This blog was published on Blavity.com on June 21, 2017.
I am half Filipino and currently on the trip of a lifetime, discovering my roots with the family of my mother on the island of Biri in the Philippines. I am sitting in bed at 3 a.m. writing because adjusting to the 14-hour time difference has been a struggle. It is Friday at 2 p.m. in Minnesota and Saturday morning here. Outside my window, I hear animals calling out to each other. Still, my mind wanders to one place. It is a place of hopelessness for the one side of me that has consumed my identity thus far. My heart is with the people I call mine – black people in America struggling for basic human rights. Currently, my people are grieving over the verdict of the officer (whose name will not be acknowledged in this blog) that killed Philando Castile as he sat in his parked car with his family to witness. I can’t help but question, “What kind of world do we live in when an officer can release six bullets into the body of an innocent man and maintain his freedom?” On the other hand, Philando did not get a biased jury, or any jury for that matter in deciding his fate during a traffic stop.
As I sit thousands of miles from the supposed land of the free, one thing offers a small glimpse of hope. Philando was loved. Even working in the kitchen of an elementary school, his kind heart created a legacy of love. Millions of people know the name of Philando Castile and honor his memory through protest, on t-shirts and various forms of media including movies and music. The officer involved will NEVER hold the same admiration.
I am in the Philippines, but I am still black. Yesterday, I was followed in a local supermarket before finally asking, “Are you following me?” in the same way my black grandmother would have exclaimed. I traveled with my neck roll and my smirk packed away in my carry on, reminded that I am still black even in the Philippines. Then, looking over at my cousins and hearing the forced English words of my pinoy grandmother, I realized that I am Filipino too.
Communicating with my Filipino family has been difficult. Most do not speak English and I certainly have not managed fluency in Tagalog. Our communication has relied heavily on body language, like an ongoing game of charades. Most of the time, a smile gets me through a majority of interactions. I don’t feel Filipino yet. In the same way, I don’t feel American either.
As black people, we rely on body language when we are unable to speak the language of white supremacy. A simple, non-threatening smile is often enough to survive the day. But what happens when it is not enough? What happens when my Filipino family returns my smile with a face of confusion and misunderstanding? How do I respond when my words are not sufficient for the conversation?
After being pulled over, Philando communicated his license to carry. His non-threatening, law abiding statement was misinterpreted and returned with gun fire. For black people, fear is frequently the response to our innate behavior. In the words of Brent Staples, “Where fear and weapons meet, there is always the possibility of death.” How do we transcend language barriers to survive? Do we assimilate to speak the language of power or do we maintain our own dialect and to remain true to our identity?
I have decided to do both. In order to be comfortable here in the homeland of my mother, I have to assimilate to their culture and language. In the same breath, I recognize my own influence as a foreigner. They stare at me in fascination. Oftentimes, I’ve felt the need to perform for them. They watch how I eat, how I talk, and how I carry myself. My own fear consumed me the first night and I was unable to satisfy their fascinations. I chose not to eat, not to talk, and to move only when no one was looking.
In the same way, mainstream media is fascinated by blackness. We are expected to perform, only being acknowledged by what we present on the surface. We are examined thoroughly by the way we talk, what we eat, and how we carry ourselves. Even the smallest of details in Philando’s speech and body language were examined in the court case to determine if his death was an acceptable murder. The world celebrates our art and culture through media, but is unable to celebrate the black body in the same way.
In the Philippines, I am valued on the surface. I am Shanell from America. Philando was, “Black male suspect.” Only after the shooting death of Philando Castile were we able to uncover the intimate details of his life. Who was he beyond, “Black male suspect” and victim of police misconduct? The one thing I am sure of is that Philando was loved and will continue to be loved by the people that understand his truth and the millions of black people that speak his language.
Sitting wide eyed in a dark room overseas, I am reminded to be the person people will say good things about. I aspire to leave a legacy of love like Philando. Accepting that we have no control over our own rights in a country whose campaign around the world is freedom, is a tough pill to swallow. However, I look forward to building community with my people back home to further navigate and work to change this broken system. In the meantime, I will continue to discover the side of my identity that I have overlooked.
I can only choose to learn from the life of Philando. If not, hopelessness for my people will remain my default response. I don’t want to give up. I will do my small part to remind others that his black life mattered even from overseas in a country that doesn’t understand the complexity of race in America.