The hostage crisis in the Philippines and Institutional Oppression

Workers on the march at the Pro Democracy rally on July 1

Hearing of the resulting backlash against Filipinas in Hong Kong following the hostage crisis made me feel hollow inside. It illustrates so many examples of the problems with the way we think today and the way we frame issues. I was speaking with my mom about the incident and she kept saying that “it only takes one person to ruin it for everyone” in reference to the gunman. This way of looking at it frustrates me so much because it completely divorces the incident from the roots of the problem and the systems of institutional oppression that are at work in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia.

The backlash towards Filipinas is not about one gunman. It’s about the racism and discriminatory opinions that Hong Kong people harbor towards them, emerging in full view for all to see. It is about the fact that “othering” Filipinas – regarding them as less than human – allows their employers to take advantage of them, often meting out abuse in a variety of forms and have no compunction about it. It is the use of unequal power dynamics to define a whole group based on the actions of one person, and feeling as though you have license to make those people suffer because of it. It made me sick inside to hear that a Hong Kong politician announced publicly that she fired her Filipina domestic helper due to the incident and was encouraging others to do the same.

While I have read a lot about it, my experience in Hong Kong illustrated to me first hand the concept of institutional oppression – the combination of culture, law and the manner in which society’s institutions uphold discriminatory practices against groups of people. So often we have no understanding of what institutional discrimination actually is. We make a big deal about blatant sexist, racist or homophobic incidents, patting ourselves on the back at a job well done for being so aware and progressive. Discrimination is regarded as existing within a vacuum – a series of events like blips on a radar screen rather than a continuum that permeates our daily lives and the way our society continues to be structured.

The rage in Hong Kong towards the Philippine people calls to mind an event closer to home right now – that of the Park 51 project near the World Trade Center site. In the same vein, people are using their power and privilege to assign a diverse group a series of negative characteristics. It deeply frustrates me that people can sit here with what seems like this need to make a group of people pay due to an event that was carried out by self-identified Muslims. If one continues to insist that Muslims were responsible for the terrorist attacks, then one must also insist that Christians assisted with and aided in carrying out the Rwandan genocide. Groups with the privilege and power to do so choose and shape their own identities, ie “true Christians” would never do that. By the same token, they do the same for groups with considerably less power. I’ll end with a quote from Sankaran Krishna regarding Orientalism and how defining the “other” is so essential to the shaping of one’s image:

A set of rules that ostensibly describes Iraqis is also inescapably an act of self-fashioning and the reproduction of the idea of the United States as a bastion of democracy, equality, trust, freedom, rationality and pragmatism.

June 1

July 1 - Indonesian Muslim Domestic Helpers

July 1