I hear you. You thought I was listening when I got the good job–which I have–and married a good man–which I did–and raised my kids to be good kids–which they are (even though only one of them is technically still a kid). Those are all true, and you may not have told me to do those things in the exact words, but there were expectations. Expectations that I, as the eldest, was taught to uphold. Our Chicago cousins who speak Tagalog call me ate, a term of respect. With that respect comes responsibility–even if we are the side of the family who doesn’t speak Tagalog. The English speaking cousins. Some things we still carry with us.
Remember that time when a Filipino cousin was visiting New Orleans for an art show. You called at 9:00 p.m. on a school night so I packed up the kids and drove the ten minutes to your house to meet him and to listen to your stories about life in the Philippines. Because that’s what good Filipina daughters do. I listen.
As I continue to do the internal work that’s necessary to become the antiracist person and teacher I want to be, I realize I need to do more than listen. I need to hear. And I hear you.. Like many father-daughter pairs who don’t often see each other, our conversations revolve around the same two or three topics. Until recently, I would have said our two conversations are family and success which usually progress like this…
You: How’s the kids?
Me: Oh, they’re great. Candace is…Don wants to…Max was thinking about…Gabby went to…I talked to Jesse the other day…Erika is coming… [At this point we laugh and you tell me you never thought I would be the one to have so many kids.]
You: Oh, that’s great. They’re always doing something good…
Me: Dad, I’m considering a new opportunity. I’m going to be…
You: Well, baby, how much does it pay? [This is a sibling-funny, Dad. We laugh about how you sneak this question into almost every conversation. Our Chicago cousins and titas say this is very Filipino of you.]
You are a practical man, Dad. Always have been. You remind your four kids and eleven grandkids that you worked hard after joining the Navy and immigrating to the US. You worked your way up from being a welder to directing the engineers at your company. These are all family truths that we share and celebrate.
Recently, however, I came to a realization of other family truths as I listened to you talk. It began as most of our conversations begin. Family. Success. Then you said it. Words that stopped me mid-breath.
You stressed, You don’t even hear an accent do you? Not one little bit.
And you said it in the same tone that so many well-meaning friends (and frenemies) and colleagues have said some version of the same microaggression–part joke, part insult, part back-handed, warped compliment.
And there it was: I heard you as though I was hearing you for the first time. Yet, I know these were exact words you have said to us over and over through the years. You don’t even hear an accent do you? Not one little bit. I hear you, Dad.
You went on to explain that your co-workers are amazed to find out you were not born and raised in southeast Louisiana.
There is a reason tears now flow onto the kitchen table as I type. It was with these two sentences that I realized you carry what I have come to recognize is a language of active assimilation. My friend Tricia says, “You cannot disrupt if you do not understand how systems of oppression work. You cannot understand how systems of oppression work until you come to terms with how they have worked on you.” It never really occurred to me that the system was so openly at work at our kitchen table. Right now I am weighed down by it every day: the system is at work at our kitchen table and at kitchen tables across this country. And in carpools. And in classrooms. And in front of TVs where the highest elected official disparages people of color and women as easily as he brags.
This is the point where, when I was a teenager, you would have questioned me–What are you saying? Is it wrong to want what’s best for my kids?
That is the catch, isn’t it, Dad? So many of us assimilate to achieve the bounties we want for our children. To grab the golden ring of American success. We give up our ways of dress out of fear of looking out of place or our comfort foods out of fear of carrying a smell that offends or we give up our language and our accents to achieve some form of success, and in the process, we other ourselves. There’s a phrase for that, too, Dad. Internalized oppression.
Where am I going with this? I don’t know. It’s complicated. Identity has always been complicated for me. At this point in the letter, I am no longer sure I am even writing to you. After all, as the good ate, I likely won’t say these exact words to you. But, Dad, because I love you, because I listen to and hear so many other things you also say like leave the world a better place and know your worth…And because I want the best for my kids and their kids and the kids I cannot wait to get back to the classroom to teach, I just wanted you to know.
I hear you.