by Gabby Nicasio
My father is white and sometimes he thinks I am, too.
There are things I’d like to say to him. Questions I’d like to ask, that I would ask if he weren’t my dad. Did you never consider what life is like for your own daughter? Did you see the way they all looked at me? At our family? Did you hear the things they said? Did you not notice any of it, not notice that I inherited this skin, this scar, this 4-century legacy of subjugation by white nations, white people? Did it never occur to you that I am not you? That I couldn’t be like you if I tried, and that I would rather die than assimilate?
We were at the dinner table, my parents, my sister, a guest, and me. My dad asked if my sister had seen an email he’d forwarded, the schedule of an upcoming development conference. Their field, not mine. My sister mentioned that I might want to go. “Unless it’s all white people,” she added. “Mmmm,” I agreed. “What?” my dad sasked.
“Since she wants to hear about what’s going on in the country from Filipinos,” she clarified. “Not white people. Are there going to be white people?”
That’s when he called her racist.
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Sometimes I forget that my dad is white. We are my mother, my sister, my brother, and me, and then this one white guy. It’s easy to forget that he still lives steeped in whiteness, until a moment like that hits, and I find myself stammering, trying to explain what racism is and isn’t to my own father. For the sake of our dinner guest, also white, I bit down on the things I wanted to say. You’re my father. You’re a development worker—you don’t think there’s an inherent value to the native perspective over an outsider’s? And the things I would never have said, but that haunt me. The idea that he’s nearly 70 years old now; that he’s unlikely to change. That he’s thought this, had this inside him, for all of this time, and I never knew. On top of everything else I’ve come to realize about him, he bought into the patronizing, white supremacist rhetoric of the development sector, and I never knew.
Or, well. Of course I knew.
My father is a white man who went to Asia with the Peace Corps in the 1970s, and then made a career out of helping to “develop” it. When I was a young girl, I thought I’d enter into international development work too. It’s what my parents do, it’s the world I was raised in. When I was in college, I struggled to define myself by my own interests instead of my parents’. Still, I held my father’s jobs in development on a pedestal, as the thing I should be doing, the higher calling I was turning away from. Now, by the last few months of my 20s, I’ve come to actively resent the idea and the dominant narrative of “development”. Of developed nations, and undeveloped nations. As if the United States represented some sort of political, economic, and infrastructural endgame that all others should aspire to. As if we all need a Western, white-led nation to aspire to. As if we’d want one.
I’ve found, as well, that this sort of patronizing outlook is insidious. It works its way into how its believers view all sorts of things. The other day I was driving down a road in rural Cavite with my father. A shanty by the side of a road had a “Room for Rent” sign. He pointed it out with a chuckle—“How about rooming there?” he said. The joke, you see, was poverty.
It’s insidious. When I was a little kid, we packed up the family Tercel and drive to Mississippi in the summer. My father’s people were from Natchez, a town that still prospers on the profit of the opulent plantation houses it keeps lovingly preserved. I loved that town. I loved having Southern roots. I accepted that we came from slave owners. I called Yankees who went south “carpetbaggers”. I laughed when I heard that my dad’s childhood dog was named Robert E. Lee. I laughed when I heard that the family’s retired maid, Irene, has asked my dad why he had to go all the way to Asia to find a colored woman to marry. I didn’t consider that it wasn’t all that funny.
My frustration is with my father, and my frustration is with the part of myself that is a part of him. My frustration is with the part of myself that is white, the part that is American, that is the colonizer. I find it difficult—increasingly difficult—to name that I am part white. When you live as a visible person of color in the US, you are never allowed to forget that you are a person of color, that you are not white. I lived that way for a long time, and I’ll live that way again soon—I’m moving back this summer. When I live now as an American in the Philippines, I am keenly aware that I am not as Filipino here as I am in the US. Where I was visibly of color, I am visibly mestiza. It makes me want more. It makes me want to be as Filipino as I can be. My life from childhood to adulthood is a progression of wanting to assimilate into whiteness less and less. To uplift people of color more and more.
There has been nothing outrageous. He’s never called me a slur the way others have, he hasn’t told me he regrets my birth, or verbally derided by mother or my unmixed siblings for their race. There have just been these small violences. Infinitesimal betrayals. Lessons, maybe. Teaching me that whiteness, even surrounded by color, is a creeping, sinister thing. That white supremacy can act on the level of the personal, of the family. That you’re not always safe at home.
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Gabby Nicasio is a queer Filipino-American writer with a focus on QPOC narratives. At various times she’s hailed from Philadelphia, Kobe, Milwaukee, and Seattle. She currently lives and works in the Philippines.