As I made my way to a national conference to do a workshop on Decolonization recently, I mentioned this to my 12-year old grandson and I asked him if he knew what this word means. To be free? he asked. Yes, I said, to be free from oppression.
When I embarked on doing my doctorate on the topic of decolonization two decades ago, a faculty member said that I can’t possibly do this project because she said there is no way to undo 500 years of history. She is referring to the colonial subjugation of the Philippines by Spain and the U.S.. She is referring to white love, a concept asserted by historian Vince Rafael, which means that the Filipino has fallen in love with the colonizer and so doesn’t see the epistemic and psychic violence of colonization.
I insisted that I wanted to do this project for my dissertation. For me it was a life or death decision. I didn’t ask that faculty to be on my committee.
Those on the receiving end of colonial projects in the modern era started a global decolonization movement after WW2. Countries formerly colonized by Europe declared independence. Postcolonial Studies emerged. So did Edward Said’s Orientalism. A body of knowledge was already available to me when I started looking at decolonization from a Filipina perspective and so I was ready to embark on this journey which was both personal and academic. For me, that divide has never existed.
The U.S. had one formal colony — the Philippines — and when President McKinley knelt and prayed to ask God what to do with the Philippines, he said that God told him to take the Philippines and give the people freedom and democracy. These people wouldn’t know what to do with themselves, he said, so we should be take them under the benevolent wing of the U.S. as the new master after the Spanish.
The psychic and epistemic violence of this colonial subjugation became the topic of my research and publications. It was liberating to be able to articulate my experience and to see and be moved by so many other folks who resonated with my experiences, thoughts, and feelings. There is now a slightly visible decolonization movement in our communities in the diaspora.
I started to teach in an Ethnic Studies department shortly after I finished my doctorate. I was teaching about white privilege many moons ago, before the term became popular. In those days it was bell hooks, Ruth Frankenberg, Gloria Anzaldua, Peggy McIntosh, Cornel West, Charles Mills and others who wrote about “whiteness as terror in the black imagination.”
In my personal life, as someone married to a white man, I had recurring dreams about divorce. I understood that these dreams meant that I also had to disinvest in whiteness even in the most intimate relationship of my life.
For both of us, the willingness to fight and argue about our understanding of white supremacy, gender and class privilege from our life experiences was what made our marriage dynamic and fecund. In hindsight, I see now how I went through the phases of grief as I processed my anger, sadness, and disillusionment as I began to take off my colonial jacket. Writing saved me in a way. That first essay I wrote about “On Becoming a Split Filipina Subject” came out in the UCLA Amerasia Journal and has circulated widely since.
I pushed him, too, to think about himself as a settler whose ancestors may have displaced native peoples when they became homesteaders in Montana. I asked him to trace his roots in Europe; what tribe did his ancestors belong to before they were displaced? Fortunately for him, his cousin has done genealogical research and he found out that they were ethnic Germans who were pushed out and ended up in Russia for two centuries.
In a very small town in Eastern Montana where he grew up, his parents were farmers who raised sugar beets, wheat, vegetables, chickens. They were self-sufficient and his mother made everything from scratch: butter, sausages, pickles, cheese. etc.
He said they were aware of the reservations nearby because they played basketball with the Indians. He talked of finding arrowheads everywhere. He talked of being out in the badlands; he often talked of his deep soul connection to the Big Sky and the Land. He often talked of regret that his parents decided to sell the Land to become nomads. He belongs to that generation who believed that leaving the Land to get educated and become a professional was the path to choose. Growing up white, straight, and male, he also internalized values that he knew deep in his soul were illusory: individualism, competition, hierarchies, domination, wealth as measure of worth. The contradictions of being soulfully attached to Land and Sky and being compelled to pursue the American dream cast its own shadow.
And I talked about growing up in the Philippines in a town half-way between rural/indigenous and urban/modern values and eventually being seduced by the American dream represented by the U.S. military bases where my father and then later my older sisters worked. I talked about the influence of Methodist missionaries, Peace Corps volunteers and how, now that I am decolonizing, I have become aware of the insidious and unconscious messages I was internalizing: our inferiority, our brownness, our need to be improved and corrected. Our need to be whitened. For a while I even bought whitening products for my face.
This is the pain we had to work through together:
His: a father whose spirit was crushed when they sold the farm and became nomads until they settled in a trailer home in the Arizona desert. A mother who became abusive and violent — which we came to understand through the lens of the trauma of displacement and dispossession from the original connection to the tribe and the Land. The long arm of Americanization which told settlers to stop speaking German or Russian, to unload their ethnic baggage and embrace White Anglo Saxon Protestant values — all have their psychic and epistemic violence…even though White Privilege would also serve as a temporary shelter and protection from that violence.
Mine: the pain of being late to this realization that I am colonized; the pain of peeling off these layers one by one, most of the time, in solitude. These layers include childhood sexual abuse, the mimicry of everything White, the denigration of indigenous peoples who lived near us in Pampanga, the sense of shame and inferiority and of non-belonging. I could mask all of this pain because my colonial education taught me how to hide and show only my valiant efforts at assimilating.
Together: Why are we still sleeping with each other then? Because one day he had an epiphany. He said that the work that I am doing is bigger than our marriage and he wanted to support me in doing this work. So I guess all the dialogues (and fights) over the political and ideological nature of my work was really the cauldron that cooked our 34-year marriage into something Larger.
I learned a lot from the French philosopher Luce Irigaray’s take on Love and its grounding in Buddhist values. But together and separately, we were both carving our spiritual paths that began to ground our married life — this something Larger, something beyond the two of us, beyond the usual take on marital romance, and beyond the expectations of longevity that is marked by humdrum and boredom but succored by the belief of maintaining traditional family values.
His: After he retired from a career as an earth scientist, he took up art and photography and then biking. He has always been a gardener and now he is also a suburban chicken whisperer. He learned how to cook and has dinner waiting for me on my work days. He wandered over to the Orthodox church, then to the Zen Center, then to the Center for Spiritual Living, then to the Self-Realization Fellowship. He became a serious meditator: one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening. This, I believe, created a calm in our home that friends always remarked about. This is the way he supports my work — to create the sacred container for it in our home.
Mine: As I was teaching, researching, publishing, speaking and traveling, I fell deeper in love with myself as a Filipina. One of my mentors said: One day, you will see that your colonized self is just a tiny sliver of your Real Self. Someday you will see your Largeness and your Beauty. So I wrote about this as Filipino core values: Kapwa/ the Self is in the Other, Loob/inner core of the self, Pakikiramdam/empathy, and Babaylan-inspiration/healer. I was drawn to poetry and to indigenous voices in literature. And I started to pull away from the left-brain, linear, rational orientation of academic work and began to embrace my own voice.
I started paying attention to the wisdom of my body. I took up qi gong and now my health care includes regular massages, acupuncture and herbal medicine. I also put my hands in the garden to gather herbs, harvest chard, kale, tomatoes, lemons and make bouquets from the lavender and sage. And I slowly made my way into the enchantment of dance and ritual making.
But what do these practices have to do with Whiteness?
All of these practices are outside the frame of Whiteness. Eschewing the usual stereotypes of liberal white hippies who are easily identified with these non-western and “alternative” practices, these practices require not just a change in habit or a change in approach to health. It is not something trendy. If you go down the path of Vedanta or Buddhism or Taoism or Shamanism…you go down the path of shifting everything that this culture of Whiteness has conditioned you to buy into.
No, I am not talking about the ubiquity of yoga studios, yoga clothing, yoga accessories. I am not talking about spiritual commodities that you can buy online. I am not talking about trekking to Asia or India or Latin America to find a shaman or a guru. I am talking about the difficult, arduous path of reflection, silence, solitude, of connecting all of the dots between earth, heaven and cosmos. I am talking about deliberately slowing down to tend to a hearth that is welcoming and nurturing to friends and neighbors. I am talking about cultivating a life that is small, simple, uncluttered, quiet. Stu Schlegel, an anthropologist friend who lived with the Teduray peoples in Mindanao a long time ago, says that, like the Teduray, we can create islands of sanity in a world gone mad. He said we can wake up everyday, like the Teduray, making sure that we do not give anyone a bad gall bladder.
So even as I am writing about decolonization and indigenization now, on the home front we continue to talk about how we should walk this talk. In asking myself what kind of Ancestor I would like to be, I try to follow Martin Prechtel’s recommendation that we build a “House of Origins” — that everything in our home should tell a story about our ancestors, the myths that live within us, the dreams and visions of Beauty that visit and enliven us — everything that will survive for seven generations down the road and will serve as treasure and sustenance for our descendants.
The work remains unfinished but at least we have began. The work is place-based, grounded in community, rooted in Spirit and nurtured by the Earth.