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some thoughts on the PH and the history of racism

I was planning on doing some more research and digging before sharing some of the stuff in this post, so please take some of the details as a ‘work in progress”. However, since this discussion does come up every now and again, I want to share what I”ve learned via digging into scientific racism and american policy.

Whenever the ‘debate” comes up about whether or not pilipinxs are ‘pacific islanders” or ‘asians,” most people vehemently say ‘asian.” And they aren”t wrong, as far as racial classification is concerned today. But there is actually, historically and scientifically, reasons why the racial classifications of pilipinxs appears to be so unstable, vague, and sometimes confusing.

Although one of the things I”ve been arguing, in general is that racial classifications are a lot more stable than people usually think. Obviously there are exceptions. And, tbh, the only truly stable races are Black and white. The others… have been a bit more changeable throughout the years.

My interest in the history of racial classification in the Philippines (PH) first started when I saw this graphic racial hierarchy during the spanish colonization:

this is a chart of the racial hierarchy in the PH during spanish colonization.

The thing that struck me was: why the fuck are Chinese ppl placed higher than, us, the ‘indians”? My curiousity about this history continued when I first read Johann Blumenbach”s 1795 classic and authoritative book on scientific racism. In it, he classifies pilipinxs as ‘malay”, which is a distinct race from ‘mongolian” (which was basically East Asian in today”s terms)1.

As I”ve been discovering, it appears that the real implications that race was a science seems to have lost its impact, since scientific racism only covertly and indirectly exerts its influence on contemporary racial relations and classifications. But. Yes. It was a science. This means that when Johann Blumenbach in 1795 decided that ‘malay” was a distinct, brown race this is exactly what people thought for a long time afterwards. A while back I coloured in a global map that represents his geographical delineations between races:

this is global map. the artic and east asia are coloured yellow, for mongolians. all of europe, north africa, the middle east, south asia, and a big chunk of central asia are white, for caucasian. the rest of the americas are red, for Indians. The rest of Africa is Black, for Africans. The malay peninsula and most other pacific islands (SE Asia and Oceania) are brown, for malay.

I”d like to draw your attention to the brown areas of the map, which is more or less the malay peninsula and all the pacific islands south and east (Indonesia, the Philippines, Oceania, New Zealand, etc).

You might be thinking “well, who cares what Blumenbach wrote in 1795, everyone knows that pilipinxs are asian”. Actually… not true. In about 1933, there was a US court case that ‘officially” designated us as Malayan and not mongolian/asian:

County officials cited the work of Aleš Hrdlička in arguing that Filipinos were indeed part of the “Mongolian race”. However, Justice T. Archbald, who wrote the opinion in the case, disagreed, stating that J. F. Blumenbach”s taxonomy, which classified “Malays” and “Mongolians” separately, was the dominant theory through the early 20th century. He also pointed out that the term “Mongolians” in popular opinion was meant principally to apply to the Chinese, in reaction to the late 19th-century influx of Chinese immigrants. The court thus concluded that Filipinos were members of the “Malay race” and not the “Mongoloid race”, finding Roldan and Rogers” marriage legal.

This is what I mean when I say that race was a science and that Blumenbach was one of the main authorities. His 1795 treatise was used by an American judge in 1933 to classify us as “malay” and not asian. The result of this case, for the curious, is that a week later they ammended the anti-miscegnation laws to include malays (thus rendering marriages between white people and filipinxs illegal). This was less than 100 years ago.

It wasn”t too long after that, from what I can determine, that pilipinxs became reclassified as ‘asian” in american ‘foreign” policy. Why does american foreign policy matter? Well. They were our colonizers at the time. And, it looks like the political motivation for this reclassification was that they wanted to deny pilipinxs – considered american ‘nationals” – the ability to become citizens and to restrict ‘immigration”. In this way, they made us distinct from their other colonies in the pacific (Hawaii, Guam, Samoa).

And the same racial hierarchy above shows what we were considered before the rise of scientific racism and in the earlier centuries of spanish colonization. For a long, long time we (and the other islands inclusive of Oceania) were the geographical region known as the ‘east indes”. For the PH specifically, we were part of the Spanish east indes (and we weren”t alone, btw). We were just the Indians in the East. In contrast with the ones in the West (ie, the Caribbean). In contrast with the American Indians. And in contrast with the other East Indians (the peoples actually in India). The spanish weren”t… very creative with race. Just a whole lot of indians.

But why does this matter? Well… again, it relates to why Chinese settlers in the PH were considered racially superior to us indians. At this time (and this is part of what feeds into Blumenbach”s classifications), East Asians (principally Chinese and Japanese ppl) were considered ‘civilized” in a way that no indian (not just in the PH) was.

This notion of ‘civilized” became entrenched in scientific racism because it created a notion that some races were incapable of being civilized according to white standards. So when Blumenbach was deciding that we were ‘scientifically” not mongolian, he made a far-reaching pronouncement that we were less civilized, less capable of becoming civilized, less intelligent, just LESS than East Asians.

In turn, when you look at american rhetoric about why they ‘needed” to colonize the PH, it was because we weren”t considered capable of self-governance because of our racial classification (around this time, nordicism was also making an impact so they didn”t really think that the spanish had done much to change our ability to become civilized). So the plan for the PH was that americans would civilize us so that we could become capable of self-governance.

Incidentally around the time the US first started pulling out, and wanting to limit ‘immigration”, we became capable of self-governance, of being civilized just around the time that we were reclassified as ‘asian”. A coincidence, I”m sure. Also interesting that the ‘east indes” basically vanished as all the other european colonizers started pulling away from south east asia. But many areas in Oceania are still colonies, territories, or somehow bound to a colonial power but are considered ‘Pacific Islanders” these days. This is one of the areas that I want to research more before I say much more. I”m just pointing out various things I”ve noticed during my research.

I”m going to finish up because I have to go somewhere soon. All I”m trying to do in this essay is show that the question “are filipinxs asian?” is actually a really complex one. It doesn”t matter if other asians see us as asian, btw, race was invented and is maintained by white ppl. It only matters what they think we are. And since they say we are asian, that”s what we are today. And that”s the only reason why we are ‘asian” at all.

In reality, we are neither ‘asian” nor ‘pilipinx” because this are things made up by white people.

So the real answer to “am i asian?” is ‘no.” Not bc I think I”m a pacific islander but because what i am is tagalog (well mestisa too). This question isn”t a matter of identity. It is about how white supremacy sees and identifies us and how it interacts with us.


  1. Interestingly, it isn"t even ambiguous in his treatise whether or not he is including pilipinxs in "malay”. He says in one of his footnotes that he saw one us on display in London (or something). And it was this experience, in part, that convinced him that we (and the other islanders) were a distinct race from Asians.