Reflecting on Brown Skin, White Minds

This is my commentary and reflection on E.J.R. David’s 2013 book Brown Skin, White Minds (Filipino -/ American Postcolonial Psychology).

I loved Disney’s happily ever after stories growing up. Like other kids, I especially loved the ones that related to me. My tan skin and long black hair drew me to courageous Pocahontas. She loved her family and the natural environment. I could see myself in Jasmine through my brown skin as well. Mulan and Princess and the Frog too. However, they never completely fit the mould.

Last year, Disney EMEA released ‘From Our Family To Yours’ – you can watch it here. Oh, what a feeling to see representation and familiarity on the big screen. I could see myself, my mum, and my lola’s (grandmother’s) experience authentically represented. To be frank, never did I think the Philippines would become worthy of a story through Disney. (Now, I realise this was my colonial mentality seeping through.) This feeling of representation of my experience, of the importance of my cultural experience, was also the same feeling I felt when reading Brown Skin, White Minds by E.J.R. David.

E.J.R. David has captured his life’s work and lived experience as a Filipino-American and postdoctoral psychology researcher to frame the impacts of colonialism on Filipinos in the Philippines and Filipinos in diaspora – diaspora means those who moved away from their homeland. He does this in a way that highlights the resilience and strength of the Filipino person. He is a leading researcher on colonial mentality and internalised oppression on ethnic minority communities.

From my experience as a Filipino person born in Australia, there are differences compared to my Filipino -/ Australian context. Despite this, it is incredible empowering to gain language and context for my FIlipino culture. I can only imagine that this is a common experience for my fellow Filipino kababayan living in diaspora. It is only a small yet foundational part of my decolonisation journey; in learning to love my Australian and Filipino culture equally.

Brown Skin, White Minds in Australia

We see internalised oppression time and time again in the experiences of Indigenous peoples across the world. Australia is unfortunately a prime example that demonstrates ongoing internalised oppression and systemic racism against First Nations peoples. The health gap, rates of incarceration and deaths in custody, the high rates of depression and suicide within the community are just a few of the impacts of centuries of colonialism that continue to impact First Nations Australians today.

E.J.R. David makes comparisons between the Filipino -/ American experience and the Native-American and African-American experiences in the book. I cannot help but think of colonial mentality deeply affecting our fellow First Nations peoples in Australia too. Within my short year of supporting First Nations youth in my psychological work, the impacts of internalised oppression were obvious and these cognitions couldn’t merely be addressed within the individualised therapeutic frameworks of psychology.

Why does it matter?

In this free society, perhaps we think we have the choice to reject our ancestry and culture. However, when you’re a person of colour in a neo-colonial society that is built on power, privilege, and oppression, I don’t think you can. Heck, from the moment we’re born, our identity shapes the way we are treated in society.

In light of recent events and the emergence of Back Lives Matter movements both overseas and in Australia, it matters now more than ever to re-claim our birthright to know our culture and ancestry equally.

If you’re interested in learning more on this topic, I suggest reading My Grandmother’s Hands by Resmaa Menakem as a starting point.

Let’s give solar light to the Philippines

For the month of April, I’m choosing to give solar light to families in the Philippines. Click here if you’d like to contribute.

Each day, we have so many things to be grateful for. The sun coming out, a delicious cup of coffee, not being in lockdown for another day. Sam and I have lived in the van for just a few weeks now and these privileges are becoming even more apparent to us. For one thing, we have the opportunity to travel around the beautiful unceded lands of Australia. Also, it’s not unlike us to be without power for a night – we rely on solar for electricity – yet we can bring out the gas oven and our solar lantern for a few hours before bed.

Now what if you lived in Catanduanes, Philippines? Or Agusan or Zambales? Perhaps, you’re still deeply affected by the 2020 typhoons which are an ever increasing occurrence in the Philippines. If you’re from a family who can afford it, perhaps you’ll purchase a kerosene lamp to last for the night. If you’re a family who can’t, then maybe you’ll just have to go without.

Whilst I’ve never personally visited these communities in the Philippines, I can speak for my experience of visiting Simulao which is within the Agusan del Sur province in the Philippines. My cousins and relatives are so precious and I miss them dearly. Here’s some photos from my last visit.

It’s not just about light…

In Australia, it’s a privilege to even be able to reflect on the environmental impacts of our day-to-day decisions. The United Nations (2019) wrote that the unprecedented impacts of climate change are disproportionately burdening developing countries. The Philippines is one of these countries – the unprecedented frequency of typhoons are just one of the measurable impacts.

The climate might feel like this insurmountable load on our shoulders when we tackle it one by one, but if we are to take one step at a time, our collective impact can change the world.

Let’s start by giving light to families in the Philippines.

Issa Barte is a visual artist and co-founder of For the Future. If you want to read more, her article on vice.com documents her recent visit to Catanduanes. Her pictures tell a thousand words.

My dance with gratitude

Purpose: To share my personal dance with gratitude and maybe inspire you to begin yours.

Given that this is a piece on gratitude, I’d firstly like to thank my parents for teaching me the importance of counting my blessings!

My personal dance with gratitude began when I learnt to thank God in daily prayer. Church played a big role in my Filipino diaspora upbringing. I come from a family of devout Methodist Christians on my mother’s side and Catholics on my father’s side. My spiritual practice developed through the power of music, prayer, teachings and meditation. When I was around 5 years old, my lola (grandmother) used to pray with me every night and taught me to count the things that I was thankful for. I’m no longer affiliated with a religious denomination but my family’s practice of gratitude and spirituality lives on within me.

Religion is a specific set of organised beliefs and practices, usually shared by a community or group. Spirituality is more of an individual practice and has to do with having a sense of peace and purpose. It also relates to the process of developing beliefs around the meaning of life and connection with others.

ReachOut.com

When I was 12, I remember visiting villages in the Philippines where my relatives lived. At my aunty’s house, I recall sitting on the toilet where there was no toilet seat or door separating the bathroom from the kitchen. At the time, I struggled with the shift of lifestyle – it was nothing like I’d ever experienced before – but later I’d realise it’d teach me to be thankful for my privileges. It’s been many years since then and I’ve gone back to visit so that my family can teach me about the countless blessings in a simple life.

My practice of gratitude deepened greatly through my journey into Eastern philosophy – namely Buddhism and Yoga. I first experienced Wat Pah Nanachat, a beautiful international forest monastery, through the wonderful Angelica Casado who took us to visit during the Australian-Thai Youth Ambassadors Program in 2017. Two years later, I got to stay there as a layperson. This meant that us laypeople lived as the monks did:

  • 3am: Wake up
  • 3:30am: Chanting and meditation
  • ~4:30-7am: Sweep the floors then prepare food in the kitchen
  • 8am: The meal (and only meal throughout the day)

Then, most of the day was reserved for meditation and personal practice. No tech, no music, no exercise. The idea was to allow us to be solely and completely with ourselves.

I had so much time to meditate and think. I believe that gratitude for the beautiful place, for the time, for the disciplined practice, presence of my beautiful friend Michelle, and the quietude kept me going through my time there. After a while, it was liberating to completely disconnect with the world and attempt to connect with my true nature.

Michelle and Maejoy at Wat Pah Nanachat (Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand, 2019)

Since then, I’ve developed a habit of pulling out my journal each morning to write down 3-5 things that I’m grateful for. Of course, I miss some days (or even weeks) but the most important part is that I always come back to this practice. This can be helpful on emotionally down days, however, it’s even more important on happier days. Why? Because building these habits across all moments will help us when it’s especially difficult to think of things to be grateful for.

This has trickled into other aspects of my life. For example, I am more appreciative of my loved ones, I am thankful at work which can at times be difficult, and it helped me to beautifully dance through my experience of grief and loss.

I plan to write more on gratitude in the next few weeks:

  1. The science of gratitude
  2. Gratitude through difficult times
  3. How can I start my gratitude practice today?

Thank you for allowing me to share my thoughts with you. Here are some links to relevant things:

  • Learn more about the importance of respecting spiritual and cultural identities (Australian context): Emerging Minds
  • Spirituality is commonly misunderstood. Read more here: ReachOut fact sheet
  • Wat Pah Nanachat: Website
  • Tara Brach on gratitude: Website

Dear future me

Dear future Maejoy,

If you are reading this, it’s December 12th, 2029 and you are 34 years old. Ah, the world must still be intact – that’s hopeful in this current era of climate anxiety. How are you feeling today? Do you still put yourself first above all others? Let me remind you how I, your past self, was feeling on this day. I am feeling completely relieved after submitting my Honours thesis. I am proud of my achievements this year and for pushing through despite all the unexpected adversity and challenges! I hope you remember what this felt like.

You’re receiving this letter from your 24-year-old self who has just finished studying Psychology (Honours) on the Mid-North Coast of NSW Australia. You’ve had a radical shift in perspective in the last year and you were so proud of how much you’ve grown. At times, you felt your university education didn’t give you enough in terms of non-Western psychology, so you went out to seek more knowledge about the world. I hope you’re still on that path of lifelong learning about yourself and everything beyond you.

You have just started training to become a Psychologist in a youth mental health organisation. Finally, the day is finally here! I wonder how much you have changed as a person throughout your work in mental health. You are completely excited about everything you will experience in life, everything you experience each day. In 2029, are you jaded? Hopefully, you turned towards other things that gave you energy before you let yourself get burnt out.

You love the little island of Siargao, Philippines. In this current moment, you felt it in your gut, your deepest intuition, that you would be back in Siargao to live there one day. It’s your home away from home where you connect with the Filipino and Western culture, speak both languages, and are welcomed wholeheartedly by the surfer-yogi culture there. It has connected you deeper into the practice of spirituality through surf, yoga, mantra meditation, nature, and knowing your roots. You saw yourself living in a humble surf shack by the beach in General Luna practicing yoga, catching waves, and holding mental space for others. You saw yourself empowering the Siargao community, especially the children, to be granted with greater opportunities in life. Did you end up doing it?

You still aren’t completely comfortable being your authentic self around others. You recognise the power you have to express yourself emotionally, yet you often hold back in hesitation that others may not be able to hold space for you. I hope that in 2029, you are channelling your inner power to connect with others and walk alongside them in the wonderful journey of life.

As of right now, you aren’t sure whether you want children but you are so deeply in love with their playfulness, creativity, and present nature in life. You love 13-year-old Alayne, 7-year-old Allysia, almost 1-year old Xavier, and your niece-to-be ever so much. It’s been a wonderful year of seeing them grow and you’ve felt blessed to be able to grow with them. At times, it feels like you don’t see them enough but you are consciously making the effort to see them more especially in the new year.

Maejoy, your dad passed away exactly four months ago from today. He was a beautiful, beautiful soul and to this day, you miss him deeply. Life hasn’t really been the same since he left this physical world, but he crosses your mind daily and you continue to embody the values of generosity, equanimity and peacefulness which he so kindly passed on to you. It’s now been 10 years since he passed away and I can imagine that the pain is still there, but each day, it gets easier and easier such that it has given you the strength to continue living your best life. Do you still see daddy’s qualities in yourself today?

Maejoy, you hold family so close to your heart. This is something mum and dad instilled within you at a young age and at this moment, are eternally grateful that they passed this on to you. Now family is not just towards those who are related by blood but also to the brothers and sisters who live alongside you in this wonderful path of life.

I wonder where you’re living today, Maejoy. You’re probably still practicing as a Psychologist because that has always been one of your greatest passions. Maybe you’re out there finally working overseas. Did you end up having a little stint in humanitarian work?

Maejoy, do you love yourself unconditionally? Are you honouring the things that are important in you? I know you wouldn’t want to live life any other way. I imagine the sacrifices you’ve made in life have been difficult, but they’ve all brought you to this very moment in your life and I am proud of you for putting yourself first.

With love,
Your past self

For you…

Thank you for holding space for me to share my deepest self with you. I encourage you to give yourself a moment today to write to your future self as well. You’ll thank yourself one day. Feel free to share it with me and others.

  • There are no rules with how to write to your future self. Express yourself in your truest form. But if you continue to struggle with this, here are some prompts: How are you in your current self? How do you see your ideal life 10 years from now? What are the most important things to you today? What do you hope is still important to you in 10 years?
  • Once you’ve written it, post it on http://www.futureme.org/ and they will email it to you in 3, 5 or 10 years. Let’s hope the internet doesn’t crash before then!
  • If you want to continue this journey of self-reflection, a local Psychologist may be able to help you with inner work. If this has been overwhelming for you, let me know.

A few concluding notes

I took out some sections that are deeply personal to me. For example, reflections on my relationships with loved ones, my relationship with intimacy, etc. In writing your letter, I encourage you not to hold back.

I am always open to connecting with others and hearing ideas on what you’d like me to write about. Contact me on maejoyobach@gmail.com

______________________________________

References:

Hwang, K. K. (2015). Morality ‘East’and ‘West’: cultural concerns. International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 806-810.

Hi, I’m Maejoy.

I am a yoga student and a budding psychologist based in Australia.

I strive to practice unconditional love and compassion each day. Meditation, journaling, music, and quality time with loved ones keep me grounded.

Currently, I’m completing a Bachelor of Psychology (Honours) where I am researching the effects of culture and religion on moral decision making (think Season 2 Episode 6 of The Good Place). When I’m not buried in the books, I’m interning at the Harbour Therapy Clinic, volunteering as a Telephone Crisis Supporter at a local service, and practice Ashtanga and Vinyasa yoga.

What will I write about?

  • What I’m reading and listening to
  • Journalling about my internship, Psychology Honours, yoga training experiences, and general psychology
  • Candid conversations with people who inspire me

Eventually, I hope to create and share mental health resources with you.

If there’s anything specific you’d like to read about, contact me: maejoyobach@gmail.com