In the wake of Miss USA Sarah Rose Summers’ insensitive remarks about her fellow Miss Universe contestants’ inability to speak English, the Internet is engaged in a hot debate about whether Miss USA is just another victim of false outrage or whether she deserves the backlash for her comments about Miss Vietnam H’Hen Nie and Miss Cambodia Rern Sinat.
In time, this story will die down and be replaced by another controversy—but it shouldn’t be. In the Philippines especially, where we openly link a person’s respectability to their ability to speak English, we need to call out this discriminatory behavior. Not only is it good manners to refrain from poking fun at fellow human beings who deviate from our perceived norm, but dismantling the erroneous superiority of English is a matter of justice, equality, and freedom. To hold Miss USA and others like her accountable for their prejudice is to humanize the non-western world, which has suffered brutal violence because it has deviated from the western colonizers’ norm.
The violent history of Filipinos’ relationship with the English language
The Philippines didn’t just learn English from watching movies and listening to songs. When the Americans took over as our colonizers after the Spanish left, we put up a formidable fight. Their solution was to torture us into submission. And not metaphorically, like how reading William Faulkner can be torture.
McMahon describes how military officials used English as a war strategy, to make Filipinos more agreeable to their presence.
Dead Stars, a book by literary critic Jennifer McMahon quotes American soldiers who witnessed and participated in the torture. I’ll spare you the details, but trust me. It was bad enough for us to stop fighting. And you know what they did once we were “pacified”? They built schools for the express purpose of teaching English. McMahon describes how military officials used English as a war strategy, to make Filipinos more agreeable to their presence.
...And it’s still going on!
Some of you might be thinking, That was a long time ago! And sure, I would love to not be angry at a bunch of American soldiers who are long gone. But the inferiority of Filipinos—our people, language, culture—in comparison to the oh-so-infallible Americans, is still such a present problem.
I realize the irony of me railing against this in an English-language article. But I didn’t get here unscathed.
When I was a child, my family moved from the Philippines to the United States. In my new school, I stuck out like a sore thumb. I knew English, but my Filipino accent was thick, I didn’t know American terminology, and I was obviously foreign. Because I deviated from their norm, my classmates harassed me. They couldn’t see me as one of them, and so they felt entitled to mocking my speech, pouring glue on my chair, shoving me into lockers, etc. And while kids can be cruel, this bullying foreign or non-native English speakers is not just a childhood annoyance. It affects individual people’s self-worth and day-to-day lives, and has a significant impact on societies—like ours—at large.
Yes, America’s widespread ethnocentrism is partly to blame. But the fact that, in the Philippines, Filipinos judging other Filipinos for being non-native English speakers, is an absurdity that only we can end.
English does not equal smarter, better, or more respectable
When I moved back to the Philippines as an adult, I had an issue with getting my social security sorted. I challenged the agent’s decision, explaining why I didn’t have certain forms, and I was finally able to get my SSS info. When I told a friend about this, he said, “Oh, it’s because they give in to people who speak English.” The thing is, I spoke with the agent in Tagalog, not English. Still, I was shocked at the assumption that I was only able to make a case because of the language I spoke, not the soundness of my reasoning. But as the years went on, I began to see why this assumption exists.
“Oh, it’s because they give in to people who speak English.”
As a direct result of our colonial history, large swathes of Philippine society have equated English skills with intelligence and articulateness, and so, respectability. This is a terribly incorrect way of seeing things, as—should go without saying—many, many non-English speakers are highly intelligent, articulate, and worthy of respect. And yet, English remains a form of currency in our social and professional realms. The more you have of it, the more doors open for you.
For instance, those who are educated in English, raised in an English-speaking community have access to more traditional job opportunities. This means they get to climb the corporate and social ladder with more ease than someone who doesn’t have the same background. Alternately, those without the currency are faced with more obstacles. If someone is not born to an English-speaking community, and does not go to an English-speaking school, they have less access to corporate jobs. Why? Is it really true that those who speak English are smarter and more professional? Of course not! But our culture has made the language a shorthand for ability. We need to recognize how ridiculous that is. And we need to confront the truth that this discrimination deepens the Philippines’ tragic divide between the have and have nots.
English remains a form of currency in our social and professional realms. The more you have of it, the more doors open for you.
Granted, the idea of keeping certain populations “in their place” may be comforting to those who are greedy for power, but is ultimately detrimental to the health and wholeness of our nation. Because when an extremely smart, talented, motivated person does not receive the support or opportunity she needs in order to make the world better—simply because her lack of English (and access to education and community) has shamed her into staying silent—we, who stand idly by as others denigrate her, are just screwing ourselves over.
It’s time to stop the mockery
It’s not enough to simply be quiet when someone speaks in a way that others deem funny or “cute”—as Miss USA condescendingly called it. We must call out these bullies for the damage they are causing.
English is not a neutral language, especially in the Philippines, where its violent history stretches back into the late-1800s. I’m not saying Filipinos should all give up speaking English. But we must give up amplifying its respectability at the cost of our Filipino brothers and sisters, our fellow human beings. In this world, and in this country, people suffer actual emotional, physical, and financial harm just because their mother tongue was colonized by another.
We must call out these bullies for the damage they are causing.
Let’s not succumb to what our colonizers have long wanted us to believe. They are not better than us. Their language is not better than ours. We deserve to be treated with the dignity that all human beings are entitled to. Let’s start by granting that dignity to each other, right here in the Philippines.
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