization can be defined as “the process of humanizing the dehumanized by promoting positive mental health and identity for persons of colonized backgrounds” (Strobel, 2001). Here are some action items you can take toward healing in no particular order:
- Learning about the colonial history of Philippines
- Reflecting on how colonial mentality is present in your life and those around you, and becoming aware of how it impacts your mental health
- Having conversations with friends/family members about colonial mentality, collective strength, and resilience
- Storytelling: share your experience with someone you trust and feel safe with, maybe someone who may have had similar experiences growing up or in their day-to-day lives
- Cultivating hope, strength, resilience, and resistance (looking to our ancestors, leaning on spirituality, social support)
- If you have access, finding a culturally-responsive therapist who is willing to see and understand you as a whole and who you can talk to about your experiences of oppression, ethnic identity, etc.)
- Engaging in social action/activism towards decolonization
- Connecting with community: become involved in a Filipino org/club/community that you feel safe, comfortable, and connect with
- Practicing self-care in the process of healing. Find what works for you or things you enjoy.
- Being gentle with yourself and your healing. This is generations of colonialism/colonial mentality that you are trying to unlearn.
There is no wrong or right way to go around decolonization. But recognition and reflection are two of the first few steps we can take toward healing and reclaiming our identities. Here are a few questions to help get you started:
If you identify as Filipino-/American and/or believe you have experienced colonial mentality:
- What are your parents’ and/or grandparents’ stories? How do they reflect on their views, time, and journeys to the US?
- Growing up, what were some of the things that you faced that you believed stemmed from colonial mentality?
- Reflect on moments in which you felt shame about your background. Why did those feelings of shame emerge?
- What were you taught as good or bad?
- In your point of view, what does it mean to be Filipino-/American? What are Filipino-/American values, traditions, practices, and characteristics that you’re proud of?
If you believe you have not experienced colonial mentality:
- How can I support friends who may be healing and going through their journey in decolonization?
- Have I made the effort to listen to the stories of people of color and/or marginalized voices?
- Evaluate the quality and poverty of your friendships and your community. How can you offer and provide a space of inclusivity and belonging? (per Gabes Torres, IG: @gabestorres)
Decolonizing is reimagining something beyond the current world we live in. It’s challenging ourselves to dismantle what generations of colonial expansion and Western exceptionalism have taught us as “better, more beautiful, more refined, etc.” Derek Sivers, an American writer, mentioned in his book that “fish don’t know they’re in water.” We have been surrounded by this mentality. It’s no wonder that we haven’t realized why we think the way we think or act the way we act.
Remember, decolonizing takes a lot of conscious and constant effort to unlearn. And often, it’s easier to swim with the current than fight against it. In order to reframe our thinking and change our perspective, we first have to understand what we are decolonizing from.
When we challenge colonial mentality, we begin to accept and embrace ourselves for who we are. We start to put aside shame and celebrate where we’ve come from. It’s time to jump out of the water.
- Find a therapist who understands and celebrates your identity. A good place to start is Inclusive Therapists
- FilAm psychology related books:
- Brown Skin, White Minds by EJR David (talks A LOT about colonial mentality!)
- Filipino American Psychology Handbook of theory, research and clinical practice by Kevin Nadal
- Latinos of Asia by Anthony Ocampo
- General decolonizing related resources:
- Decolonizing Methodologies by Linda Tuhiwai Smith
- My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies by Resmaa Menakem
- Finding Our Way Podcast with Prentis Hemphill
- Other resources
- San Mateo County Filipino Mental Health Initiative
- Asian American Psychological Association Division on Filipino Americans
Special thank you to Paula Ong and Jess Hernandez (IG: @hernandezjess) for their time, support, ideas, and guidance with this project.