A white trans woman from Florida says she feels like a woman from the Philippines. This is the most basic description of Ja Du’s “transracial” experience, which was reported without any skepticism earlier this week by a Tampa television station.
The dateline “Florida” in a story seems to translate into “weird and crazy news again.” Once again, Florida does not disappoint. Sadly, the story of Ja Du is the latest in cartoon stereotypes that ridicules the real issues about race and gender faced by people who have always been people of color.
Ja Du says her feelings go beyond being just being a fan of the Filipino culture, and she started a Facebook page to discuss “transracial” identities. But responses to Ja Du’s viewpoints on people adopting a different racial identity been largely scornful from people of color.
The story evokes flashbacks to the drama of Rachel Dolezal, the faux black woman who for a time was was the head of Spokane’s NAACP. Dolezal’s life was a fantastic fabrication that was built on studying African American culture, adopting civil rights concerns and then dressing up a lie.
At least, there has been no apparent effort by Ja Du to physically change her skin color, so the appropriation so far has been mainly cultural. From the news coverage of Ja Du’s desired racial identity, she says that her transracial experience stems from sampling Filipino food at festivals and watching History Channel shows about the Philippines.
Even as a Filipino American myself, my initial reaction was to shrug off the news coverage as trivial. The muddled experience of someone in Florida doesn’t change the resentment and racial oppression that many Filipinos have experienced for nearly 500 years, since conflict began with Ferdinand Magellan.
If Ja Du really wants to become Filipina, then she could find herself ignored, forgotten or absorbed into noise. This is a very common and authentic Filipino experience — becoming ambiguously ethnic or forgotten as Asians.
On the other hand, Ja Du could find herself welcomed into the Filipino fold. Her education could start off easy. This could happen with a crowdfunding campaign to buy the Filipino Channel package on DirecTV for her. But let’s not stop there. She should probably go all in on the experience.
So, I’ll say to Ja Du, you should try to become the realest Filipina you can. Don’t just buy a vaguely southeast Asian vehicle (the term “tuk tuk” is more commonly used in Thailand), and don’t limit yourself to fried lumpia from a Filipino food truck. I say, try to live the life of a real Pinay and explore the struggle.
Perhaps Ja Du will discover that the Philippines is not a singular race group, or a unified ethnicity. The country has numerous regional differences in languages, customs, food and religions. I would love it if Ja Du bought a traditional tube skirt and then defend its true style origins by saying, “This is a malong made by the Maguindanao people of the southern Philippines, not some Michael Kors knockoff!”
Alternatively, Ja Du could travel into the northern Philippine mountains and seek out the famous Kalinga tattoo artist Whang Od. Ja Du could ask for the forehead tattoo pattern indicating fertility and coming of age. Getting body art would represent the current zeitgeist of claiming Filipino indigenous authenticity. And also, at least one thing on Ja Du’s skin can become Filipino.
Ja Du’s prior life as an American has also given her the knowledge to fit right into modern Filipino society. Speaking English is common among Filipinos — both professionals and labor workers. Due to American colonialism and subjugation of native traditions, the Philippines has one of the highest English proficiencies in Asia.
Once Ja Du gets into the Philippines, then she can plan on heading right back out into the world. Around 6,000 Filipinos leave the Philippines every single day. Most of them are women. Common destinations for Filipinas are Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates where they are often used as unskilled labor regardless of their education level. Let’s not forget how fortunate Ja Du may be — Saudi Arabia just gave women the right to drive!
Ja Du has also expressed a love for Filipino music. Music is an essential part of Filipino life and it goes beyond karaoke machines. Many Filipinos scrape a living from music. LGBTQ people are often marginalized into exaggerated roles in Filipino media, and receive little social support outside of entertainment in the predominantly conservative Roman Catholic nation. However, a duet with TV queen Vice Ganda could be a hit.
More likely, Ja Du may end up doing Beyonce covers below international poverty rates at a local bar or an international cruise ship. Chances of getting a job on a cruise ship are high when you’re a Filipino; nearly a third of all cruise workers are Filipinos. This is mostly because, again, low-paid English-speaking labor is desired and exploitable.
I really do hope retrospective news coverage is done on the experience of Ja Du. If you are reading this Ja Du, the opportunity of becoming an authentic Filipino woman can become more than skin deep. You can explore the systemic exploitation that is built into government policy, global industry demands, and continued colonial-influenced oppression. If no one can notice how millions of brown people have been oppressed for centuries, maybe people will notice the white person who chose to relinquish her privilege to find her true self as a Filipina at heart.