asian american panethnicity, filipinos and invisible identities at work; or how to shamelessly promote my spouse


One of the pleasures of being married to a brilliant scholar is finding her work cited in unexpected places. Just the other day, while I was flipping through some old Academy of Management Review articles (click here to see a draft), I saw a citation to Elizabeth Pisares’ dissertation on Filipino American culture and identity in an article by workplace researcher Judith A. Clair at the Boston College Department of Organization Studies in the Carroll School of Management.

So what’s the connection between Pisares’ dissertation on the Filipino house music scene of the 1990s and Clair’s research? Well, it’s this: workplace dynamics often revolve around “invisible identities” that people hide or that others refuse to see. For example, the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy discourages gays from being open about themselves.

Here’s the connection: my beloved Liz argues that filipino americans are an “invisible identity.” It’s not because you can’t see them. It’s because people consistenly categorize them as Chinese, Mexican or Black. [Don’t believe me? Go rent Strangers with Candy and watch episode 3-3, where Jerri and Orlando get into a fight because she insists on calling him Chinese, when he’s Filipino. Or ask any filipino how many times people thought they were Mexican or Chinese. My in-laws thought I was filipino for about 6 months; it really hurt to break the news to them.] Liz looks at visual representations of filipino musicians and the way people talk about them, and shows that filipino artists routinely switch ethnic categories, from chicago to black to asian and occasionally filipino. The result is that the public rarely identifies filipino as filipino. Artists are labled as something else.

There are a bunch of mechanisms behind the cognitive absence of filipinos in American culture: (a) as a hybrid group, filipinos have lots of physical features that are also shared by other groups, (b) they have Latino surnames, a legacy of Spanish colonialism, (c) they often adopt the cultural mannerisms of other groups, and (c) post-civil rights racial discourse has a place for “asian,” and the model for asian in that cognitive scheme is East Asian (Chinese or Japanese). Here is how Clair summarizes Liz’ work:

For example, Pisares (1999) notes that skin color, facial features, dress, and hair are used in combination with other factors such as preconceived notions of race, immediate context, a person’s name and accent, and his or her apparent social class or education to determine a person’s racial identity.

In other words, if you are a short brown dude with Asian facial features and you hang out with your Chicano friends in East LA fixing cars, then most Americans would not recognize you as filipino. They would guess that you are either Chicano or a very misplaced Chinese American. [Fact: the “Homies” line of Chicano themed dolls actually has a “pinoy” doll – the filipino dude who likes to hang out in the barrio!]
Now, as a sociologist, I find this work to be a very compelling and interesting analysis (and it’s not because I am married to Liz!). It shows how all cultural schemes for interpreting the social world have gaps and holes, which means that some groups have no public identity and you can slip between identities. But in the world of asian american studies, this sort of analysis makes people nervous; filipino americans are invisible, in part, because of the priviliged position of Chinese and Japanese as the models for the post-1965 “Asian” category. The analysis shows that there is an internal startification to asian america that a lot of folks find uncomfortable. Among filipino american specialists, however, the recent version of the argument (see chapter 12- click here) is getting some traction and people are starting to question the utility of the asian pan ethnicity concept.

Written by fabiorojas

September 8, 2006 at 6:49 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Wonderful post!

    Just wondering–as a sociologist, have you ever done or read about research regarding height and workplace dynamics. I’m asking because in general, asians are shorter than other races–and I myself being of smaller frame and shorter than average height, do feel a bit of misplacement (and perceive that they may treat me a bit differently because I am so small) at the workplace because most of my colleagues are so much taller.



    December 4, 2006 at 5:25 pm

  2. […] which Fabio shamelessly promotes his spouse Posted in Uncategorized by JV on June 10, 2010 Fabio discusses Liz’s theory of Filipino invisibility. (Liz and I co-published and edited a couple of books together; see “Books” in the […]


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