Not Stepping Far Enough


If you were to count the amount of times I spoke up in my law class, the number would be significantly smaller than the amount of times I had raised my hand that day our class discussed affirmative action. I go to a school where there is a very small group of minorities. As a result, these minorities tend to stick together, so there is not much exposure to other cultures other than the one you belong to. When any topic relating to race is brought up in a room of those who are not of color, I’ve noticed the hesitation in people’s voices, the fear of stepping too far. In class that day, it was obvious that people did not agree with affirmative action, but to speak against it would mean risking being perceived as racist. So they ran in circles, trying to identify alternatives to affirmative action.

The biggest misunderstanding about affirmative action is that people tend to think that it’s about giving minorities a bigger advantage—a more-qualified white person would be passed over in favor of the less-qualified minority. But that’s not at all true. The goal of affirmative action is to bring diversity, a compelling government interest, to the classrooms and the workplace. In Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1977), the Court cites Harvard’s admissions program in its opinion—

“A farm boy from Idaho can bring something to Harvard College that a Bostonian cannot offer. Similarly, a black student can usually bring something that a white person cannot offer. The quality of the educational experience of all the students in Harvard College depends in part on the differences in the background and outlook that students bring with them.”

The idea that affirmative action gives an unfair advantage to minorities has been crushed time and time again in the United States Supreme Court, so this hushed talk about affirmative action really reveals the underlying issue that people have with the program—not admitting that minorities are still at a disadvantage in education and in the workplace.

When my classmates spoke of affirmative action, they tiptoed around the issue. They came to the conclusion that in order to diversify both classrooms and the workplace, the government needed to tackle the issue of poverty. It was a legitimate point, I'll give them that. But the way they spoke about poverty was as if they were trying to not overstep any boundaries. They talked about minorities and poverty as if they were two different issues. However, it should be noted that they are intertwined.

That’s the problem—not stepping far enough and not admitting that there is a disproportion of minorities in our education system and the workplace. You literally did not even have to leave that classroom to see the lack of balance. There were four other minorities in the class of twenty students, only one of which actually spoke up with me. The blatant oversimplification of affirmative action and diversity was incredibly frightening to see, especially on a college campus.


Last September, Sy Stokes, a student at UCLA, spoke about the university’s glaringly small African American male population of 3.3% and how he felt isolated and uncomfortable until he found his own niche. Minorities tend to stick together because of their common background, a fact further explained by Kristina Rodulfo in her article, “All My Closest Friends Are Pilipino… Is This A Problem?”

There is a unique bond between two people who belong to the same ethnicity or gender, one that cannot be found anywhere else. However, when a college’s minority population is so small, the need for a community with a common background is even further exacerbated.

This is why minorities form and stay within their cliques. This is why minorities may have limited exposure to other cultures, ideas and viewpoints. And this is why a packed room with only a handful of minorities had trouble understanding exactly why we need affirmative action.

Photo credit: Feminspire

Experiencing the Asian Hierarchy Firsthand in a Korean Hagwon

A Korean Hagwon, in my experience, is a private English school for Korean students. My Hagwon, which I’ll refrain from naming, runs as an English pre-school and kindergarten in the morning where three to six year old students had English lessons from 9am to 3pm.

I spent the earlier part of this year teaching at a Hagwon. As a Fil-Am stepping into this radically different culture, I was eager to learn and be inspired from this new career path. I can honestly say I learned and was very inspired, but not at all in the frame I was expecting. I left after only four months.

My students and I at the Korean National History Museum when I was a teacher in Seoul.

Have you heard of the Asian Hierarchy? It was explained to me as a sort of racist Asian caste system where light-skinned Asians from growing Asian economies were ranked amongst the top and darker-skinned Asians were at the bottom. It was discussed in passing when I was in college among other Asian-Americans, and I laughed off. I sort of forgot about it until I landed in Korea and was confronted with it on my first day of school.

The night before, I was greeted by other foreign teachers who worked at the school. They were from all parts of the United States, as well as Canada. After helping me into my hotel room, one of them bluntly said to me:

“You don’t look like Jessica Alba.”

Confused, I responded:

“Yeah, Sorry….What?”

“The supervisors at the school said you look just like Jessica Alba.”

“Oh… yeah. I don’t look like Jessica Alba.”

“It’s funny how the supervisors view Caucasian faces. They didn’t even mention you were Asian.”

The next day my appearance was again addressed by a Filipina from Southern California. She pulled me aside and asked me:

”What are you?”

I am no stranger to this question so I knew exactly what she was talking about. I went to my auto-generated response of “I’m half-Filipino, part Mexican and White.”

“Yeah, I thought so. We have another Filipino at the school!”

She excitedly high-fived me. I smiled at having found an ally on my first day of school, until she added:

“Don’t tell the school, the parents don’t necessarily want Filipino teachers.”

She went on to explain to me that Filipinos in South Korea were ranked lower socially. Because of poverty and the cost of education in the Philippines, many Filipino immigrants in Korea turned to one of two professions: child care (nannying) or prostitution. Because of this, Filipino women were seen as second-class and unfit to teach the uber-rich students at my Hagwon. I immediately recalled the concept of Asian Hierarchy, but was horrified at seeing it in action. For fear of getting fired and just wanting them to like me, I kept my ethnicity under wraps. I knew this was not a safe space for me when one of my fellow white teachers from the United States threatened to tell my student’s parents that I was Filipino in order to get me fired. Korea was a hotbed for competitiveness and sometimes came out in really ugly ways. A week later, I booked my plane ticket back to California.

Culture vs. Identity

After leaving Korea, I’ve had time to reflect on this experience and while other things contributed to my leaving early, I couldn’t let this rest. My small taste at discrimination had me running home to my mommy. To me, it wasn’t worth it to risk my self-worth, sanity and pride by subjecting myself to a constant fear of being fired. It also wasn’t worth it to hide my family, heritage and in essence who I am. This was not my first encounter with a bully who chose my ethnicity as his or her weapon. But it was the first time that this bully had society on her side. A couple months later, I’ve been able to reflect and break down how this system of racial oppression still exists in South Korea, and Asia as a whole.

It’s easy to walk away from a bad experience in a foreign country and blame it on the culture for their backward uncivilized people and just embrace a Go America! Rah! Rah! Rah! attitude.  Not only is that lazy, but it’s largely incorrect and leaves room for bigotry. It has been used to rationalize imperialism and genocide in all parts of the world. So like a good liberal arts graduate, I put my experience in a global and historical perspective.

South Korean teenagers starts taking their scholastic aptitude tests for college entrance exams in the 5th grade.

Korea in Historical Context

In the 1950s, The United States was engaged in the Cold War. We hear a lot about how this impacted the people at home, but the only images from abroad are of children in crossfire with their clothes burning off. This did contribute to the unsuccessful wars in Vietnam and Korea, but what’s rarely depicted are the lasting effects of the war today.

After leaving Korea divided into two countries, the United States declared the war a win, but not without setting up various military bases in around in South Korea. The U.S military presence is still very prevalent in Seoul, with the United States Army Garrison Yongsan military base located in Itaewon, which is at the heart of the city. Not far up the road, you’ll see Hooker Hill with large window displays of Filipino and Korean women. Not long after U.S wartime presence in Seoul, you began seeing a widespread adaptation of Western culture. Adaptation and idolization to the point where today, Korean men and women alike get eye reconstruction, nose jobs, and skin bleaching to appear more white.

As the Korean economy sought to reconstruct, they searched for models for their education system, for they embody the fact that a good education leads to higher economic productivity and advancement. This is when the United States had already begun putting more pressure on scholastic aptitude tests and initially studies showed that they were a good motivation for growth (today that is not the case.) This influenced Koreas education model greatly, which resulted in increased school day length, more lessons, and a huge push for English aptitude financed by the Korean government. As a result, there was an increase in U.S presence in the form of U.S teachers and recent college grads -- they seek to obtain that magical living abroad experience, but with little background in education or Korean culture, and I was one of them.

As a result, the idealized American face is what has been sought after and thus gave birth to the Asian Hierarchy. Filipinos rank low on this because of our naturally dark skin, lack of a pointy nose, and seeming low economic rank. Capitalist and Western cultures have created a belief that appearance indicates status, therefore, appearing more wealthy or more white, in this sense, makes you more valuable. And in order to be more valuable, one has to be less valuable than you. This value system has created a hyper-competitive race to what Korean culture sees as perfection, therefore explaining why plastic surgery is quite common, as well as stress-related suicides. We see this trend occurring in other developed Asian countries as well, such as Singapore, Taiwan and Japan.

No, it is not right that I had to hide my identity in order to keep a job, nor that I was chased away because my ancestors are brown. However, I am glad that I had the privilege and agency to leave. My experience is only the tip of the iceberg; it is one of many, similar to those of other Filipinos living in South Korea. It isn’t just an isolated occurrence in another part of the world, but rather, a construct that has inadvertently been created and adapted from U.S. culture. It is an occurrence that I hope other Fil-Ams and Pilipinos can learn from.

Photo credit: Zimbo

Racism & Discrimination in the Fil Am Community

by Carlo Limbog, UniPro Community Building intern When we think about racism and discrimination towards Filipino Americans, we may fall into the trap of believing the situation isn't quite as bad as it may have been historically. But ask any Fil-Am and he or she will probably be able to rattle off at least a handful of times where he or she has felt marginalized or victimized because of his or her ethnicity and the fact that it still strongly exists today is a major concern. We, being strong & hardworking citizens that contribute a lot to our society, do not deserve to be undermined by the so called “majority.” The Filipino community has endured major discrimination ever since the first Filipino settlements at Saint Malo, Louisiana in 1763. The Naturalization Act of 1790, which granted the right of U.S. citizenship solely to “free white persons,” immediately alienated the first-ever “Fil-Ams.” Because of this, our very own people were treated poorly under the demeaning attitudes of the Americans. Despite our substantial representation within the United States, our population is still subjected to discrimination to this day. We are the second-largest Asian American population in the U.S. At a staggering four million individuals, yet we continue to face the daily “microaggressions” used by our fellow American citizens.

The term “microaggression” typically involves subtle insults and implications against specific minorities including us. We all have been exposed to different types of microaggressions at some point in our lives; some more than others. I can speak from my own personal experiences too. Growing up in a predominately white community, my family and I have always been told that “we spoke good English.” It was almost as if it were a shock to some people. In grade school, I was also put into ESL classes simply because my parents’ primary language at home was Tagalog even though I didn’t speak the language nor understand it.

Sure, we can all live by the cliché “sticks and stones” saying, but such racism still have a negative effect on our professional and political status in our society.

Being subjected to these microaggressions creates a sense of alterity, or “otherness” in our society. We’re creating a rank of distinct groups not in terms of numbers, but by power. By ignoring these subtleties, we’re enabling this behavior to continue on.  We need to pay more attention to these everyday occurrences and actually take a stand against the people who continue to speak negatively about us.

These microaggressions have, in addition, escalated into more blatant forms of racism. For example, in 2006, Filipina nurses Wilma Lamug and Elnora Cayme and the rest of the Filipino staff at the Delano Regional Medical Center were singled out for violating the hospital’s “English-only” policy by speaking Tagalog in the building. After being reprimanded, the situation only got worse for the Filipino workers. The rest of the staff ridiculed their Filipino colleagues by mimicking their accents and even ordering them to stop talking in all areas of the hospital, even in break rooms and hallways. Hospital management also threatened to monitor them with audio surveillance and suspension for those who were caught speaking Tagalog. The case was brought to court which resulted in a $975,000 settlement fee brought upon by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against the Delano Regional Hospital.

Another instance of blatant racism was an anonymous hate letter sent out earlier this year to Filipino families living in American Canyon, CA. The letter addressed to resident Maria Aida Ignacio Brandes targets the entire Filipino population calling the Filipino community “filthy” and “unwanted.” The letter continues to attack Brandes and her interracial relationship, stating that “we are attempting to have our community a law abiding one, without having yet another gang of Filipino scum such as yourself and married daughters who have attempted to assimilate into this once clean non-Filipino dominated area in American Canyon…” Brandes then reported the letter to the authorities who went under investigation to determine whether or not it violates hate crime codes.

Serious offenses like these should inspire Filipino Americans to take action when their rights are being violated no matter how big or small. Just because the majority population may alienate us as a typical minority, does not mean we have to fulfill that role in our society. With our strength in numbers and strong political voice, we need to work together as a striving community to continue fighting against discrimination. We earned our right as Americans just like any other individual who has worked hard to make a living in this country. By no means do we deserve to be subjected to any form of racism or hate in our own country.