The “Invisible Minority”: Good For One, Bad For All?

It is telling that the most (and perhaps, only) recognizable Filipino names in the U.S. are those of “homegrown” talents— (champion boxer) Manny Pacquiao and (singer) Charice. There are approximately 3 million Filipino-Americans, making up 1% of the national population. This is more than enough to drive a microtrend. Yet, judging from the national news coverage and popular media (TV, books, radio), Fil-Ams might as well not exist, or more aptly, not matter.

Filipino-American Navy doctor Commander Connie Mariano, who served as White House doctor for nine years, and as the personal physician of former president Bill Clinton, speaks honestly about invisibility in her 2010 memoir, “White House Doctor: My Patients were Presidents”:

Stay out of the picture is what we are told on day one of our arrival at the White House. The commandment handed down from the White House Military Office is: Thou shalt be invisible. It was an easy edict for me to follow. Growing up as the Filipino daughter of a Navy steward, invisibility was embedded in my DNA.

(Emphasis mine.) Elsewhere, she elaborates:

As the child of a Navy steward, I knew my place— we were the military servant class. Whenever we would visit my father at the admiral’s headquarters, we would always enter through the kitchen.

She later recalls her first visit to the White House as a young girl. Her family entered, not through the front doors like the other tourists, but through the back doors to the kitchen (where her Uncle works). In her words, Navy stewards were “glorified houseboys.”

Navy steward? You know, those nice, smiling Filipino men who quietly serve you your meals, iron your laundry, and keep your house clean.

This leads us to the “obvious” facet of Filipino invisibility, the one that is tied to his or her sense of place in the social hierarchy. I will be the last person to underestimate the insidiousness of “colonial mentality.” But I also recognize that its effects are dramatically diminished with each generation, born and raised in America.

What troubles me more is the other, less-obvious, facet of Filipino invisibility— one that benefits the individual, just as it hurts the group. I would argue that, like the LGBT community*, Filipinos in America have succeeded in many fields, in no small part, because of the invisibility of their Filipino-ness (that is to say, their Other-ness).

Due to historical reasons, there is no overt signifier of Filipino-ness— not our names, sometimes, not even our faces. Who is to suspect that these recognizable names are Filipino-Americans? In sports, (Miami Heat head coach) Erik Spoelstra and (San Francisco Giants pitcher) Tim Lincecum; in the arts, (Grammy-award winning singer and composer) Bruno Mars and (McArthur award-winning playwright) Han Ong, just to name a few. I would venture to say that the only people who know that they are Filipinos are Filipinos too.

And then there is this that troubles me most: the deliberate denial of Filipino-ness, as in the case of Yale law professor and notorious “Tiger Mom” Amy Chua. I have more to say about this, which I will defer to a future post. (So stay tuned.)

In a truly post-racial, post-national world, every race will be invisible. But we are not yet there (far from it). In the world we live in today, for Filipino-Americans to be truly American, they must first be heard. And to be heard, they must first be seen.

Unfortunately, as long as invisibility helps more than it hurts, the cloaks will stay on. In other words, as long as the Philippines languishes as a nation, and the imbalance of (economic and political) power is not tipped (even ever so slightly), Filipino-Americans— as a group— will languish as well. The fates of Filipino-Americans and Filipinos “back home” are more intertwined than either of them realize. The sooner we embrace this truth, the better our chances are at creating a world in which invisibility cloaks hurt more than they help— a world in which one can truly be proud to be Filipino.


(*LGBT stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender people.)


I am eager to hear what you think— this page is open for your replies…