On racism

I am Filipino, and I am a woman.

For me, and many others, we cannot divorce from our identities the color of our skin or our hair, the shape of our noses, how tall or short we stand, and the inflections in the way we speak. Many of us are defined by where we were born and by the circumstances of our parents and our communities. For most, these details determine the paths our lives take—sometimes for better, sometimes otherwise.

Many of us have been on the receiving end of racism of some sort.

I was a child growing up in Saudi Arabia, and a Middle Eastern neighbor in our apartment building knocked on our door one night. He knew we were Filipino, and he wanted my dad to fix his TV. He assumed my father was an electrician of some sort, but my father worked in marketing.

I was a young woman traveling in the United States, and countless white men said to me, “Wow, you speak really good English!”

I was a speaker at a regional workshop, and a South Asian man told me, ‘Your skirt is so short.” I retorted, “Oh this is actually pretty long!”

While I have not suffered anything like the violence and racism that we see so often in the news, I and many others have suffered it in a thousand little ways.

Men and women are attacked in different ways, but we are attacked nonetheless. Regardless of how, or when, or how often—we suffer, we hurt, and these hurts damage us beyond our bodies and our jobs and our homes. These hurts can damage our hearts, and our futures.

That should stop.

I have always believed that if you see injustice, you must try to fight it. I have always believed that you must do things in a way and at a time that feels true and honest, urgent and necessary. This creed has carried me through many endeavors both personal and professional.

This is the belief system that took me to my work in reproductive health, that took me to the Pride march, that takes me through motherhood.

This belief in justice and honesty and necessary truths fills me with anguish over the violence and racism we are seeing all over the world today. It feels like the world is burning, and we must do something. Perhaps today it is a powerful statement. Perhaps tomorrow it is the wearing of a symbolic color. Perhaps next week, it could be a gesture as simple as a sincere embrace. Whatever it is, it must be done in the spirit of justice and honesty and urgency.

It is important to keep discussing and to keep finding ways to fight injustice, on personal, societal, and institutional levels. It is important to recognize the voices raised in anger and defiance, and to recognize that though our battles may look different, we all have a stake in this fight.

I think we all recognize that the way we say what we feel and what we believe carries as much weight as what we say. Rioting and looting, violence and conflict: these are statements within themselves that are as powerful and far-reaching as peaceful protest, as symbolic as rosaries on rifles, and as life-changing as vaccines and valedictory speeches.

We always ask that we be judged by our actions as well as our words, and this goes beyond the acts of service. We should look also at the actions we take towards individuals, the thousand little actions that in some way reflect the biases of the world. How do these actions affect each of us, and how can we act for the betterment of all? How do we ensure that there is diversity not just of color, language, and gender, but also thought, power, and action on different levels? How do we acknowledge and dismantle the complex issues we face in the systemic oppression of the people we try to help?

There is a years-old discussion of whether journalists can ever be truly objective in their coverage—especially of divisive, controversial, even highly personal issues. We argue that no, we cannot, because of the very fact that we cannot divorce our identities from the way we see the world and from the way the world treats us.

We need to keep engaging and reflecting so that we can find the right time and space to speak out—and to do so with action and compassion.

We cannot divorce from our identities the color of our skin or our hair. But we can demand that the world see our color and race, that the world listen to our accents and foreign languages, that the world celebrate these differences. We all want to work towards a world that is truly without borders. That is our duty: not just as humanitarians, but as human beings.

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Thank you, Africa Stewart, and John Boyega, for helping me find my words.

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