Saturday, August 11, 2007

Books for the Barrios has taken a full-page ad in Filipinas Magazine this month so I am reminded again of the long-running discussion in the pagbabalikloob listserve about this project: a Project of the Heart or Cultural Imperialism? -- which is now the title of an MA thesis by Laura Wyant, a student at the University of Denver, that was forwarded to me -- critiquing BftB as a project of cultural imperialism.

Excerpt from the thesis' Analysis:

The discourse of BftB introduces the audience to the needy Filipino who did not know he was needy before he was introduced to the discourse. In this discourse Filipinos (non-Westerners) are positioned as helpless dependents in need of charitable support. The Filipino children in the BftB images are taught to personify this subject position by the discourse. As Mendoza (2005) explains, “I’m not sure that Philippine barrios, on their own, would have known necessarily to “beg” for US discards but that it’s more likely they’ve been taught/conditioned (historically) and effectively turned into beggars by those who claim to know what’s good for them.” This is precisely how Filipinos are coerced into believing that they need the charity of their benefactors in the West.

What gives BftB the right to call these children poor and disadvantaged? A person’s view of their status or position in life is relative to their own personal experiences. Whether a person is “poor” or “rich” doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with their economic status. BftB has no way of knowing about any of the wonderful gifts in the lives of these children that are beyond the measure of the United States dollar. As Strobel points out, “a child who hasn’t held a book yet has held a flower, basked in the sun, beheld the stars in awe, has held her mother’s hand and felt love. She doesn’t feel she is lacking in anything. …” (2007). Nevertheless BftB forces Filipinos to occupy the subject position of a poor, disadvantaged, charity case.

Donors subject themselves to the discourse in order to move into the ideal subject position from which to understand the knowledge produced by the discourse. In doing so the audience becomes the perfect “spectator-subject” (Hall, 1997, p. 60). The spectator-subject is the subject position closest to the source from which the knowledge flows and the myth is perpetuated. In the discourse of BftB, Western donors occupy the spectator-subject position of generous global citizens “helping” the people of the Philippines.

As nothing is outside of the discourse, naturally the Harringtons are subjected to the discourse as well. Regardless of their intent, the message of the discourse is delivered loud and clear through the workings of BftB. As Hall reminds us, “[i]t is discourse, not the subjects who speak it, which produces knowledge” (p.55). Thus even though the Harringtons, through BftB, are the vehicle through which the knowledge travels it is the discourse that produces the knowledge. The Harringtons “cannot stand outside power/knowledge as its source and author” (Hall, 1997, p.55), they can only serve as the medium through which the knowledge flows.


Leny Strobel questions the philosophy of giving Filipino children “junk books” and the discarded materials of American children. In an article for the Philippine News she muses, “It is as if what is no longer good enough for American children should be good enough for Filipino children who have nothing to begin with” (Strobel, 1992). She points out the difference between “charity” for the poor and “solidarity” with the poor and explains that, “the difference is in the attitude that accompanies the giving” (Strobel, 2005). Due to its entrenchment in the discourse of “the West and the Rest,” the attitude that accompanies BftB’s giving is one of pity and paternalism which makes its actions charitable at best. Strobel (2005) suggests that BftB may also be rooted in the cultural deficit theory which “perceives children who come from underprivileged status as fundamentally/essentially “lacking.” This line of thinking promotes feelings of superiority on the part of the donors which leads to paternalistic behavior. As Strobel (2005) states, “…when we start from the ‘deficit theory’ the ‘other’ merely becomes the object of one’s good works.”

John Banagan (2007) testifies that, “U.S. influenced materials (not just books) can bias the thought processes and self-image of Filipino kids reading or experiencing these materials that may downplay Tagalog (or another regional language) versus using English.” He reminisces about the last time he was in the Philippines (in 2004) when he heard that the Tagalog young people spoke wasn’t very good as it was more like “Taglish”- a mixture of Tagalog and English. On this same trip he met a Filipino couple living in Manila who spoke only English to their Filipino son in order to discourage his use of Tagalog. Banagan tells these stories with a sense of remorse as these stories provide evidence of the effects of cultural imperialism occurring in the Philippines today. The trend amongst Filipinos of consciously forgetting their native language is caused by shame. What, if not the discourse is causing this shame? Why would parents discourage their children from learning their native language if someone or something (the discourse) had not convinced them that English is better?

Bino Realuyo (2005) believes that the materials coming from BftB are biased and potentially harmful. He suggests that when Filipino children are given western books they should also be given the warning that the materials “are biased and therefore can be dissected, analyzed and CHANGED” (Realuyo). Unfortunately this warning is not included in BftB shipments. If it were, Realuyo (2005) maintains, “then we [Filipinos] can read all kinds of books, without regard to their sources.” Realuyo accepts that English is the international language of commerce and is beneficial for Filipinos to know. But he is quick to point out that English should not be a replacement for Tagalog or other native tongues. Instead he believes English should be mastered in addition to Filipinos’ native language, reminding us that everyone should be at least bilingual. In his final statement, despite the dangers of BftB he encourages us to, “give them all the books to read, empower their minds…. One day, one of those children will rise, given all the information s/he needs and will lead that country to the prosperity its people deserve” (Realuyo, 2005).

Lily Mendoza (2005) adds a historical perspective to the counter-discourse by pointing out several factors that escalate the threat of BftB’s charity to Filipinos. She discusses the longstanding trend of the Philippines learning almost exclusively from the U.S. and reminds us of the consequences of this arrangement, “…our unique colonial history with the US necessitates a cutting off of the colonial umbilical cord before we can consume US knowledge without having it dominate our consciousness.” She suggests that more translations of foreign works into Tagalog or other local languages would indigenize the foreign material giving the Filipino people a sense of ownership. In addition to more translations Mendoza suggests borrowing from sources other than just the U.S. to diversify the foreign material Filipinos receive.
I have many friends who are in the nonprofitbusiness of sending books to the Philippines. It is a source of anxious ambivalence for me. I wrestle with it all the time...and am just glad to know that there are others who are similarly trying to grapple with its political implication...and beyond the political,the insidious nature of the discourse that finds its way into psychic and epistemic violence in the psyche of the donor and recipient.

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