The false allure of cultural authenticity

Opinion by Ethan Chua
March 14, 2017, 12:23 a.m.

I grew up in the Philippines as part of a Chinese-Filipino community, an ethnic minority that constitutes about 2 percent of the national population. Growing up, I never thought all that much about my ethnicity – I always assumed that I was Filipino, even though I looked different from most people living in Metro Manila. But I also knew that my experience of being Filipino was unlike that of others. My parents and I would visit the Chinese cemetery in Binondo on All Souls’ Day, leaving candles and incense sticks at the foot of my grandmother’s grave. During family reunions, the Chua clan would book dozens of tables at the local dim sum restaurant, and I remember eagerly waiting for the Lazy Susan to reach my place at the table. English was my first language, and my Filipino accent was thick and stilted; I still have trouble conducting conversations in Filipino at home, stumbling over simple words.

But in 2015, after territorial disputes between the Philippines and China reached a high point, an acclaimed national writer called for Chinese-Filipinos to “either … recognize their loyalty to China then go to China, or integrate,” stating that the nation needed to “weed out the collaborators amongst us.” I realized then that, for many in my home, Chinese-Filipinos needed to prove themselves as loyal before they could be considered Filipino. It was as if I had failed an invisible test, administered before I was born, and now had to make up for the deficiency.

In light of recent politics, I’ve been thinking a lot about “authenticity” and how we often use it to exclude those unlike us. Similar to the stereotypes that are prevalent in the Philippines, idealized notions of American authenticity have been used historically to sideline those with political beliefs or cultural backgrounds outside of the mainstream. During the Second World War, in a blatant example of institutionalized racism, Executive Order 9066 authorized the mass incarceration of Japanese-Americans. And during the Cold War, the House Committee on Un-American Activities persecuted citizens who were alleged proponents of communism, fueling feelings of nativism and paranoia. In both these cases, the national government excluded minority communities from its definition of “American” – persons of color and persons with extreme political beliefs were marginalized by those in power, in pursuit of a mistaken conception of national purity.

And even notions of cultural authenticity surrounding minorities have been used to oppress and to exclude. In the 20th century, noted Californian anthropologists such as Alfred Kroeber declared many Native American communities “extinct” because they were supposedly divorced from the cultural and religious traditions of their people. Cruelly, the reason why so many Native American traditions had been lost was because of the missionization of these groups by the Spanish and the genocide later perpetrated by American colonizers. By creating a notion of Native purity, non-Native anthropologists robbed indigenous groups of their right to their identities, and the consequences reverberate today. Many Native American groups, including the Ohlone tribe (upon whose land Stanford campus is built), are still fighting to be federally recognized by the American government.

When questions such as “What is Filipino?” or “What is American?” or “What is Native American?” enter the national conversation, we ought to be careful when answers come too easily. When we draw clear lines between what is American and un-American, between what is authentic and what is inauthentic, we end up excluding people in service of ideas. We ignore the fact that notions of culture and nationality are vibrant, living things, continuously changing in an increasingly globalized world. We think we are proclaiming a love of nation, when in reality we are proclaiming a hatred for those unlike us, those who exist outside our carefully selected standards.


Contact Ethan Chua at ezlc327 ‘at’


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