OUT of the heated discourse about Alex Tizon’s article ‘My Family’s Slave’ that ran in The Atlantic some weeks ago, a spotlight shone on the issue of minority voices being drowned in the clamor of the majority.
Tizon’s article—part memoir, part confession, entirely emotionally wrenching and thought-provoking—ignited a firestorm on social media. Many non-Filipinos, particularly Americans, expressed their disgust and indignation over the Tizon family’s treatment of Eudocia Pulido over the decades she worked for their family.
Some Filipinos took umbrage at the negative comments, saying the Tizon story had been taken out of context and that it must be understood in relation to the present katulong culture that goes back to the pre-colonial slave culture.
This reminded me of writer Dean Francis Alfar’s Facebook musings on the topic just before the article was published. He was seeking to define and understand ‘cultural appropriation’ as against ‘cultural appreciation’ and how these related to his writing and the creation of art in general.
“I was still negotiating my position and learning,” he said, “when the Tizon story came out, generating more heaviness, thought, and self-reflection.” Then he came across an interesting concept by Marck Ronald Rimorim, who blogs at The Marocharim Experiment (marocharim.com).
Rimorim sees the conversation as having been hijacked by the West. “Westjacking,” he says, “is to take Western cultural norms, lenses, and other points of view and fit in the nuances in that [Western] frame of mind. [Westjacking] distorts the nuances…[so] the experience ceases to be about katulong, but [lumps] them all into a narrative that anonymizes the struggle, making them just categories of the louder and more documented ones experienced in the West.”
Rimorim expands: “Westjacking is when you displace me from my narrative. It’s when you homogenize my struggle with yours. It’s when I look myself in the mirror and you insist on being part of the frame.
“It’s when I examine my own complicated relationship with my culture, and you tell me my grandmother’s name is a ‘slave name.’ It’s when you add salt and all sorts of things in my halo-halo and make it a huge viral sensation among Instagram foodies. It’s when you insist that we weren’t colonized, and invalidate that history in one swoop.
“It’s when you tell me to turn over the entire box while I’m unpacking my life. It’s when you somehow deny me the discomfort of closely and critically examining my life because you already have a framework and a template for it; all I have to do is cram things in, and discard what does not belong.
“It is to deny me the quiet of reflecting and atoning and finding a solution to my crises because your voice is louder than mine. It’s when you would rather talk over my story than to listen to it, and call it a gift.”
The concept is similar to Edward Said’s Orientalism, which has now come to mean the West’s patronizing attitude toward Asian, African, and Middle Eastern cultures, seeing itself as superior. What I like about Rimorim’s Westjacking is that it accurately encompasses cultural appropriation.
To this I would add the nuance of ‘Westsplaining,’ where Westerners explore others’ cultures from the point of view of the other—which is really the Western POV of the Other POV—and explain it to them, bypassing their own self-explorations.
Here’s an example: Mona Simpson’s book My Hollywood (2010), which is told from the perspective of a wealthy and privileged white woman, Claire, and the nanny, Lola, a Filipina. (That name again.)
Claire is well imagined; Simpson could be talking about herself and the women of her class and socioeconomic background. It is when Simpson presumes to speak as Lola that the notes turn sour. The broken English she uses to approximate Filipino-English is inaccurate, and, coming from white privilege, smacks of racism.
In her acknowledgments, Simpson thanked two researchers who helped her dig up facts on “immigration and domestic work,” as well as two Fil-Americans who “vetted and tweaked the Tagalog idioms and Filipina-American phrasings until they rang true in both vernaculars.” The character of Lola, she says in an LA Times interview with Susan Salter Reynolds, was based in part on a friend’s babysitter.
Simpson, then, seems to not have employed a Filipina nanny herself nor even interacted with any of them. Her characterization of Lola, while praised by non-Filipino critics, looks to be based on research and is an imagining of the Filipina domestic helper experience through Western eyes. There is nothing authentic about that.
Going back to Alfar’s concerns on cultural appropriation versus cultural inspiration, we might argue that a writer or an artist may be inspired to write about anything and everything that comes across their radar. Art is, after all, freedom of expression.
But to set the record straight, we must tell our own stories, we must keep telling them—more memoirs like Tizon’s, more short stories like Alfar’s—until our voices rise loud enough to drown out the Westjacking and Westplaining.
We must say, this is our story. This is our truth. This is our gift to you.
Dr. Ortuoste is a California-based writer. Follow her on Facebook: Jenny Ortuoste, Twitter: @jennyortuoste, Instagram: @jensdecember, @artuoste